Witold Pilecki, before his incarceration. All photos courtesy of the Rotamaster Pilecki Museum
On September 19, 1940, Witold Pilecki, a Polish soldier, was captured by German SS officers and sent to the concentration camp in Auschwitz. Considering he was a spy, things had turned out exactly as he’d planned. Captain Pilecki's mission was to organize resistance from within the most horrific symbol of the Holocaust, send information to the Allies, and record the horrors he witnessed for the sake of history.
Pilecki arrived in Auschwitz sometime in the evening between September 21 and 22, 1940, and described what he found as "another planet"—a hell in which every building's walls were covered in swastikas and corpses lay everywhere. Pilecki went on to live in inhumane conditions for nearly 1,000 days and become the first person to inform the Allies about the appalling conditions of detention and the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime.
Pilecki’s comprehensive 1945 report on his undercover mission was published in English in 2012 under the title The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery. Yet, for some reason, his story still isn't widely known. I wanted to know more about the career of this exceptional man, so I got in touch with the people who recently translated the book in French—former director of the AFP bureau in Warsaw, Urszula Hyzy, and Patrick Godfard, who is a professor of history.
VICE: The book was published in English in 2012, with the New York Times describing it as "a historical document of the greatest importance." How come it was only translated to French now?
Urszula Hyzy and Patrick Godfard: Pilecki was a "disturbing" character for the Allies, who pretended for a long time not to know what was happening in the camps, and for the Communists, who were responsible for his death in 1948. In communist Poland, it was forbidden to talk about Pilecki and his children were barred from higher education. The Auschwitz Volunteer remained in the archives of the Polish Underground Movement Study Trust in London [Studium Polski Podziemnej] before being discovered by the historian and former prisoner Józef Garlinski, who wrote Fighting Auschwitz: The Resistance Movement in the Concentration Camp in the 1970s. It was not until after the end of the Cold War that the book was published in Poland.
Witold Pilecki in Auschwitz.
What did Pilecki do before his arrival at Auschwitz?
Pilecki was 40 years old when he voluntarily went in under the alias Tomasz Serafinski. He was a young, well-trained soldier who had participated in the Russo-Polish War of 1919–1920; in September 1939, the beginning of the Second World War, he'd fought against the Germans under the command of Major Jan Włodarkiewicz. Together with Włodarkiewicz they built a resistance movement, the Polish Secret Army, which expanded rapidly across Poland.
In the summer of 1940, raids began in Warsaw; the Germans used to stop people randomly and deport them to Auschwitz, which had just opened. These raids were meant to sow terror and to put together a servile workforce. Major Włodarkiewicz and Pilecki decided to learn more about the camp where, two members of their organization were already interned. They wanted to organize the fight from within, and Pilecki volunteered to do it.
Once he was a prisoner, what did he do exactly?
He soon began to implement what they called the "conspiracy." In the fall of 1940, he created a network of five prisoners who didn’t know each other, in order to limit losses in the event of arrests by the Gestapo. His first task was to improve the life conditions of its members. Priorities were for all members of the network to find a job "under one roof," to avoid the harsh climatic conditions, to be under the command of a non-brutal kapo, and to be better treated in hospitals by asking civilians to give them drugs and vaccines. Pilecki and his network infiltrated most of the camp’s administrations (you have to bear in mind that the SS used some prisoners as second-in-commands) and succeeded.
Witold Pilecki and his wife, Maria
What did he do to communicate with the outside world, the clandestine Polish authorities, and the British?
The first reports were transmitted by released prisoners. Later, everything was relative to the success of escape attempts. Some escapes were truly spectacular—for example on June 20, 1942, four prisoners armed and dressed as SS came out of the camp through the front door in broad daylight, using the car of the camp commander. Information was also transmitted via civilians. They were forwarded to the underground HQ in Warsaw, and from there they were transmitted to the Polish government, who were in exile in London.
Their most impressive feat was the making of a radio transmitter using parts they found around the camp: It actually worked during several months in 1942. It was hidden in the hospital, a place the SS were reluctant to go to, and it'd transmit information at different times of the day to avoid being detected. But a member of the organization was too talkative, and this radio eventually had to be removed. Their reports included essential information about the awful treatment of the Jewish population of the camp.
Pilecki was one of the first to talk about the gas chambers in Auschwitz II, in Birkenau. He gave a few details on the crematorium furnaces. He obtained information by commandos who were working at Birkenau, and he expanded his network to reach the extermination camp. Pilecki also mentioned the killing of Gypsies: "They were liquidated in the manner of Auschwitz," he wrote, that is to say, using Zyklon B gas. He also mentioned the first test of this gas in September 1941, on hundreds of Soviet prisoners.
What were the initial reactions of the free world?
Unfortunately, nobody believed him: British officials who read his reports didn’t believe that gas chambers could exist. Why would the Germans—who shot and starved the Jews on a daily basis—put in all this effort? They thought it was an exaggeration from the Polish government in exile because they were seeking more support from the Anglo-Saxon Allies.
Witold Pilecki and his family, 1933
What else did he do while in the camp?
Pilecki's mission was not only to create a support network and to inform but also to organize the fight. This struggle has taken different forms. First, a constant struggle to avoid the pitfalls of the Germans, save as many lives as possible, and try to kill the most dangerous SS and informers.
The Germans had set up a mailbox for accusations: For any significant denunciation, a prisoner was rewarded. Many letters were posted. Pilecki and his comrades opened that box and read the letters carefully: They destroyed the most dangerous letters and would post their own to denounce the most malevolent individuals.
It was a daunting task to remove SS agents, because they couldn’t be murdered. The organization raised a lice colony—carrying typhus—in the hospital laboratory to infect SS agents. Several of them died that way.
Pilecki also developed a whole plan for an uprising in the camp. In late 1942, Pilecki was convinced that his network—now composed of more than a thousand deported prisoners—could take control of the central camp for a short time. But, he insisted that a collective escape would only be possible with the support of the Polish Underground Army and Allied airdrops. Therefore, he waited for his superiors in Warsaw to give him orders. But nothing came. He didn’t know that the Allies had no intention of carrying out any operation on Auschwitz. And he didn’t know that the leaders of the Polish resistance in Warsaw considered any release operation suicidal, because the Germans had thousands of men in the region.
Auschwitz concentration camp
How did he escape?
He decided to escape to further defend his cause with clandestine authorities. In addition, he was starting to think that the SS knew about the network: They had already hunted and arrested some of its members and, fearing an uprising, decided to deport many Poles to other camps.
He escaped in the middle of the night, between the 26th and 27th of April 1943, along with two other prisoners, Jan Redzej and Edward Ciesielski. They managed to be allocated the night shift at a bakery located outside the camp. Two SS were on guard. Redzej had already used fresh bread to make an imprint of the nut holding the hook of the door, and they had made sure they had the right wrench to open it. Under their striped prison uniforms, Pilecki and Ciesielski wore civilian clothes. They also took tobacco with them to scatter behind them, so that dogs couldn’t track them.
They waited for the two SS officers to be distracted, then opened the door and ran. One of the SS tried to shoot them in vain. Just before they escaped, someone had cut the phone lines. They ran until they reached the Vistula. Boats were docked at the shore, but were restrained by chains. Two of these chains were fastened together with a screw. They were surprised by this coincidence: They used the same wrench, the one they used on the door, to detach the chains. They walked dozens of miles through the forest. To conceal their shaved heads, they had taken the caps of civilians who were working with them in the bakery. A farmer welcomed them, fed them, and gave them a roof for the night. On May 1, they stumbled upon German soldiers who opened fire, and Pilecki was shot in the arm. Finally, on May 2, they arrived at their final destination, the house of an Auschwitz’s prisoner’s stepparents.
Pilecki wrote: "If we say what we feel, it will help people understand what truly happened." Is it because of his proto-gonzo approach that Pileski wasn’t believed for so long? Can we have doubts about the veracity of his writings?
There is no doubt about the veracity of his reports. Other sources and the work of historians at the Auschwitz museum corroborate it. But there were sometimes a few inaccuracies in facts, on dates for example. The Auschwitz Volunteer is far from a military, administrative tone. Pilecki thought it was really important to describe his feelings. He wanted to expose the truth while remaining neutral and objective. And this is what makes his story so poignant.