The Bravest Man Who Ever Died
by Chris Kulczycki

Daily Kos
Wed Dec 14, 2005

Last week I wrote about Jan Karski, who tried to warn the world of the Holocaust. This article is about a man who showed that courage and dedication have no limits, a man who purposely had himself arrested and imprisoned in Auschwitz to help those already there and also to warn the world of the Holocaust. His name was Witold Pilecki and he has been called the bravest man in World War II.

 There is more below.

  • Chris Kulczycki's diary

  • Konstanty Piekarski, who survived both Auschwitz and Buchenwald, wrote this about Pilecki:

Perhaps the noblest example of heroism I observed occurred in September of 1940, when a captain in the Polish Intelligence, Witold Pilecki, allowed himself to be captured by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz in order to establish there a resistance unit among Polish army officers. It was an almost impossible task considering the extraordinary cruelty of the German kapos and the vigilant security of the Gestapo. But Pilecki was no ordinary man. His courage and determination gave myself and others the will to overcome tremendous obstacles - the constant threat of torture, execution or starvation - despite our limited means.

But that was only the beginning of Pilecki's bravery.
Witold Pilecki was born in Karelia, Russia, where Tsarist Russian authorities had forcibly resettled his family. He was born into a family of patriots; his grandfather, Józef Pilecki, had been exiled to Siberia for his part in the January Uprising (1863-65) against Tsarist Russia. Pilecki's family moved to Wilno in 1910 where he joined the Polish Scouting and Guiding Association or ZHP. It was a Boy Scout-like group that later became a Polish military force. He soon founded a chapter of the ZHP in Orel, Russia.

With the outbreak of World War I, the seventeen-year-old Pilecki joined the Polish self-defense units. Next he fought in the Polish-Soviet War (1919-20). Pilecki later joined the regular Polish Army and fought in the defense of Grodno (in present-day Belarus). In  1920 he joined the 211th Uhlan Regiment and fought in the Battle of Warsaw, where the near-defeated Poles stunned Europe by decisively trouncing a stronger Bolshevic force and perhaps guaranteeing Poland's future freedom. He also fought at Rudniki Forest and the liberation of Wilno.

With Poland free and having been twice awarded the Polish Cross of Valor, Pilecki returned to his family farm to finish school. He attempted studying fine arts at the Stefan Batory University for a while. Finally, he finished Military school of Cavalry Reserve in Grudziądz.  Eventually he settled, married and had two children. He was demobilized by the army, but remained a cavalry officer. Lasting peace, however, is rarely Poland's fate.
Just prior to the German blitzkrieg on September 1, 1939, Pilecki was mobilized as a cavalry-platoon commander. He fought against the far better equipped advancing Germans. Pilecki's platoon withdrew toward Lwów and joined the 41st Infantry Division. Pilecki and his men destroyed 7 German tanks and shot down two aircraft. On September 17, after the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland his division was disbanded and he returned to Warsaw with his commander, Major Jan Włodarkiewicz.

Soon thereafter Pilecki and Włodarkiewicz formed the Secret Polish Army (Tajna Armia Polska, TAP). Pilecki became its organizational commander and expanded TAP to cover not only Warsaw but most of the major cities of central Poland. TAP had approximately 8,000 men. Later TAP was incorporated into the larger Home Army (Armia Krajowaoror or  AK).
When Pilecki learned of the existence of Auschwitz, he presented a plan to his commanding officers. Pilecki proposed to be arrested and sent to the concentration camp where he could send out reports of what was happening, and organize a resistance movement within the camp. He would also try to of organizing a mass break-out. Pilecki's colonel eventually agreed.

A little about Auschwitz from polish.org.au:

Located 60 kilometres south west of the city of Kraków, Auschwitz was established on what was then occupied, by the Germans, Polish territory. Auschwitz is the Germanised name of Polish town of Oświęcim.
Auschwitz was not just a camp where people were simply put to death. They were subjected to most inhumane tortures and degradation. SS doctors performed the most hideous experiments on the prisoners, without the use of anaesthetics. Under the supervision of the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele they carried out genetic experiments on twins, and gynaecologist Prof. Dr. Carl Clauberg experimented on sterilization of Jewish women by injection. This was intended to limit reproduction rates of the Slavic population, after the extermination of the Jews. Prisoners who were slow to recover from such experiments were put to death by an injection of phenol.

Another form of torture was the so called "roll calls". Prisoners could be herded at any time of day or night, regardless of the weather, where they were kept standing for hours - often in freezing cold. Those who could not stand were shot by SS guards. Starvation to death was also a form of punishment.

Initially the prisoners were executed by being shot. The so called "wall of death" where this was carried out has been preserved to this day. Later with the increasing influx of the Jews, a more "efficient" form of execution was invented by the Nazis. In September of 1941 a first experiment was conducted with a hydrogen cyanide gas called "Zyclon B" (Cyclone B) manufactured by the well known German chemical firm IG Farben. The first experiment was carried out on 250 Polish and 600 Russian Prisoners of War. It was such a success, that Himmler decided to use it on a large scale to exterminate the Jews.
When the original Auschwitz camp became too small for Nazi extermination plans, a much larger extermination centre was built 3 kilometres from Auschwitz at Birkenau (Germanized from Brzezinka). It was also known as Auschwitz II.

Before the bodies were cremated their heads were shaved for the manufacture of cloth. Gold tooth fillings, crowns and bridge work were knocked out and melted into bars to help the German "War Effort".


A Gestapo roundup in the Żoliborz district of Warsaw, where Pilecki was arrested.
On September 19, 1940 allowed himself to be captured by the Germans. His aim was to go to AuschwitzHe arrived at Auschwitz the night of September 21-22, 1940, in the "second" Warsaw transport. His cover name was Tomasz Serafinski. And he was registered as number 4859. In Auschwitz he was assigned the work of building more huts to hold the increased numbers of prisoners.  He immediately began to investigate the situation in the camp and to establish cells of the underground there.


Marching to work (I believe this is the main gate to Auschwitz).
This is from artacus.schoolnet.co.uk:

Pilecki soon discovered the brutality of the Schutz Staffeinel (SS) guards. When one man managed to escape on 28th October 1940, all the prisoners were forced to stand at attention on the parade-ground from noon till nine in the evening. Anyone who moved was shot and over 200 prisoners died of exposure. Pilecki was able to send reports back to the Tajna Armia Polska explaining how the Germans were treating their prisoners. This information was then sent to the foreign office in London.

In 1942 Pilecki discovered that new windowless concrete huts were being built with nozzles in their ceilings. Soon afterwards he heard that that prisoners were being herded into these huts and that the nozzles were being used to feed cyanide gas into the building. Afterwards the bodies were taken to the building next door where they were cremated.
Pilecki got this information to the Tajna Armia Polska who passed it onto the British foreign office. This information was then passed on to the governments of other Allied countries. However, most people who saw the reports refused to believe them and dismissed the stories as attempts by the Poles to manipulate the military strategy of the Allies.
In the autumn of 1942, Jozef Cyrankiewicz, a member of the Polish Communist Party, was sent to Auschwitz. Pilecki and Cyrankiewicz worked closely together in organizing a mass breakout. By the end of 1942 they had a group of 500 ready to try and overthrow their guards.

Four of the inmates escaped on their own on 29th December, 1942. One of these men, a dentist called Kuczbara, was caught and interrogated by the Gestapo. Kuczbara was one of the leaders of Pilecki's group and so when he heard the news he realized that it would be only a matter of time before the SS realized that he had been organizing these escape attempts.

Pilecki had already arranged his escape route and after feigning typhus, he escaped from the hospital on 24th April, 1943. After hiding in the local forest, Pilecki reached his unit of the Tajna Armia Polska on 2nd May.

Children at Auschwitz

A few more details on his time in Auschwitz from polishresistance-ak.org:
In a report he wrote after the war the aims of his mission were summarised as follows:
`The setting up of a military organisation within the camp for the purposes of:
keeping up the morale among fellow inmates and supplying them with news from the outside

providing extra food and distributing clothing among organization members
preparing our own detachments to take over the camp in the eventuality of the dropping of arms or of a live force [i.e. paratroops]'
Pilecki's secret organization, which he called the `Union of Military Organization' [ZOW], was composed of cells of five prisoners who were unknown to one another with one man designated to be their commander. These cells were to be found mainly in the camp hospital and camp work allocation office.

Once the first cells were established, contact with Warsaw became essential It so happened that at the time, by exceptionally fortuitous circumstances, a prisoner was released from the camp who was able to take Pilecki's first report. Later reports were smuggled out by civilian workers employed in the camp. Another means was through prisoners who had decided to escape.

In the autumn of 1942 the SS uncovered part of the Polish underground network, arrests followed and around 50 prisoners were executed.

From the very start Pilecki's principal aim was to take over Auschwitz concentration camp and free all the prisoners. He envisaged achieving this by having Home Army detachments attacking from the outside while cadre members of his Union of Military Organization, numbering around a thousand prisoners, would start a revolt from within. All his reports primarily concerned this matter. However, the Home Army High Command was less optimistic and did not believe such an operation to be viable while the Eastern Front was still far away.

Pilecki therefore felt it necessary to present his plans personally. This meant that he would have to escape from the camp, which he succeeded in doing with two other prisoners on 27th April 1943. Before the breakout Pilecki passed on his position within the camp organization to fellow inmate Henryk Bartoszewicz. However, neither his subsequent report nor the fact that he presented it in person altered the high command's opinion.


Here are some excerpts from Pilecki's Diary (as translated by Felis in Its A Matter Of Opinion:

(Pilecki's diary (1) translated from Polish)

They made us run straight ahead towards the thicker concentration of lights. Further towards the destination (the SS troopers) ordered one of us to run to the pole on the side of the road and immediately a series from a submachine gun was sent after him. Dead.
Ten other inmates were pulled out at random from the marching column and shot with pistols while still running to demonstrate to us the idea of "collective reprisal" if an escape was attempted by any one of us (in this case it was all arranged by the SS troopers).
They pulled all eleven corpses by ropes attached to just one leg. Dogs baited the blood soaked corpses. All of it was done with laughter and jeering.

We were closing to the gate, an opening in the line of fences made of wire.
There was a sign at the top: "Arbeit macht frei" (Through Work To Freedom).
Only later we could fully appreciate its real meaning.
Pilecki survived his first days in Auschwitz and later established the first cell of his secret organization.

(Pilecki's diary (2) translated from Polish)

From the darkness, from above the camp's kitchen, Seidler the butcher spoke to us: " Do not even dream that any one of you will get out of here alive... your daily food ratio is intended to keep you alive for 6 weeks; whoever lives longer it's because he steals and those who steal will be placed in SK, where nobody lives for too long."
Wladyslaw Baworowski- the camp's interpreter translated it to us into Polish.
It was meant to break our psychological resistance.


SK (Straf-Kompanie - Penal Company).

This unit was designated for all Jews, priests and Poles whose "offences" were proven. Ernst Krankemann, the Block Commander, had a duty of finishing off as many prisoners of the unit as he possibly could to make room for new, daily "arrivals".
This duty suited Krankemann's character very well.
If someone accidentally moved just a little bit too much from the row of prisoners, Krankemann stabbed him with his knife, which he always carried in his right sleeve.
If someone, afraid of making this mistake, positioned himself slightly too far behind, he would be stabbed by the butcher in the kidney.

The sight of a falling human being, kicking his legs or moaning aggravated Krankemann.
He would jump straight away on the victim's rib cage, kicked his kidneys and genitals, and finished him off as quickly as possible.

Photo from Auschwitz

And some more from a Wikipedia article that differs in a few details:
From October 1940 ZOW sent reports to Warsaw, and from March 1941 Pilecki's reports were being forwarded via the Polish resistance to the British government in London. These reports were a principal source of intelligence on Auschwitz for the Western Allies. Pilecki hoped that either the Allies would drop arms or troops into the camp, or the Home Army would organize an assault on it from outside. By 1943, however, he realized that no such plans existed. Meanwhile the Gestapo redoubled its efforts to ferret out ZOW members. Pilecki decided to break out of the camp, with the hope of personally convincing Home Army leaders that a rescue attempt was a valid option. When he was assigned to a night shift at a camp bakery outside the fence, he and two comrades overpowered a guard, cut the phone line and escaped on the night of April 26-April 27, 1943, taking along documents stolen from the Germans. In the event of capture, they were prepared to swallow cyanide to prevent the Germans learning the extent of their knowledge. After several days, with the help of local civilians, they made good their escape from the area and contacted Home Army units. Pilecki submitted another detailed report on
On August 25, 1943, Pilecki reached Warsaw and joined the Home Army as a member of its intelligence department. The Home Army, after losing several operatives in reconnoitering the vicinity of the camp, including the Cichociemny commando Stefan Jasieński, decided that it lacked sufficient strength to capture the camp without Allied help. Pilecki's detailed report (Raport Witolda--"Witold's Report") was sent to London. The British authorities refused the Home Army air support for an operation to help the inmates escape. An air raid was considered too risky, and Home Army reports on Nazi atrocities at Auschwitz were deemed to be gross exaggerations (Pilecki wrote: "During the first 3 years, at Auschwitz there perished 2 million people; in the next 2 years--3 million").

As with Karski's reports, Pilecki's where ignored.  Though most men would have been demoralized, Pilecki, never stopped fighting. He was promoted to rotmistrz (cavalry captain) and joined a secret group preparing to fight the coming Soviet invasion.
On August 1, 1944 the ragtag Home Army rose up in a valiant attempt to to liberate Warsaw from German occupation and Nazi rule. Naturally Pilecki joined the fight. The Polish troops resisted the Germans for 63 days. But aid and airdrops promised by the allies never came. The Soviet army, just across the river, did nothing, preferring to watch the AK be destroyed. 18,000 Polish soldiers and over 250,000 civilians were killed. 85% of Warsaw was destroyed.

The Warsaw Uprising.   Again from Wikipedia:

When the Warsaw Uprising broke out on August 1, 1944, Pilecki volunteered to the Kedyw's Chrobry II group. At first he fought in the northern city center without revealing his actual rank, as a simple private. Later he disclosed his true identity and accepted command of the 2nd company fighting in the Towarowa and Pańska Streets area. His forces held a fortified area called the "Great Bastion of Warsaw". It was one of the most outlying partisan redoubts and caused considerable difficulties for German supply lines. The bastion held for two weeks in the face of constant attacks by German infantry and armor. On the capitulation of the Uprising, Pilecki hid some weapons in a private apartment and went into captivity. He spent the rest of the war at German prisoner-of-war camps at Łambinowice and Murnau.

With World War II over, Pilecki continued to fight for his country. He lived in England and, for a few months in Italy, where he wrote a memoir and joined an exiled Polish Army Unit, the 2nd Polish Corps.

In September 1945 Pilecki returned to Poland to gather intelligence. He proceeded to organize an intelligence network. In the spring of 1946, however, the Polish Government in Exile decided that the postwar political situation afforded no hope of Poland's liberation and ordered all partisans cease operations. Pilacki began collecting evidence on Soviet atrocities and executions.

Soon Pilecki was arrested as member of the anti-communist resistance movement. He was interrogated and tortured for many months. His fingernails were pulled out and his collarbones broken and he could hardly walk. He was tried by a Communist court in 1948, sentenced to death. Prime Minister Cyrankiewicz, a former Auschwitz inmate and co-founder of the leftist resistance movement there, who knew Pilecki refuted the claim made in court that Pilecki had been a founder of the resistance movement in Auschwitz, and also refused to support the request for clemency.

Pilecki at his trial

Witold Pilecki was executed in Mokotów prison in Warsaw. His family was not permitted to bury his corpse. His place of burial has never been found. He is thought to have been buried in a rubbish dump near Warsaw's Powązki Cemetery.
"The communist regime put Pilecki on the list of most censured individuals. For half a century, perhaps the greatest hero of the Second World War completely disappeared from books, newspapers and school curricula."

Pilecki wrote this poem before his death.

That is why I write this petition,
That all the punishments, punish only me,
For though I should lose my life
I prefer it so - than to live, and bear a wound in my heart.
Witold Pilecki was a man who knew the value of freedom. Let's hope we don't forget it's value.

Flag of the Home Army


There is not much written about Pilecki in English, and my Polish is very rusty so I won't guarantee that I've gotten every detail exactly right, but I am confident the major facts are correct. If anyone cares to try reading any of the many web articles about Pilecki written in Polish, there is a good free translation site at www.poltran.com.  

"Rotmistrz Pilecki" by Wieslaw Jan Wysocki is a biography of Pilecki written in Polish; I've not read it. Pilecki is said to have written an autobiography while living in Italy.
Cross posted on European Tribune, My Left Wing, and Booman Tribune.
Tags: History, World War II, Pilecki, Auschwitz, Daily Kos, Compassion (all tags)