The story of how Witold Pilecki volunteered to enter Auschwitz, exposed its horrors to the world, and then actually managed to escape.
Upon entering the gates of the Auschwitz concentration camp, Witold Pilecki said that he “bade farewell to everything I had hitherto known on this earth and entered something seemingly no longer of it.”
There are people who volunteer to serve soup at homeless shelters or answer phones. Then there are people like Polish Army Captain Witold Pilecki.
During the early stages of World War II, he’d heard ominous things about what was occurring behind the gates of Auschwitz. But neither he nor the anti-Nazi Polish resistance he worked for knew for sure what was happening. But he and the resistance knew that somebody had to find out.
So Witold Pilecki, a man of sound body and mind, raised his hand and volunteered to enter the camp himself.
Witnessing The Atrocities At Auschwitz
On the morning of September 19, 1940, the 39-year old Pilecki deliberately placed himself on a Warsaw street during a round-up of Poles. The Germans captured roughly 2,000 people alongside Pilecki. He was shocked by the immediate influence of crowd psychology; the people behaved as though they were sheep being herded, he’d later note.
Once he and the crowd were taken inside the camp, the horrors began. This was not an ordinary prison or POW camp. This was much, much worse.
“Together with a hundred other people, I at least reached the bathroom,” Pilecki said. “Here we gave everything away into bags, to which respective numbers were tied. Here our hair of head and body were cut off, and we were slightly sprinkled by cold water. I got a blow in my jaw with a heavy rod. I spat out my two teeth. Bleeding began. From that moment we became mere numbers — I wore the number 4859.”
In the early days of Auschwitz, Polish people accounted for a large population of the camp. They were killed in public, often in extremely brutal ways. Witold Pilecki, however, was assigned to hard labor; he loaded and unloaded rocks from wheelbarrows day in and day out. It’s possible that these rocks helped build the gas chambers or the crematorium.
Pilecki soon calculated that the food rations that most prisoners received would keep a human alive for only six weeks. A guard told him that if anyone lived much longer than that, it meant they’d stolen food. And the punishment for stealing was death. Pilecki began to realize that he’d willingly walked through the gates of Hell.
Even with death staring him in the face every day, he managed to organize a network of prisoners to aid him in the name of the Polish resistance. His comrades looked after each other’s food rations, work assignments, and helped Pilecki get correspondence to his commanding officer.
Sometimes, this entailed prisoners sneaking out messages sewn into clothes when carrying laundry into town. The reports could then make their way to the Polish underground army — but it could also take as long as four months for them to get there.
Pilecki now likely suspected that he’d be dead before his first intelligence report even reached the resistance, but he soldiered on and his network grew to at least 500 strong by 1942.
Pilecki and his network’s goal was to stage an uprising that would coincide with a rescue attempt by the Polish resistance (or any other ally). But that wasn’t going to happen; the underground army didn’t even believe Pilecki’s tale of the horrors of Auschwitz. The reports were so extreme that they felt he must have been exaggerating.
Witold Pilecki’s Daring Escape From Auschwitz
After almost three harrowing years of collecting and relaying intelligence to an unreceptive bureaucracy, Witold Pilecki couldn’t stay inside Auschwitz any longer.
He believed he could better help the remaining prisoners by pleading before the Polish resistance in person. So in April 1943, he actually managed to escape the Nazi concentration camp that he had voluntarily entered years before.
Under the cover of night, Pilecki slipped out during a brief moment when a door in the kitchen where he worked was unguarded.
“Shots were fired behind us,” he wrote in one of his later reports. “How fast we were running, it is hard to describe. We were tearing the air into rags by quick movements of our hands.”
Pilecki had lived 947 days inside Auschwitz, where the intended prisoner lifespan was just 42 days. He survived beatings, malnutrition, and backbreaking labor.
But upon Pilecki’s return to Warsaw in August, he found that the commanding officer who’d known of the intelligence mission had recently been arrested. The new leadership of the resistance was not interested in taking down Auschwitz from the inside.
So Witold Pilecki had spent three years inside the gruesome Holocaust death machine for seemingly nothing. His heroic, pioneering work wouldn’t truly see the light of day for decades after his death.
However, volunteering to enter Auschwitz as a spy was not even Witold Pilecki’s only act of heroism. Nor did he allow his cold return from Auschwitz to wither his loyalty to his country.
In August 1944, the Warsaw Uprising meant to liberate the Polish capital from the Germans before the Soviet Army’s attack. The heroic Pilecki persevered and helped hold Warsaw’s main east-west thoroughfare. But the uprising was silenced and Pilecki surrendered; finding himself a prisoner once again in a German camp.
But Pilecki left that camp alive, too; the United States liberated it in April 1945. He then went to Italy to join the Polish Corps where they assigned him to an intelligence unit.
That summer, he started to write his most definitive report on the Auschwitz mission. The report became the book The Auschwitz Volunteer, from which a great amount of the information known about Pilecki and his experience is taken.
The Polish Corps then sent Pilecki back to Warsaw, where he went undercover and delivered information about the communist takeover. He found documents, for example, showing how the communists falsified the results of the People’s Referendum of 1946, which would gauge which political group might lead postwar Poland.
In 1947, the communist secret authorities arrested Pilecki for betraying state secrets and ordering the killings of Soviet soldiers. Communist authorities later admitted that the latter charges were fabricated.
After everything he’d already endured at the hands of the Germans, this interrogation by the communist finally broke him. They ripped out his fingernails and broke both his nose and ribs during the beatings.
However, in court, Pilecki remained dignified; proclaiming that he was only doing his duty. He went to trial, but it was only a show for the public. The judicial system had already handed down a death sentence, and Witold Pilecki was executed.
Father Jan Stepien, an army chaplain who was imprisoned alongside Pilecki, was the last to see him alive. As Stepien watched Pilecki be led away for execution, he describes him as having:
“His mouth tied with a white bandage. Two guards led him by his arms. He could hardly touch the ground with his feet. I don’t know if he was conscious then. He seemed completely faint.”
Pilecki was survived by his wife Maria and two children, who were often unaware of their father’s activities for security reasons. But his children eventually lived to see their father exonerated of any crimes by the Polish minister of justice in 1990 and posthumously awarded Poland’s highest honor, the Medal of the White Eagle.
Today, throughout Poland, streets, schools, and the like bear the name of Witold Pilecki, the man who risked everything to liberate the oppressed.