Probably the most courageous hero of the
Second World War. Throughout his life, he demonstrated that courage and
dedication have no limits.
Born in 1901, as a seventeen year old he took part in the defense of
Wilno during the First World War. In 1918, he volunteered for the
Polish Army that was being formed at that time, and then fought in the
Polish-Bolshevik War of 1920, when, under the command of General
Zeligowski, he occupied Wilno. In the September campaign of 1939, he
fought as a member of the "Prusy" army group. In November, he helped
found the Secret Polish Army, where he served as the Chief of Staff.
On September 19, 1940, with the permission of his commanding
officers, he intentionally allowed himself to be captured by the Germans
during a round-up in Warsaw's Zoliborz district. His aim was to go to
Auschwitz, as a volunteer from the resistance movement, to investigate
the situation in the camp and to establish cells of the underground
there. He arrived at Auschwitz the night of September 21-22, 1940, in
the "second" Warsaw transport, under the name Tomasz Serafinski. He was
registered as number 4859.
In the camp, he strove to improve the contact and cooperation
between the various organizers of self-help and branches of the
underground that had been founded by inmates of various nationalities
and political orientations. His aims were to expand the forms of
self-help that were being organized, and to send reports to the outside
on the events inside the camp, as well as to prepare the inmates to take
control of the camp if an airdrop of arms were successful.
In 1940, Pilecki founded branches of the Union of Military
Organizations. This underground was organized in highly secret
five-person groups. In mid-1941, the organization already numbered about
400 people. Beginning in October 1940, Pilecki would send regular
reports to Warsaw, to the headquarters of the Zwiazek Walki Zbrojnej
(Union for Armed Struggle). These reports constituted one of the main
sources of information about the Holocaust provided by the Polish
underground to the free world.
Within the Auschwitz camp, other underground groups were also
founded (Zwiazek Walki Zbrojnej [ZWZ, Union for Armed Struggle], the
Polish Socialist Party and several smaller ones). In September 1941,
Pilecki subordinated himself to the ZWZ command, while at the same time
remaining part of the Union of Military Organizations' leadership. Over
the next few months, he managed to convince other organizations to take
similar steps. The military leadership was subordinated to a civilian
committee comprised of people from various political orientations. Thus,
one of Witold Pilecki's main aims while in the camp was fulfilled.
The camp underground worked on the
possibility of armed revolt, seen as a possibility if there were to be
an Allied airdrop of weapons, or if the Germans decided to kill all
witnesses to the Holocaust. They communicated information from the
various headquarters and camp sections, and contact with the outside
world was facilitated thanks to the inmates who worked outside the camp.
In 1942, the first attempts at these kinds of activities were made in
other sub-camps (Birkenau, Monowitz, the women's camp).
Afraid the conspiracy might be uncovered, and sensing that to a
large extent his mission had already been accomplished, Witold Pilecki
escaped from the camp on April 27, 1943, taking with him documents
stolen from the Germans. He submitted an extensive report at that time
that became the main source for information sent from the Polish
resistance to London.
Pilecki began his activities in the Polish underground state, and
was later incorporated into a highly secret group that was working on
behalf of the "Nie" ["No"] organization-the future resistance movement
if Poland were to pass from German control to Soviet.
During the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, Pilecki fought without even
revealing his military rank at first-as a private first class, then as
commander of the 2nd Company of the 1st Battalion of the Chrobry Group
II that was active from Jerozolimskie Avenue to Zelazna Street. The
fortification was one of the farthest ones to be held by the insurgents,
which caused great difficulties for the German supply lines. The
underground press called the region held by Pilecki the "Great Bastion
of Warsaw". The bastion endured for two weeks, under fire on all sides
from German tanks.
After the war, in 1948, Witold Pilecki was accused of espionage and
was sentenced to death by the communist courts in Poland. Prime Minister
Cyrankiewicz (a former Auschwitz inmate and co_founder of the leftist
resistance movement in the camp) 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.
The hero of Auschwitz and the Warsaw Uprising, a man who heroically
resisted the Germans and Soviets, was shot by his communist countrymen
in Rakowiecka prison in Warsaw on May 25, 1948. He left a wife and two
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