anuary 27, 1945, marks the release of the Nazi extermination camp at Auschwitz, the emblematic place for the implementation of the “final solution,” a major element in the implementation of the Holocaust. It is estimated that at least 1.1 million people were killed here, 90% of them Jewish.
A lesser-known story — kept silent for decades by the communist regime in Poland — is about a Polish captain named Witold Pilecki, a member of the “Polish Secret Army”, the resistance movement group that voluntarily infiltrated Auschwitz to gather information.
A labor camp or maybe more?
In 1940, Pilecki did not know exactly what was going on there, but he was determined to find out the truth. For two and a half years, he managed to convey details from within Auschwitz about the methods used by the Nazis. In the end, he managed to escape and wrote the first report about the camp.
In the early years of the war, very little was known about Auschwitz. Poland was in chaos, divided between the Nazi and Soviet occupation forces. The Polish resistance operated in secret. Captain Pilecki wanted to infiltrate the camp but could not get the consent of his commanders for this mission. At the time, it was thought to be a camp for prisoners of war.
Eventually, Pilecki obtained approval to sneak into Auschwitz, which had infiltrated Jews arrested during a Nazi raid on September 19, 1940, in the Warsaw ghettos. Once there, he learned that the camp was far from what the Resistance had imagined.
In the report written by Pilecki, it can be read: “I was locked up with a hundred other people, but at least I managed to get to the toilet.” “I had handed over all my personal belongings in bags to which numbers had been attached. We were shaved and washed with cold water. I was hit hard in the jaw with an iron crowbar. I lost two front teeth and bled for a long time. From that moment I became numbers. Mine was 4859. „Witold Pilecki
Pilecki’s number was in the first batches. A year later, the people who arrived there received numbers from 15,000 and up.
The plan unveiled
One of the signs that made the captain immediately realize the true purpose of the camp was the food of the detainees. The portions were calculated in such a way that they survived for six weeks.
Here is how Pilecki describes the conversation with a Nazi officer: “Who will live longer means he stole food. You will be placed in a special area, where you will live very little “. This tactic was meant to demoralize as quickly as possible.
Pilecki received a lot of physical work. He had to carry stones with a wheelbarrow. But he still managed to resist and gather the information that he sent outside, whenever possible, through those assigned to take the uniforms of SS officers to the city to clean it. The messages were hidden in dirty clothes and taken over by members of the Resistance.
The Polish secret army believed almost nothing of what Pilecki wrote, it seemed an exaggeration: gas chambers, lethal injections, ovens, everything was unbelievable. The captain hoped he could stage an attack on the camp so that people could escape en masse. But orders from his superiors never came.
For the next two and a half years, the captain worked meticulously on his reports and made efforts to send them to the Polish government in exile in London. Its members received the information and warned the British and Americans, asking them to intervene to bomb at least the railway tracks used by the trains leading to Auschwitz. They even proposed parachuting troops inside the camp to help detainees escape. But the plans suggested by the Poles did not materialize.
After almost three years in the camp, in conditions difficult to imagine, Pilecki sent the following report “It is too dangerous to stay here”. He planned to escape through a poorly secured bakery door, where he had managed to get a job. He fled at night with several other detainees.
“It simply came to our notice then. I can’t describe the speed with which I ran. I was breaking the air with the movements of my hands, ”Pilecki said.
The truth was hidden by the Soviets
After his escape, he continued to fight in the Resistance. But after the war, the Nazis were replaced by a new occupation regime, the Soviet regime. He offered to continue gathering information for the exile leadership about how the Communists were settling in Poland, but he was caught, accused of espionage, and executed in 1947 after a facade-only trial.
There is a reason why Westerners did not find out about Witold Pilecki’s story until 40 years later. The Stalinist regime in Poland censored any public mention of its name, a ban that was maintained until the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was not until 1989 that Pilecki’s documents and reports from the Auschwitz camp came to light.
The most precious thing for this Polish captain was the oppressed human beings. He would have done anything to help free the camp. He left his wife and two children at home and risked his life for his fellow men.