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 children behind.
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.
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