Witold Pilecki was a Polish Resistance fighter who smuggled himself into Auschwitz to verify and report on the atrocities happening there.
Witold was born in 1901 to an aristocratic Polish family who’d lost their title and their land when the Russian military brutally quashed the January Uprising of 1863-4. A proud Polish nationalist, Witold joined Polish self-defense units in World War I, and after the war he joined the regular Polish Army and fought in the Polish-Soviet War.
In 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, Witold was a cavalry platoon commander. His unit was almost completely decimated by the German Panzer Division, and withdrew to the Ukraine, where they destroyed seven Germany tanks and two German airplanes.
After the Polish government surrendered to Germany, Witold went into hiding and joined the Polish Resistance. Witold heard rumors about horrible things happening at the Auschwitz concentration camp, but nothing had been verified. Witold was determined to find out the truth, no matter the risk. He obtained a false identity card, and deliberately joined a group of Polish partisans who were being rounded up by the Nazis.
Witold was sent to Auschwitz. He was in the section for non-Jews, which wasn’t a death camp but rather a brutal prison where he suffered frequent beatings. He learned first-hand of the gas chambers and mass murder of Jewish inmates.
Despite contracting pneumonia, Witold created ZOW, an underground resistance movement at Auschwitz. ZOW’s mission was to improve morale by collecting news from outside the camp, foraging for extra food and clothing to distribute to inmates, and setting up intelligence networks in preparation for an attack by Allied Forces.
After Witold smuggled information out of the camp about the genocide taking place there, he fully expected the Allies to liberate Auschwitz. He was sure that either the Royal Air Force would bomb the walls, or Free Poland paratroopers would parachute in. Witold was shocked when he learned there were no plans to liberate the camp.
In 1943, after two and a half years imprisoned at Auschwitz, Witold escaped. Despite an extensive Gestapo manhunt, Witold remained free.
He wrote a detailed description of Nazi atrocities within the camp, which reached the British high command.
Upon reading “Witold’s Report,” authorities in London determined that the British war effort would be hindered if soldiers believed they were fighting to free the Jews, rather than to save England.
Witold’s report was suppressed.
He managed to evade Nazi capture until 1944, when he was arrested for fighting in the Warsaw Uprising. He spent the rest of the war in a POW camp.
After the war he joined the Free Poland movement and collected intelligence on the Soviets. He was caught by the Polish Communist regime, interrogated and tortured. A kangaroo court sentenced him to 3 death sentences. He was executed on May 25, 1948.
The Soviet Union covered up Witold’s story, and it wasn’t until the Iron Curtain fell that people learned of his bravery.
Michael Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi of Poland said, “When God created the human being, God had in mind that we should all be like Captain Witold Pilecki, of blessed memory.”
For his incredible courage in exposing Nazi crimes against humanity, we honor Witold Pilecki as this week’s Thursday Hero.
With thanks to Shireen Beeson Reynolds
Get the best of Accidental Talmudist in your inbox: sign up for our monthly newsletter.