With their homeland occupied, the underground band of freedom fighters had few options left. The ragtag band of the resistance — this group, at least — numbered only 8,000 (with arms for only half of them), a paltry sum compared to the heavily armed platoons patrolling their streets. With few options remaining, one of them came up with an idea: get arrested. If he did, he’d almost certainly be sent to the large prison in the area. The enemy had been transporting prisoners there by the trainload for months now. From the inside, he surmised, he could begin a prison uprising, overthrow the guards, and add the manpower of tens of thousands more to the resistance’s total.
The man’s name was Witold Pilecki. He was a leader in the Tajna Armia Polska (“TAP”) — the Secret Polish Army — in 1940. The prison he successfully entered was Auschwitz.
In mid-1940, Pilecki proffered his plan to TAP, and the organization approved. They pieced together a set of forged documents under the name Tomasz Serafinksi. On September 19, 1940, the plan went into action. That day, the Gestapo arrested 2,000 Poles in a lapanka — a roundup of innocent people who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Pilecki made sure he was one of those 2,000, and, after two days of interrogation-by-torture, was sent to Auschwitz. His mug shot from there is above.
At the time, no one knew (or believed) that the Nazis were systematically murdering Jews and others in concentration camps such as Auschwitz. Pilecki and TAP were no exception. But Pilecki’s ability to infiltrate the camp began to change that. He managed to organize a small resistance group within the death camp, focusing mostly on increasing morale — any attempts to forcibly resist the Nazis would have certainly failed. Similarly, his ability to communicate with those outside of Auschwitz’s walls was limited, to say the least. So Pilecki did what few others were able to do: he broke out.
On the night of April 26, 1943, he and two others were assigned to work at a bakery located outside of the main fence. The three men overpowered the guards, cut the phone line, and Pilecki made his way to Warsaw — a trip which took four months. With him, Pilecki carried a trove of official documents he stole from the Germans; these documents and the experience of those he met in Auschwitz became a 100-page report detailing the horrors of the Nazi death camp.
After the war, Pilecki turned his attention to communism; he was a Pole-in-exile hoping to remove Poland from communist rule. He returned to Poland in late 1945, aiming to set up an anti-communist intelligence network, but his fake identity was compromised the next July. Rather than flee, Pilecki remained in Poland collecting information demonstrating the Soviets’ inhumane practices. This dedication to the cause would prove fatal. In May of 1947, he was arrested and, after a sham trial, was convicted of forgery, espionage, and a laundry list of other crimes against the Polish state. He was executed on May 25, 1948.
Pilecki’s heroism was mostly unknown until 1989. The communist Polish government kept his life and history under wraps; only when the Iron Curtain began to dissolve were Pilecki’s life acknowledged and his feats revealed.
Bonus fact: During the Holocaust, only about 800 people tried to escape from Auschwitz, even though an estimated 1.1 million prisoners were murdered there. Escaping from the concentration camp was not a simple task — only about 140 would-be escapees were successful — but that was not why the number of attempts is so low. According to British historian Laurence Rees, if a person escaped from Auschwitz, the Nazis would exact retribution on the escapee’s prison block mates, picking ten at random and starving them to death.
From the Archives: The Two Soviets Who Saved the World: Two more unsung heroes of the 20th century.
Related: “Auschwitz: A New History” by Laurence Rees. 39 reviews, 4.5 stars. Available on Kindle.