Witold Pilecki - The Volunteer

The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero who Infiltrated Auschwitz Book Cover

The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero who Infiltrated Auschwitz

Jack Fairweather


2020
ISBN 0753545187
London: WH Allen


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96 Books about Poland | Polish War Graves in Britain

September 1940 and a year has gone by since Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union attacked and occupied Poland. Witold Pilecki, a Polish Army officer and member of the Polish underground, waits in a flat in the Zoliborz district of Warsaw for the Gestapo (German Secret State Police) to arrive. They are conducting a roundup and intend sending any educated Poles they find to a concentration camp called Auschwitz, about 40 miles west of Krakow, which they opened in June of 1940. 

Witold Pilecki has been given a mission by the Polish underground to infiltrate Auschwitz, establish resistance cells and report back to the underground on German crimes in the camp. In order to achieve this he intends to be captured so that he can be taken to the concentration camp.

Witold Pilecki has volunteered to be incarcerated at Auschwitz!

Arrest

German soldiers and police bang on the apartment doors in Witold's block of flats and take those they find out onto the streets. They march them half a mile to Wilson Square. Their papers are checked and factory labour and railway workers are set free. Witold Pilecki and those remaining are taken to a horse barracks where they are registered and any valuables they have removed. Two days later on 21 September they are loaded onto a train and taken to Auschwitz.

The train arrives at Auschwitz after dark and to shouts of "Out, out, out" from the guards Witold and his fellow prisoners disembark from the train. Some of the prisoners are immediately subject to execution.

SS guards [Schutzstaffel - the elite guard of the Nazi regime] ordered a prisoner to run over to a fence post ... the guards gunned him down. The column [of prisoners] came to a halt, and the guards dragged out ten more men and shot them, too. Collective responsibilty for the "escape", one of the Germans announced. (p. 50)

Some of the other prisoners are subject to beatings. Kapos, who were prisoners in the camp given supervisory duties by the SS guards and rewarded for this with extra food and excusal from hard labour, singled out anyone who was a doctor, lawyer, professor or Jew and gave them a beating. Witold Pilecki was registered, given an ID card and a number of 4859. He was then shaved all over, given prison clothes and allocated to a block in a barracks. He had succeeded in getting into the camp, now his work would begin.

Resistance

The Polish underground considered that Auschwitz was at the center of German efforts to destroy Polish resistance and that it was therefore essential for a resistance cell to be established there. Witold Pilecki went looking for a former resistance colleague from Warsaw called Wladyslaw Dering, a gynecologist, who had been arrested in July 1940. He found him working in the camp hospital. Dering told Witold that he had yet to experience the real killer in the camp:

The kapos' clubs were one thing. They could be avoided with sense and a little luck. The real danger, he explained, was hunger. (p. 70)

Prisoners in Auschwitz were assigned a daily diet of 1,800 calories which was only two-thirds of what someone performing hard labour needed to survive. Witold now understood that he had to create an underground resistance that was capable of surviving starvation. In his recruitment efforts he told fellow prisoners that:

The first and most immediate purpose is to help the weaker among us survive the camp. (p. 89)

Witold Pilecki managed to find a way of telling the underground what conditions in the camp were like. At the end of October 1940 the Germans released from the camp one of the prisoners called Aleksander Wielopolski. He agreed to memorize a message for the underground that Witold told him. Witold was able to work out, from the registration number given to prisoners when they entered the camp, that at daily roll call there were a thousand less prisoners than there should be if they were all still alive.

The grim figures clarified for Witold the hopelessness of their situation...he had the grim thought that they'd be better off if the British simply bombed the camp and brought an end to their suffering. (p. 93)

Aleksander Wielopolski was asked to tell the underground in Warsaw that they should request that the British bomb the camp!

The message reached Stefan "Grot" Rowecki, the underground leader in Warsaw, who sent the message together with other reports by courier to General Wladyslaw Sikorski, head of the Polish-government-in-exile, in London.

In January 1941 the Chief of the British Air Staff, Charles Portal, decided that:

...an attack on the Polish concentration camp at Oswiecim [Auschwitz] is an undesirable diversion and unlikely to achieve its purpose. The weight of bombs... would be very unlikely to cause enough damage to enable prisoners to escape. (p. 119)

Mass Extermination

In June 1941 Nazi Germany launched an invasion of the Soviet Union. A month later Soviet prisoners of war were brought to Auschwitz.

In July...several hundred Soviet prisoners of war arrived at Auschwitz and were brutally beaten to death in the gravel pits by kapos armed with shovels and picks. (p. 149)

A few weeks after this the camp Commandant Rudolf Höss made an announcement, at the morning roll call, that all ill and disabled prisoners could go to a sanatorium to enable them to be cured of what ailed them. Those prisoners selected to go did not end up at a sanatorium but instead at a secretive medical center near Dresden which had been developing methods of killing large groups of people.

The dead prisoners' belongings and clothes were returned to the camp a few days later. One of the SS guards confirmed to Dering that they had been gassed...The idea of mass exterimation then was a fresh horror. "From now on we realised that the SS might do anything," recalled one orderly. (p. 154)

in September 1941 an SS doctor announced in the camp hospital that a selection of ill patients was being made. Two hundred and fifty sick prisoners were then taken to the basement of a building in the camp.

The screaming from the other night, he [a nurse] gasped, was the sound of eight hundred and fifty men being gassed. The patients they'd brought there and the Soviets who came afterward were all dead. (p. 157)

The mass killing by gas of prisoners at Auschwitz had begun.

In January 1942 a meeting of senior Nazis and state officials took place in Wannsee, Berlin. They discussed plans to deport Jews from occupied Europe to the East where they could be either killed or used as slave labour. The plan was given the name of The Final Solution.

In May 1942 a transport of Jews arrived at Auschwitz. They were immediately killed by poisonous gas. More trainloads of Jews arrived and they met a similar fate. Around 10,000 Jews were murdered that month. On 23 May 1942 two Polish prisoners managed to escape from Auschwitz,. Before they left Witold Pilecki told them they had to tell the underground in Warsaw the following:

...mass kiling of jews...children and the elderly were being gassed upon arrival in the camp, while others, mostly the young and healthy, were being worked to death in Birkenau [nearby camp]...It was vital that the underground inform London at once so the world would come to the Jews' assistance. (p. 204)

Escape

Witold Pilecki had been a prisoner in Auschwitz for two years. His resolve to continue his work in the camp was faltering. He had lost almost a hundred men from his resistance cell in the camp to executions and sickness. The Nazi atrocities were increasing but an uprising in the camp would risk a bloodbath. For Witold it was time to think of escaping from Auschwitz.

In 1942 there had been 170 attempts at escape but only a dozen or so were successful. Witold needed an escape plan which stood a chance of success. In March 1943 a fellow prisoner said that he and a friend were planing to escape while working in a bakery outside the camp. Witold thought the plan might work and decided to join them in the attempt. Easter Monday was the planned day as at that time half the camp garrison would be on leave or drunk. Witold and the other two prisoners broke through the bakery door at night and ran for their lives. Shots rang out behind them but the darkness protected them. They headed for the river Sola and crossed over it via the unguarded railway bridge. From there they covered a distance of almost 70 miles to the town of Bochnia where one of the escapers had family.

Warsaw

Witold Pilecki returned to Warsaw on 23 August 1943. He wanted to convince the leader of the underground, General Tadeusz "Bor" Komorowski, to approve an attack on Auschwitz. The previous underground leader Stefan "Grot" Rowecki had been arrested by the Gestapo in July. At the end of October Witold met Karol Jablonski, head of the underground's operational wing, to outline his plan for an attack on the camp. 

Jablonski was definitive: there would be no attack...the underground needed to concentrate their forces on a nationwide revolt. The Germans were in retreat from the Soviet advance...Jablonski was also worried about the threat posed by Soviet forces...there was no sign the Allies would support the Poles against the Soviets. Every weapon...needed to be preserved for the crucial battles to come. (p. 339)

Witold could only accept the underground's decision.

In February 1944 the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill made a speech in the British parliament in which he announced that most of Eastern Poland would be ceded to Stalin's Soviet Union. The main underground newspaper in Warsaw pronounced that it was a disgraceful and immoral betrayal. In the spring Witold was invited by Emil Fieldorf, head of the Warsaw underground's sabotage ring, to join a group to resist a Soviet takeover of Poland. Witold agreed to join them.

Warsaw Uprising

On 1 August 1944 at 5 pm the Polish underground rose up and attacked the German occupiers in Warsaw. The Warsaw Uprising had begun. SS leader Heinrich Himmler on being informed of the attack immediately ordered the execution of imprisoned former underground leader Stefan "Grot" Rowecki. 

[SS leader Heinrich Himmler said] "The timing is unfortunate but...what the Poles are doing is a blessing. After five or six weeks we will leave...but [Warsaw] will cease to exist...every citizen of Warsaw is to be killed including men, woman and children. (p. 353)

The Polish underground in Warsaw managed to hold out until the beginning of October but were then forced to surrender. A ceasefire agreement between the Polish underground and the Germans had the following terms:

  • Polish fighters would be granted combatant status and sent to prisoner-of-war camps
  • Civilians would be sent to work camps

Witold Pilecki, as a Polish fighter, was taken to a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. He remained there until after the war ended.

Underground Intelligence Network

In July 1945 an officer from General Wladyslaw Anders Polish II Corp army arrived at the prisoner-of-war camp in Germany with orders for Witold and several dozen others to return with him to Italy. There Witold met with the head of intelligence for Polish II Corp to discuss the idea of setting up an underground intelligence network in Poland. In October 1945 General Wladyslaw Anders approved Witold's mission and set a departure date, for Witolds' return to Poland, of the end of October.

Witold arrived in Warsaw in early December to find that 90% of the city had been reduced to rubble. He attempted to make contact with former members of the anti-Soviet organisation that he had previosuly joined but found that most were dead, arrested or displaced.

Indeed, the Soviet secret police and their Polish proxies had detained forty thousand former members of the Polish underground since the end of the war and deported most of them to the gulags of Siberia. (p. 374)

In May 1947 Witold was arrested in Warsaw and charged with treason. Between May and November 1947 he underwent interrogation 150 times. The communist authorities scheduled his trial for March 1948.

As the trail date neared, government-run newspapers were filled with headlines declaring Witold to be the ringleader of the "Anders gang" and in the pay of Western imperialists. (p. 382)

The charges against Witold Pilecki were:

  • Treason against the state
  • Plotting the assassination of UB officials
  • Failure to report himself to the authorities
  • Use of forged documents
  • Illegal possession of firearms

On the final day of the trial Witold addressed the court:

"I find happiness in knowing that the fight was worth it." He reiterated the fact that he was a Polish officer following orders. (p. 384)
Witold Pilecki was sentenced to death and executed in Mokotów Prison in Warsaw on 25 May 1948. 

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