There are stories of people who escaped the trains traveling to Auschwitz. There are also testimonies of successful and failed escapes from the camp itself. But this is the story of a man who volunteered to be imprisoned at Auschwitz, and lived to tell of what he saw.
So, I am to write the driest of facts, which is what my friends want me to do.
They have told me: ‘The more you stick to the bare facts without any kind of commentary, the more valuable it will be.’
Well, here I go…
but we were not made of wood, let alone stone, though it sometimes seemed as if even a stone would have broken out in a sweat.”
So began the report describing daily life in the concentration and death camp at Auschwitz, with chilling detail and precision. The author, Prisoner 4859, had voluntarily gone to that “other planet” in order to document events at the camp and organize an underground resistance movement there. He aimed to bring about a prisoner’s revolt and mass flight.
As a soldier in the Tajna Armia Polska (“Secret Polish Army”) underground, he volunteered to be captured by the Nazis so he could be sent to the camp. The camp’s records identified Prisoner 4859 as “Tomasz Serafiński”, the name written in his forged documents. His real name was Witold Pilecki, and this was not the first time he’d fought the Nazis.
Witold was born on May 13, 1901 in the region of Karelia in the Russian Empire, where his family had been exiled after the repression of the Polish revolt of 1863-1864, known as the January Uprising. His grandfather Józef spent seven years in exile in Siberia for his role in the rebellion. Witold would himself revolt against the Russians during the Soviet occupation, but more on that later.
Witold arrived at Auschwitz with considerable military experience. Following the First World War, he joined the Polish self-defense units and fought to defend Vilna against the Soviet Red Army. In the Polish-Soviet War (1919-1921), he joined the Polish Army, participated in a number of battles and was twice given medals for his bravery.
After the war, Witold was released from the army. He married Maria and worked the family farm. The couple had two children, Andrzej and Zofia, and it seemed that life was getting back to normal.
By August 1939, the spectre of war again loomed over Europe. Witold re-enlisted, and was put in charge of a cavalry unit. His force fought bravely and suffered serious losses with the outbreak of World War II. There were also successes – during the September 1939 campaign, Witold and his men destroyed seven German tanks and brought down two planes. Later that month, the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland, in accordance with a previously signed agreement with Nazi Germany, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. In the wake of this Soviet attack, the Polish division Pilecki fought for was dismantled and he returned to Warsaw.
In November 1939, Pilecki and his commander founded the Tajna Armia Polska in Warsaw, one of the first underground forces to fight the Nazis in the country. They recruited men, stocked up on weapons, and expanded their activity to other cities in Poland. By 1940, the underground numbered more than 8,000 fighters.
The camp at Auschwitz was established in April 1940 as a prison camp for opponents of the Nazi regime gathered from occupied European countries, especially Poland. It was filled with Soviet prisoners of war and political prisoners, Jewish slave laborers, and others. Only later would it become the Nazis’ largest concentration and extermination camp.
In 1940, when it was still an “ordinary” prison camp, Pilecki volunteered to be caught by the Nazis so that he could enter the facility as a a prisoner. He was tasked with sending back reports about life inside the camp, in addition to organizing the prisoners into an anti-Nazi underground. He received forged papers and set out on his mission.
“The 19th of September 1940 – the second street round-up in Warsaw.
There are a few people still alive who saw me go alone at 6:00 AM to the corner of Aleja Wojska and Felinskiego Street and join the ‘fives’ of captured men drawn up by the SS.”
“Tomasz Serafiński” arrived at the camp and immediately began organizing the prisoners into an underground that promoted cooperation and mutual aid among the inmates, while sending reports to the “outside”. At first, its members only shared notes with the names of prisoners who died or were murdered. Soon, they provided more detailed reports, including descriptions of the camp’s staff abusing the prisoners.
The underground smuggled food, clothing and medicine into the camp, and tried to plan a prisoner’s revolt with the assistance of the Polish underground – which was supposed to overpower the Nazi guards and free the prisoners. In August 1941, “Serafiński” reported the killing of Soviet prisoners of war by gas, apparently one of the Nazis’ first efforts using this method of killing.
“The first Bolshevik prisoners, for the time being just officers, were brought in and after seven hundred of them were locked into one room on Block 13 (Block 11 in the new numbering system) and packed in so tightly that none of them could sit, the room was sealed […]
That same evening a group of German soldiers led by an officer arrived.
The German team entered the room and, after donning gas masks, threw in a few gas canisters and observed the effects.
This was the first effort there at gassing using Prussic acid.”
Prussic acid was another term for hydrogen cyanide.
Witold notes the names of the prisoners who reported this to him, including the horrific descriptions of the medical staff that had to clear out the bodies.
Pilecki later reported the building of the gas chambers and the crematoria, as well as the increasingly large shipments of prisoners brought into the camp for extermination.
The reports were sent to England with the help of the Polish underground – and weren’t believed. The British claimed that Pilecki was making things up and “inflating” the numbers to convince them to act. When Witold understood help would not come from the outside and that the planned uprising would not come to fruition, he decided to flee.
Late on the night of April 26, 1943, after 945 days as an Auschwitz prisoner, Pilecki fled with two of his comrades. They had been assigned to the night shift at the bakery outside the camp. Pilecki and his comrades were able to overpower the local guard and make their escape – with documents they’d stolen from the Germans. They also possessed cyanide, which they intended to swallow if captured. With the aid of local residents, they were able to quickly distance themselves from the camp and ultimately reached Warsaw.
Pilecki joined the Chrobry II Battalion of the Polish Home Army, the central Polish underground during the war, and took part in the Warsaw Uprising (not to be confused with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising). The unit he commanded dealt the Germans heavy losses. With the uprising’s defeat, Pilecki was captured by the Nazis and spent the rest of the war in POW camps.
The war ended with Poland under Soviet occupation. Witold Pilecki collected information on the abuses of Polish citizens by Soviet forces and delivered them to the West. He also spent 1945 compiling his Auschwitz memories into an organized report.
On May 8, 1947, Witold Pilecki was arrested by the Polish-Soviet secret service. He was interrogated and brutally tortured, to the point that his suffering was worse than anything he’d undergone at Auschwitz (the graphic novel Episodes from Auschwitz: Witold’s Report opens with images of Pilecki’s interrogation and torture).
On March 3, 1948, a show trial was held in which Pilecki and three of his friends were charged with espionage for the West and the Polish government in exile. In mid-May, he was sentenced to death and executed in Mokotów Prison in Warsaw on the 25th of that same month. His body was probably tossed into a mass grave in Warsaw’s Powązki Military Cemetery.
The communist government forbade mention of his name and actions in the decades that followed. It was only on October 1, 1990, after the fall of the Polish communist government, that Pilecki and his comrades were exonerated, and books were published about him and his heroism.
At the National Library of Israel, you can find books on Pilecki in English, Polish, and German, including books for young adults, a graphic novel, and a photographic biography.
I first heard of Witold Pilecki when the Swedish metal band Sabaton came out with their “Heroes” album – he is the subject of their song “Inmate 4859.”
Despite the best efforts of the Soviet Union, Pilecki’s story has now come to the fore. In the end, true heroism is a difficult thing to cover up and suppress.
Pilecki’s quotes are taken from The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery, by Captain Witold Pilecki, available here.
Translated by Avi Woolf
The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery, by Captain Witold Pilecki
Episodes from Auschwitz: Witold’s Report, written by Michal Galek, art by Arkadiusz Limek
Witold Pilecki Fotobiografia Photobiography, by Maciej Sadowski