Former war correspondent and author Jack Fairweather joins Tim to talk about the one man who elected to volunteer to be taken prisoner to fight the Nazis from inside of Auschwitz during World War II. Jack tells Tim why the world is only learning more about Witold Pilecki now, and how his story of bravery, heroics and the ultimate sacrifice almost was lost to history. Pilecki took on one of the most daunting tasks anyone would take in the war.
Think about this for a second. He’s the only known voluntary inmate of Auschwitz. He spent spent two and a half years as a member of the Resistance, gathering intelligence from German army during World War II from inside the concentration camp.
Now, let that sink in.
Witold Pilecki was a member of the Polish army, and on September 19th 1940, he intentionally allowed himself to be arrested by the Nazis. After that he was detained with roughly 1,800 Polish political prisoners, and then he was taken to Auschwitz, where he would be imprisoned for the next two and a half years. To his captors, he was nothing more than Prisoner 4859.
Here’s what happened. Pilecki, a Catholic, had already served in the Polish Army and married a local school teacher named Maria before the hostilities started. They had two children. He ran the family farm, painted and wrote poetry and lived a quiet life.
In 1939, he was called back to military service when the Nazis invaded Poland. Poland was quickly defeated and became occupied by the German army. After that, Pilecki found his way to Warsaw to serve as part of the underground resistance against the Nazis.
Not long after that, in August of 1940, the Nazis had taken prisoner a group of Polish political opponents and transported them to Auschwitz. It didn’t take long before the families of those prisoners were notified of their deaths.
The Polish underground suspected murder, but needed more information. That was when he volunteered to investigate from the inside.
After two and a half years, he would escape and write a 100-page report on life inside the Auschwitz death camp.
In October 1940, Pilecki successfully sent out his first report with a released inmate. It reached the Polish Government-in-exile in March 1941, who passed it onto the Allies.
At the time of Pilecki’s internment, Auschwitz was a concentration camp intended to hold predominantly political prisoners from Poland.
He witnessed the changing demographic and horrifying treatment of each persecuted group. His reports described the early experiments conducted on Soviet prisoners of war, who were murdered with poisonous gas. This laid the foundations for the mass-murder of many Jews in the purpose-built gas chambers and crematoria.
He described the pain suffered by other prisoners undergoing experiments against their will; many died from their injuries.
Pilecki over time met fellow members of the Polish underground and began to create a secret organization inside Auschwitz.
The organization ran at great risk. They built a radio transmitter from smuggled parts. Through this transmitter, he reported on conditions inside the camp, and he told of the number of deaths. At some point he had to stop communicating for risk of being discovered.
Witold Pilecki Escapes
Pilecki escaped Auschwitz in April 1943. He decided to escape this time because key members of his organization were sent to other concentration camps. He felt he would get transferred, too.
He and two others only had one night to carry out their plan.
They knew if they failed, they’d be hung in a public execution. They removed the bolts from a heavy door while the guards’ backs were turned. All three traveled about 100 miles over one week on foot to reach safety.
Freedom and Captivity Once Again
Pilecki found refuge at a friend’s parents’ home, and then with another member of the Polish Army.
He waited over three months and saw that nothing had yet been done to liberate the prisoners at Auschwitz so he went back to Warsaw.
While there, he fought in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, near the end of the war, and they lost again. This time he was once again sent to prison camp, this time in Germany.
Near the end of the war, his prison camp was liberated, and once again he would re-engage in the war effort. He was sent to Italy to fight as part of the Polish Armed Forces.
While in Italy, he wrote his 100-page report on his time in Auschwitz. It is now known as Witold’s Report. He was relatively safe in Italy, but he went back to Warsaw again. This time to gather intelligence on the new Polish Communist government. By then, the Nazis were overthrown, but the Polish Government remained in exile.
In its place, a new government was under the control of the Soviet Union, which liberated them from Germany. For a third time, Pilecki would be taken prisoner.
The Communist Polish authorities captured Pilecki on May 8th 1947 and accused him of spying and planning to assassinate some key people in the Polish police. He was coerced and tortured to sign a “confession.”
He was put on trial but not allowed to testify, and there were no witnesses in his defense. He was found guilty and executed on My 25th 1948.
In 1990, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Communist Eastern Europe and in Poland, Witold Pilecki was exonerated posthumously and honored for everything he had done for his country.
- Jack Fairweather
- The Volunteer, By Jack Fairweather, Amazon
- “The Volunteer” Review: A Noble Hero in a Savage New World, Wall Street Journal
- The Auschwitz Volunteer, New York Times
- Witold Pilecki, the Jewish Virtual Library
- Witold Pilecki is an Unsung Hero of the Second World War, The Economist
About this Episode’s Guest Jack Fairweather
Jack Fairweather is the author of The Volunteer: One Man, An Underground Army, And the Secret Mission to Destroy Auschwitz. He is a former war reporter in Iraq and Afghanistan and the author of A War of Choice and The Good War. He has served as the Daily Telegraph’s Baghdad bureau chief, and as a video journalist for the Washington Post in Afghanistan. His war coverage has won a British Press Award and an Overseas Press Club award citation.