The Man Who Volunteered for Auschwitz

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Why a member of the Polish underground sent himself into the infamous prison camp

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David de Sola
"The evil that men do lives after them; 
The good is oft interred with their bones."

- Julius Caesar; Act 3, Scene II

WARSAW -- There are very few places that can accurately be described as hell on Earth. One of these is the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II, where as many as 1.5 million people died during the five years the camp was in operation.

The Polish resistance had been hearing horrific first- or second-hand accounts about the conditions inside Auschwitz. These early accounts came primarily from released prisoners, but also from casual observers like railway employees and residents of the nearby village of Oswiecim. The resistance decided they needed someone on the inside.

It is into this environment that Witold Pilecki, a 39-year old veteran of the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1921 who fought against the initial Nazi invasion and a member of the Polish resistance, volunteered himself in 1940. Pilecki's mission was to allow himself to be arrested and, once inside Auschwitz, to collect intelligence for the Polish resistance in the country and the government-in-exile in London, and to organize a resistance from inside the camp.

"I think he knew, he realized what he was getting himself into," said Jacek Pawlowicz, a historian at Poland's Institute of National Remembrance. "But even so, he was not prepared for the things he was actually able to witness."

During the next three years, Pilecki was involved in one of the most dangerous intelligence-gathering and resistance operations of the war. He authored three reports about life inside the camp for the Polish resistance. During his incarceration, Pilecki witnessed from the inside Auschwitz's transformation from a detention facility for political prisoners and Soviet soldiers into one of the Nazis' deadliest killing machines.

An English translation of Pilecki's third and most comprehensive report -- a primary source for this article -- was recently published as a book titled The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery . It is a fascinating first-hand account of virtually all aspects of life inside the camp. The original document is in the custody of the Polish Underground Movement Study Trust in London.

"He was there in all of Auschwitz's worst periods, because he arrived at the moment when the camp was being created and was there until [1943]," Pawlowicz explained. "So while there he saw the camp growing, he saw [Birkenau] being built -- where the ovens were. But the ovens were not only in [Birkenau], there were gas chambers and crematoria on the territory of Auschwitz I."

Pilecki's family was kept out of the loop regarding his activities for security reasons. His son Andrzej Pilecki recalls, "There was secrecy because of the danger, so that the children would know as little as possible. But I felt something. My father was in Warsaw. We were 100 kilometers away. We came to visit him sometimes and my father would teach us how to behave during the occupation."

Pilecki began preparations for his mission in the late summer of 1940. While staying at a safehouse, he found identity papers belonging to a man named Tomasz Serafinski, who was erroneously presumed killed in September of 1939. Because the Nazis asked for the names and addresses of inmates and their relatives as a method to keep the population under control, Pilecki wisely decided not to give his real name or those of his immediate family. Pilecki placed his photograph on Serafinski's papers and memorized his details. His plan was to be arrested and booked under the Serafinski alias.

As he was saying goodbye to Ostrowska, he quietly whispered to her, "Report that I have fulfilled the order."

In the early morning hours of September 19, Nazis did a roundup in Warsaw and arrested as many as 2,000 people. According to Adam Cyra and Wieslaw Wysocki's 1997 biography Rotmistrz Witold Pilecki, Pilecki was in the apartment of Eleonora Ostrowska the morning of the roundup. A caretaker and member of the resistance came in and made several suggestions to Pilecki for how to avoid being caught. According to Ostrowska, "Witold rejected those opportunities and didn't even try to hide in my flat." When a German soldier knocked on the door and asked who lived there, Pilecki walked out. As he was saying goodbye to Ostrowska, he quietly whispered to her, "Report that I have fulfilled the order."

Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, who later became Foreign Minister of Poland, was arrested in the same roundup and taken to Auschwitz in the same transport as Pilecki, which left the morning of September 21 and arrived at the prison camp at 10 p.m. that same day.

"At the time we were not aware of what Auschwitz was," he wrote. "The underground movement was compelled to investigate what was happening to those people, to check the possibilities of organizing them somehow, possibly of helping them. And Witold Pilecki embarked on that tremendous task. It was his aware and voluntary decision to join another huge round up in Warsaw."

Pilecki was not happy with the behavior he saw of his fellow Poles. "What really annoyed me the most was the passivity of this group of Poles," he later wrote. "All those picked up were already showing signs of crowd psychology, the result being that our whole crowd behaved like a herd of passive sheep."

"A simple thought kept nagging me: stir up everyone and get this mass of people moving."

Pilecki was booked under the Serafinski alias, and was assigned the prisoner number 4859. Once inside, Pilecki immediately began work on organizing a network among the inmate population. In his own words, his objective was to set up a military organization on the inside to keep up morale, provide news from the outside world, distribute food and clothing to members, smuggle camp intelligence to the outside world, and to prepare detachments to take control of the camp by force if the order were given.

He called his network the Union of Military Organization, known by its Polish acronym ZOW, and would be part of the Home Army, the Polish resistance. The secrecy of the ZOW's existence was paramount. To ensure its continuity in the event of discovery by Nazi guards or informants, Pilecki created a highly compartmentalized system of five-man cells. The leader of each cell would be people of utmost confidence, committed to the Polish resistance and able to withstand possible interrogation or investigation by the German guards. Each cell leader swore an oath to Pilecki himself and only knew of the four men under his command, but not of the existence of any other cells. By doing so, Pilecki effectively minimized the risk of exposure to the entire network.

Pawlowicz estimates that Pilecki's network included some 500 inmates at Auschwitz by March of 1942, but notes this number may have doubled by the time of Pilecki's escape the following year. In time, Pilecki was able to place informants and allies in key positions throughout the camp. In time, these would prove crucial for Pilecki and other ZOW members.

6486931591_c464e264d8_z.jpgMark Jensen/Flickr

Life inside Auschwitz tested every inmate. How each of them reacted was entirely subjective. Pilecki wrote, "Camp was a proving ground of character."

"Some -- slithered into a moral swamp."

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David de Sola is a writer based in Washington, D.C.

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