“Human beings were the most precious thing for Pilecki, and especially those who were oppressed. He would do anything to liberate them, to help them.” ̶ Marek Probosz, The Death of Captain Pilecki
How far would you go to expose an injustice? Few people in the world have heard the name of the hero who first alerted the world to the horrors of Auschwitz. His story is one of unspeakable suffering, immense sacrifice, and unbelievable bravery.
Auschwitz. Nowadays one cannot read or hear the word without conjuring horrific images of gas chambers, starving children, and piles of broken and glass-eyed human corpses.
However, following Germany’s invasion of Poland and the beginning of the mass capture and extermination of Jews, it was a mystery as to what became of those who were trapped within the walls of what many assumed to be a mere “prison camp.” The Polish Resistance Army (or Secret Army) had no idea what was happening, but one brave captain was determined to find out.
On September 19, 1940, Captain Pilecki did the unthinkable. To write the first intelligence report detailing what was happening, he voluntarily inserted himself into a street round-up of Poles in Warsaw, with knowledge that upon arrest he would be sent to Auschwitz. He intended to record everything he heard and saw, and organize an inmate uprising in the hopes of freeing those who had been taken captive. Upon his arrival, he found that the situation was far worse than anything he had imagined.
He, like countless others, was stripped of everything, beaten, spat on, and “branded.” He wore the number 4859.
He worked swiftly to organize an inmate resistance movement, and kept a detailed account of the horrors he witnessed in a notebook he smuggled past the guards. Starting November 1940, the first accounts of the genocide that was occurring were sent to the resistance forces in the outside world, often with prisoners who escaped.
The resistance army was completely in disbelief about the horrors Pilecki described. They refused to accept the horrific reality of the ovens, the gas chambers, and the injections used to murder people. They thought Pilecki was exaggerating and refused to send troops to help with Pilecki’s proposed uprising.
It took two and a half years for Pilecki’s messages to reach the British and American authorities. Once again they were ignored and dismissed as “exaggerations.”
Once Pilecki realized he was on the brink of starvation and was approaching death, he decided to break out of the camp, with the hope of personally convincing the Home Army leaders to assist him in taking on Auschwitz. On the night of April 26, 1943, he made the escape. “Shots were fired behind us,” he wrote. “How fast we were running, it is hard to describe.” Tragically, he did not find the support he sought from the Home Army and Allies as they were all in denial about the horrific reality of the genocide.
Persevering with strength, Captain Pilecki continued to fight underground and survived the heroic Warsaw Uprising. After the war, he was caught by the communists, beaten and tormented for six months, eventually accused of espionage, and unjustly sentenced to death. Letters from his wife and fellow Auschwitz survivors, whom he had helped, pleading for his release, were ignored and left unanswered. The court accused him, of all things, for “the crime of treason against his nation.” Captain Pilecki was killed by a single shot to the back of his head. His body was dumped in a potato sack and left in a dumpster to be eaten by rats. Its exact whereabouts are still unknown.
The communist regime in Poland censored any mention of his name in public record, a ban that remained in place until the fall of the Berlin wall. We hear nothing of his name today in our classrooms or museums. Although sadly unrecognized for his great efforts, we owe much to this unsung hero. Michael Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, described Captain Pilecki as “an example of inexplicable goodness at a time of inexplicable evil.” He goes on to say “There is ever-growing awareness of Poles helping Jews in the Holocaust, and how they paid with their lives, like Pilecki. We must honor these examples and follow them today in the parts of the world where there are horrors again.”