On September 19, 1940, Polish resistance hero Witold Pilecki was voluntarily captured and sent to Auschwitz to gather intelligence from the inside and to organize inmate resistance.
One of five children of forest inspector Julian Pilecki and Ludwika Osiecimska, Witold Pilecki was born in the Karelia province of the Russian Empire, where his ancestors had been deported for participating in the 1863 January Uprising against the Russian occupation of Poland.
In 1910, Witold Pilecki moved with his mother and siblings to Wilno (Vilnius), where he attended a local school and joined the underground Polish Scouting and Guiding Association (ZHP). Following the outbreak of the Russian Revolution and the defeat of the Central Powers in World War I in 1918, Pilecki joined the ZHP section of the Lithuanian and Belarusian Self-Defense Militia, a paramilitary formation aligned with the White movement.
However, after Wilno fell to Bolshevik forces in January 1919, Witold Pilecki and his unit resorted to partisan warfare behind Soviet lines before retreating to Poland where Pilecki enlisted as in the young Republic‘s newly established volunteer army. During the Polish-Soviet War, Pilecki joined the 211th Uhlan Regiment and fought at the crucial Battle of Warsaw, the so-called “Miracle on the Vistula“.
World War II
Following the outbreak of World War II, Witold Pilecki was mobilized as a cavalry platoon commander and took part in heavy fighting against the advancing Germans. When the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east, Pilecki and many of his men continued fighting as partisans.
After going into hiding in Warsaw, Pilecki and his commander Major Włodarkiewicz founded the Secret Polish Army (Tajna Armia Polska, TAP), one of the first underground organizations in Poland. Pilecki soon presented a plan to his superiors to enter Germany’s Auschwitz concentration camp to gather intelligence from the inside and to organize inmate resistance.
In September 1940, Pilecki went out during a Warsaw street roundup and was caught by the Germans along with 2,000 civilians. He was sent to Auschwitz where he was assigned inmate number 4859.
There, Pilecki organized the underground Union of Military Organizations (ZOW) which provided the Polish underground with invaluable information about the camp which was then forwarded via the Polish resistance to the British government in London.
In 1942, Pilecki’s resistance movement was also broadcasting details on the number of arrivals and deaths in the camp and the inmates’ conditions using a radio transmitter that was built by camp inmates. It was the principal source of intelligence on Auschwitz for the Allies.
Escape from Auschwitz
Meanwhile, the Camp Gestapo redoubled its efforts to ferret out ZOW members, killing many of them. So Pilecki decided to break out of the camp with the hope of convincing Home Army leaders personally that a rescue attempt was a valid option.
In April 1943, Pilecki was assigned to a night shift at a camp bakery outside the fence, and he and two comrades overpowered a guard, cut the phone line, and escaped during the night, taking with them documents stolen from the Germans.
Four months later, Pilecki finally reached Warsaw and was attached to the Home Army’s regional headquarters. But despite Pilecki’s detailed report, it was decided that the Home Army lacked sufficient strength to liberate the camp without Allied help.
When the Warsaw Uprising broke out in August 1944, Pilecki volunteered for service as a common soldier in the northern city center, without revealing his actual rank to his superiors. After the capitulation of the uprising, Pilecki surrendered to the Wehrmacht and was sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Bavaria where he was eventually liberated by US troops in April 1945.
Arrested and executed by the Soviets
Witold Pilecki returned to Warsaw in December 1945 and began organizing an intelligence gathering network, which included several wartime associates from Auschwitz, on the military and political situation under Soviet-occupation.
He was eventually arrested by agents of the Ministry of Public Security in May 1947, and he was repeatedly tortured before going to trial where he was charged with espionage for “foreign imperialism” and planning to assassinate several officials.
Despite pleas for pardon written to Prime Minister Józef Cyrankiewicz, also an Auschwitz survivor, and President Bolesław Bierut, he was sentenced to death with three of his comrades, and was executed with a shot to the back of the head at the Mokotów Prison in Warsaw on May 25, 1948.
After the announcement of his death sentence, Witold Pilecki said: “I’ve been trying to live my life so that in the hour of my death I would rather feel joy, than fear.”
Pilecki’s story did not become widely known until democracy returned to Poland in 1989. Following Pilecki’s rehabilitation, a number of institutions, monuments, and streets in Poland have been named after him. In 2006, he was awarded the highest Polish decoration, the Order of the White Eagle.
Poland’s Chief Rabbi, Michael Schudrich, wrote in the foreword to a 2012 English translation of Pilecki’s report: “When God created the human being, God had in mind that we should all be like Captain Witold Pilecki. May the life of Witold Pilecki inspire us to do one more good deed, of any kind, each and every day of our lives”.
The song “Inmate 4859” by Swedish heavy metal band Sabaton is about Pilecki.
Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.