“The greatest hero or the biggest fool” – that was how one prisoner in Auschwitz described Witold Pilecki, when the latter entered its gates in September 1940. There was a good reason for such a comment: Pilecki was the only person who ostensibly entered the death camp by choice, and also among the relative few who eventually succeeded to escape it. The tumultuous saga of Pilecki, who was not recognized during his lifetime as a hero despite the fact that he reported to the world about the horrors he witnessed, ended with his execution by communist authorities in 1948 after being convicted of treason in a show trial.
Seventy-two years later, Pilecki is a legend, now recognized in Poland, his homeland, as one of the greatest heroes in its contemporary history. Streets are named after him, memorials to him can be found throughout the country, books and films present his story, and politicians – mainly those affiliated with the nationalist right-wing government – often invoke his name to sell their preferred Holocaust narrative to the world. This is a historical narrative that typically glorifies the Poles who fought the Germans while minimizing the role other Poles played in crimes committed by the Germans.
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A new book, “The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero Who Infiltrated Auschwitz,” which recently won the prestigious British Costa Book of the Year award, now makes this human drama more accessible to English-language readers. The author, Jack Fairweather, a 42-year-old Welsh-born journalist, who divides his time between England and the United States, covered wars in recent decades in Iraq and Afghanistan for The Daily Telegraph, The Washington Post and others. In 2005 he survived a suicide attack against U.S. soldiers in Mosul, with whom he was traveling.
Fairweather came across the story of Pilecki by chance, in 2011, during a conversation with a fellow journalist who had just returned from a visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, where he heard for the first time about the underground resistance that operated in the camp. Fairweather was amazed to hear of the underground and realized immediately that Pilecki’s story contained all the elements of a blockbuster book, or maybe Oscar-winning Hollywood drama, about life in Auschwitz, which was ultimately liberated by the Allies 75 years ago.
Fairweather harnessed his journalistic talents and curiosity to a different type of investigatory effort, which took about four years. This time he didn’t endanger his own life, but did do an impressive job of documenting the dangers posed to his protagonist’s. “The Volunteer” is full of references and information from a host of historical sources, and is based on comprehensive research conducted in archives, including that of the Auschwitz museum itself, as well as perusal of documents kept by Pilecki’s family and interviews with relatives who knew him.
Not black and white
For their part, historians who research the Holocaust and World War II are quite familiar with Pilecki’s story, which has been documented before. Readers of newspapers and various websites have probably seen some of the many articles written about him in recent times. In 2012 the full report that Pilecki himself wrote about Auschwitz in 1945 was translated into English, and entitled “The Volunteer from Auschwitz.”
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But outside of academia and of Poland, Pilecki is not a household name. In Israel in particular few people have heard of him, and thus for the Israeli reader Fairweather’s book offers a first opportunity to learn about this fascinating story.
Witold Pilecki’s story begins in September 1939 with the occupation of Poland by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and the establishment two months later – by Pilecki and others – of a Polish underground resistance movement, which operated in coordination with the government-in-exile that had been established in Paris and later moved to London.
In September 1940, Pilecki, then 39 years old and married with two children, was sent on a suicide mission: to infiltrate Auschwitz, which had been built by the Nazis three months earlier outside the Polish city of Oswiecim, as a concentration camp for Polish prisoners. Pilecki, a Catholic, was a decorated officer in the Polish army during the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-21, and also among those involved in futile attacks against the German tanks during the invasion of Poland. Now, as a member of an underground group – which was subsumed two years later within the dominant Home Army Polish resistance organization – he was ordered to create an underground network in Auschwitz. His goal: to gather intelligence and report about the mass murders in the camp, to help comrades and others detained there, and to organize a possible attack against their Nazi captors.
Is it correct to consider Pilecki a “volunteer,” as the name of the Fairweather’s book suggests – and which is also in keeping with the way he has been described by politicians and media outlets in Poland and elsewhere in the world? Perhaps, but we must be very careful not to fall into the very tempting trap of cutting corners and ignoring complex, complicated or controversial parts that transform a story from history into literature.
As every novice historian knows, reality in most cases is not black or white, absolute good versus absolute evil. Even heroes have their weaknesses, even national symbols and legends have other sides, which proper historical research is supposed to reveal and grapple with – not downplay or avoid in order to serve a narrative that will help to sell more books. On the other hand, perhaps that is what’s necessary to “sell” Pilecki to the average American or Israeli reader, who may be put off from reading another book about the Holocaust or is looking for stories of unimaginable heroism.
Pilecki did not volunteer of his own free will and enter Auschwitz blindly. To do such a thing he would have had to be nonhuman. In spite of the name of Fairweather’s book, a perusal of it reveals that the hero actually hesitated before accepting the mission in Auschwitz, and that there were differences of opinion about sending him there – arguments and ideological clashes within the Polish resistance. These are downplayed in the book, so as not to confuse the reader with an overly complex and tortuous plot, and perhaps also to make the entire story more heroic.
Anyone who wants to learn the full story must also become more familiar with Jan Wlodarkiewicz, Pilecki’s commander in the underground group created in 1939, who had nationalist and even anti-Semitic leanings. In addition, we must make an acquaintance with one of Pilecki’s deputies in the movement, Dr. Wladyslaw Dering, a Polish doctor who helped the Nazi doctors in Auschwitz. During the trial of that war criminal in communist Poland, after World War II, a Jewish Holocaust survivor living in Israel testified against Dering, claiming that he “was involved in killing his victims by injecting poison, sending them to the gas chambers and conducting experiments on living people.”
Pilecki himself was neither anti-Semitic nor a nationalist. But the fact of there being such people in his immediate surroundings is worthy of a more detailed, complex discussion – even at the price of a decline in book sales.
‘Six weeks to live’
When the underground received information about a German invasion of a specific area in Warsaw, Pilecki was sent there in order to be arrested on purpose. During his research on the book, author Fairweather met Pilecki’s nephew, who was 3 years old at the time of the invasion. Together they visited the apartment where Pilecki had lived at the time of his arrest, during a Nazi roundup of citizens on September 19, 1940. From a distance of so many decades, the nephew still remembered the stomping of the Germans’ boots in the stairwell and his uncle, who gave him a teddy bear before being arrested.
The plan was successful: Pilecki was put on a train and deported to Auschwitz, where he became prisoner No. 4859. He spent two and a half years there.
Another famous Polish prisoner was deported to the death camp then as well – Wladyslaw Bartoszewski who, after his release from Auschwitz the following April due to efforts by the Polish Red Cross, saved the lives of many Jews who fled the Warsaw Ghetto, according to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial website. Bartoszewski, who was granted the title of Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, also served as the Polish foreign minister.
Upon entering the death camp as a prisoner, Pilecki was shocked by the brutality, hunger, disease and death he saw there. “None of you should imagine that he will ever succeed in leaving this place alive,” said the SS man who received the new inmates. “According to the calculations, you have six weeks to live,” he added.
Another guard threatened the prisoners that their only way out was by way of the ovens: Indeed, although systematic mass murder by gassing had yet to be instituted when Pilecki arrived, the crematoria were already operating.
During his long stay there, Pilecki witnessed many changes in the camp. For example, in September 1941 Zyklon B gas was used for the first time; its initial victims were Soviet and Polish prisoners. In early 1942 the mass murder of the Jews in began in the gas chambers, and later the adjacent Birkenau camp began to operate, too.
According to Fairweather’s account, Pilecki recruited new friends to the resistance movement from among the camp’s prisoners and, under impossible conditions, helped fellow comrades and other inmates survive by providing them with food and medicine, and set up an underground intelligence network that managed to smuggle information to the outside world. The first time he did so was in October 1940, shortly after his deportation: A Polish prisoner who was released from the camp memorized a message given to him by Pilecki, and conveyed it verbally to the underground in Warsaw.
Along with a report about the despair and horror he and others suffered at Auschwitz, Pilecki called on the Allies – at a very early stage, even before the systematic murder of European Jewry had begun – to bomb Auschwitz, even at the risk of killing inmates there, including himself. During his in-depth research for “The Volunteer,” Fairweather found evidence of this demand.
Pilecki continued to smuggle out reports about what was happening in the camp: Some were sent via Polish farmers who were working nearby; others by prisoners who managed to escape. Every message was more terrible than its predecessor: The Nazis are conducting medical experiments on prisoners; the Nazis are murdering thousands of Polish POWs; the Nazis are conducting experiments with gas to be used in mass murder operations; the camp is expanding; trains filled with Jews are arriving and their passengers are immediately dispatched to their deaths; hundreds of thousands of men, women and children are being murdered.
In April 1943, when Pilecki realized that no help was coming from the outside, he again did something virtually inconceivable: He succeeded in escaping. While working a night shift at a bakery outside the gates of the camp, he and two friends managed to overpower a guard, disconnect the phone lines and escape under cover of darkness.
Despite the obvious drama surrounding any individual who succeeds in escaping from “another planet,” it’s important to note that Pilecki was not the first nor the only one to escape from Auschwitz. Of among the approximately one million prisoners there, some 900 tried to escape throughout the years, most of them Poles, Russians and Jews. Most were shot to death while fleeing or were murdered immediately afterward by the Nazis. About 200 of them succeeded in escaping, according to the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum website.
Battle of narratives
The plan to attack Auschwitz, which Pilecki proposed to the underground forces, was never approved. He continued with his resistance activities and fought in the Polish Warsaw uprising in 1944, about a year after the Jewish Warsaw Ghetto revolt. He subsequently fell into German hands as a POW but eventually returned to fight on behalf of the resistance. At the end of World War II he actively opposed the communist occupation of his homeland, which led to his arrest in 1947.
Condemned to death for treason, on May 25, 1948 (10 days after the establishment of the State of Israel) Pilecki was executed in a Polish prison. Only in 1990, after the fall of the communist regime and the advent of Polish independence was his name was cleared and he became a national hero.
In January, during the events commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin placed a wreath at the foot of a monument commemorating Pilecki in Poland, and shook the hand of his daughter Zofia. It was a very tense visit, in light of the battle of World War II narratives now being waged between Israel, Poland and Russia – i.e., surrounding the identity of the war heroes and the war criminals, of who started and who ended the war, and of who collaborated with the Nazis and who opposed them.
On the backdrop of these fraught historical and political debates, Pilecki stands out. Not as a superman, but as a courageous Polish patriot, who tried – unsuccessfully (it’s doubtful whether he could ever have succeeded under those circumstances), to warn the world of the horrors of Auschwitz before it turned into the largest factory of death in the history of mankind.