In this great mortuary of the half-living—where nearby someone was wheezing his final breath; someone else was dying; another was struggling out of bed only to fall over onto the floor; another was throwing off his blankets, or talking in a fever to his dear mother and shouting or cursing someone out; [while still others were] refusing to eat, or demanding water, in a fever and trying to jump out of the window, arguing with the doctor or asking for something—I lay thinking that I still had the strength to understand everything that was going on and take it calmly in my stride.
That was on a relatively good day at the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp in 1942, in the words of the only person ever known to have volunteered to be a prisoner there. His name was Witold Pilecki. His story is one of history’s most amazing accounts of boundless courage amid bottomless inhumanity.
Powerful emotions gripped me when I first learned of Pilecki. I felt rage toward the despicable regimes that put this honorable man through hell. I welled up with admiration for how he dealt with it all. Here you have a story that depicts both the worst and the best in men.
To label Pilecki a “hero” seems hopelessly inadequate.
Olonets is a small town northeast of Saint Petersburg, Russia, seven hundred miles from present-day Poland. It’s where Witold Pilecki was born in 1901, but his family was not there by choice. Four decades earlier, when many Poles lived under Russian occupation, the czarist government in Moscow forcibly resettled the Pileckis in Olonets for their part in an uprising.
At the conclusion of World War I, Poland was reconstituted as an independent nation for the first time since 1795, but it immediately became embroiled in war with Lenin’s Russia. Pilecki joined the fight against the Bolsheviks when he was seventeen, first on the front and then from behind enemy lines. For two years he fought gallantly and was twice awarded the prestigious Cross of Valor.
In the eighteen years between the end of the Polish-Russian war in 1921 and the beginning of World War II, Pilecki settled down, married, and fathered two children with his wife, Maria. He rebuilt and farmed his family’s estate, became an amateur painter, and volunteered for community and Christian charities—work that earned him the Silver Cross of Merit. And, after extensive officer training, he earned the rank of second lieutenant in the Polish army reserves. He probably thought his combat days were over.
But in August 1939 Hitler and Stalin secretly agreed to divide Poland between them. On September 1 the Nazis attacked the country from the west, and two weeks later the Soviets invaded from the east. The world was at war again—and so was Pilecki.
Pilecki and Jan Włodarkiewicz cofounded the Secret Polish Army (Tajna Armia Polska). This resistance force and other elements of a growing underground movement carried out numerous raids against both Nazi and Soviet forces. In September 1940 Pilecki proposed a daring plan that in hindsight appears nearly unimaginable: he would arrange to be arrested in the hope that the Nazis, instead of executing him, would send him to Auschwitz, where he could gather information and form a resistance group from the inside.
If he could survive arrest, Pilecki figured, Auschwitz would probably be where the Germans incarcerated him. It was nearby (in southern Poland), and many Polish resistance fighters were imprisoned there. It wasn’t yet the death camp for Jews that it would soon become, but there were murmurings of executions and brutality that the Polish resistance wanted to investigate so they could inform the world.
On September 19, Pilecki kissed his wife and two young children good-bye. Equipped with forged identity papers and a new name, he walked into a Nazi roundup of some two thousand civilians. Two days and a few beatings later, he was Auschwitz inmate number 4859.
A Dangerous Game
Viktor Frankl, an Auschwitz survivor, had men like Pilecki in mind when he wrote in his powerful book Man’s Search for Meaning:
The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity—even under the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.
Fired by a determination that almost defies description, Pilecki made the most of every opportunity during his thirty-month imprisonment at Auschwitz. Despite bouts of typhus and pneumonia, lice infestations, stomach ailments, backbreaking toil hauling rocks, extremes of heat and cold, relentless hunger, and cruelties at the hands of German guards, he formed an underground resistance group, the Union of Military Organization (Związek Organizacji Wojskowej, or ZOW). His initial reports of conditions within Auschwitz were smuggled out and reached Britain in November 1940, just two months after his detention began. Using a radio transmitter that he and his fellow ZOW conspirators built, in 1942 he broadcast information that convinced the Allies the Nazis were engaged in genocide on an unprecedented scale. What became known as “Witold’s Report” was the first comprehensive eyewitness account of the Holocaust.
“The game which I was now playing in Auschwitz was dangerous,” Pilecki later wrote. “This sentence does not really convey the reality; in fact, I had gone far beyond what people in the real world would consider dangerous.” Even that is an understatement. He was surrounded by a camp staff of seven thousand Nazi SS troops, each of whom possessed life-and-death power over every inmate. It was a hell on earth—one where no moral rules applied.
More than two million people died at Auschwitz. As many as eight thousand per day were gassed with the deadly chemical Zyklon-B, while others died of starvation or disease, from forced labor, or through hideous “medical” experimentation. Smoke from the ovens that burned the corpses could be seen and smelled for miles. Pilecki saw it, wrote about it, broadcast news of it, and even prepared for a general uprising of inmates against it—all under the noses of his captors.
By spring 1943, the Germans knew that an extensive resistance network was at work in Auschwitz. Many ZOW members had been identified and executed, but Pilecki’s identity as the ringleader hadn’t yet been discovered. Then, on the night of Easter Sunday 1943, Pilecki accomplished what only 143 other people in the history of Auschwitz ever could. He escaped, bringing with him incriminating documents that he and two fellow inmates had stolen from the Germans.
Going Undercover Again
If this were the end of the story, Witold Pilecki would already be a major figure in the history of World War II. Incredibly, there’s more to tell—and it’s every bit as stunning as what you’ve read so far.
Avoiding detection, Pilecki made his way from Auschwitz to Warsaw, a journey of some two hundred miles. There he reestablished connections with the underground in time to assume a commanding role in the Warsaw Uprising, the largest single military offensive undertaken by any European resistance movement in World War II.
For sixty-three days fighting raged between the Polish resistance and Nazi forces. No one came to the rescue of the brave Poles—not even the Soviets, who by then had broken ties with Hitler’s Germany. The Soviet army had been advancing from the east but halted just short of Warsaw and watched the slaughter. The city was demolished, the rebellion was put down, and Pilecki found himself in a German POW camp for the remaining months of the war. If the Nazis had realized who he was, summary execution surely would have followed.
Germany’s surrender in May 1945 resulted in the immediate liberation of its prisoners. For Pilecki in particular, it meant a brief respite from conflict and confinement. Stationed in Italy as part of the Second Polish Corps, he wrote a personal account of his time at Auschwitz.
But as the summer turned into fall, it was becoming apparent that the Soviets were not planning to leave Poland. In October, Pilecki accepted yet another undercover assignment—to go back to Poland and gather evidence of growing Soviet atrocities. His activities led the pro-Soviet Polish puppet regime to mark him as an enemy of the state.
In May 1947, two years to the day after Nazi Germany capitulated, Witold Pilecki’s cover was blown. He was arrested and tortured for months before a sham public trial in May 1948, where he was found guilty of espionage and given a death sentence.
His last words before his execution on May 25 were “Long live free Poland!” He was forty-seven.
“Beacon of Hope”
Are you wondering why you’ve never heard of this man before?
For decades the leaders of the postwar, Soviet-installed Polish regime buried information about Pilecki. They couldn’t recount his anti-Nazi activities without telling of his anticommunist work as well. The communist government monitored Pilecki’s family for decades, forbidding anyone from mentioning his name in public.
But the fall of the Iron Curtain brought the release of previously classified or suppressed documents, including Pilecki’s complete reports. His superhuman exploits are finally becoming known around the world. American film producer David Aaron Gray began working on a movie about Pilecki’s life. Jarek Garlinski, introducing his English translation of Pilecki’s 1945 report (published as The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery), summarizes the extraordinary character of Witold Pilecki:
Endowed with great physical resilience and courage, he showed remarkable presence of mind and common sense in quite appalling circumstances, and a complete absence of self-pity. While most inmates of Auschwitz not slated for immediate death were barely able to survive, he had enough reserves of strength and determination left to help others and to build up an underground resistance organization within the camp. Not only that, he managed to keep a clear head at all times and recognize what he needed to do in order to stay alive.
Pilecki’s reports from the death camp, Garlinski writes, did more than advance Allied intelligence against the Nazis. They also represented a “beacon of hope”—demonstrating that “even in the midst of so much cruelty and degradation there were those who held to the basic virtues of honesty, compassion, and courage.”
In March 2016 I visited Witold Pilecki’s eighty-five-year-old son, Andrzej, in his flat in Warsaw. “What makes you happy these days?” I asked. His response: “My father’s memory, which finally the world is coming to know.”
Lawrence W. Reed is the president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and the author or editor of several books, including Excuse Me, Professor: Challenging the Myths of Progressivism. This excerpt is taken from his new book Real Heroes, available now at the ISI bookstore.
Complement with a thinker you should know, Ludwig von Mises, Jane Clark Scharl on The Man in the High Castle and resisting ideology with myth, and Daniel J. Mahoney on “soft” totalitarianism.