Capt. Witold Pilecki

Polish troops enter Wilno in 1919

Born in 1901 near Lake Ladoga in Northern Russia in the family of Polish patriots deported by the Russian Tsar during the Russian occupation of Poland, he was one of the true heroes of the Second World War. His military career began in 1918 when he joined Polish forces created in Wilno (Vilnius) to protect that city from a Communist takeover. He fought in the cavalry throughout the Polish-Soviet war of 1920 until Poland’s victory and the successful raid to reclaim Wilno under General Zeligowski. Throughout the campaign he demonstrated courage and military skill which twice earned him the Cross of Valor. After a peaceful existence as a landowner during the inter-war years he was called up to fight again in 1939 as a cavalry platoon commander when Germany invaded Poland . He fought until the end of the campaign and his command’s kills included seven armored vehicles - an outstanding result. After the completion of this campaign became one of the founders of the Tajna Armia Polska – TAP (Polish Secret Army) an underground combat formation in occupied Poland.

The gate to Auschwitz with the famous inscription "Arbeit Macht Frei"

In 1940 dark rumors began circulating about a place named Auschwitz. Little was known about it other than it was a hard labor/prison camp where the Germans were transporting thousands of Poles – mainly those suspect of being members of the underground, but also intellectuals and basically anybody that possibly could be a member of the underground (Mr. Albin whose accounts are featured in Against The Odds was one of those first prisoners of that dreaded camp – caught and imprisoned when he tried to escape occupied Poland to join the Free Polish Army being formed in France). Pilecki came up with a daring plan to investigate what was going on in Auschwitz and to try to create an underground organization within it and with the permission of the Polish underground command he proceeded to execute it. The plan was simple: get imprisoned by the Germans and deported to Auschwitz (of course there was always a risk that he would get sent to one of the other camps). This happened on the 19th of September, 1940, in Warsaw during one of the then common actions where the Germans would randomly close off a street and arrest for deportation all they caught on that street. Within days he was in Auschwitz under the name of Tomasz Serafinski, Auschwitz number 4859.

Pilecki's Auschwitz mugshot

During the next few years until his escape on the 27th of April, 1943, Pilecki actively worked in the Auschwitz underground. He worked to unite the various political groups existing in the camp, created the camp Combat Organization which could lead a rebellion in case the Germans tried to exterminate the prisoners, and collected information about the workings of the camp, information on those Germans who played the biggest part in the atrocities and information on the fate of the Jewish transports which began arriving as part of the Final Solution – information that the Polish underground later smuggled to the West.

After his escape he continued working in the Polish underground. He eventually became a member of the ultra secret anti-communist “Nie” (No) organization which was to conduct activities in the event of a Soviet/Communist occupation of Poland. This removed him from the leadership of the “official” pro-West Polish underground which was to deal with the Soviets officially and thus risked elimination in the event of a Communist takeover. Deeply undercover, he fought as a private during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 in one of the toughest sectors of the city.

Despite the secrecy that surrounded him, Pilecki was captured by the Communists after the war and on the 25th of May, 1948 executed. Subsequently blacklisted by the Communist regime, Pilecki remained one of the unknown heroes of the Second World War. Only in the Polish emigrant community in the West did his name survive and only now in the free, post-communist, Poland is he starting to receive recognition.

Learn More About:

-Individual Resistance

-Organized Resistance

-The Concentration Camps

-The Auschwitz State Museum