Order of the White Eagle
By 1920, 19-year-old Witold Pilecki had won the Polish Cross of Valor twice for action against the Red Army, and in World War II he commanded a cavalry platoon. After Poland’s defeat he helped organize early Polish resistance.
But in 1940 he pulled an audacious coup—four months after the Germans opened the concentration camp at Auschwitz, Pilecki broke in.
“Volunteering for Auschwitz,” The New York Times wrote in 2012, “and remaining there for almost three years was…perhaps one of the most courageous things anyone has ever done.”
Pilecki was born on May 13, 1901, in Olonets, Russia, to a Polish family with a tradition of political opposition. Czarist authorities had forcibly resettled the family there after suppressing Poland’s January Uprising of 1863–64.
At the outset of World War I, Pilecki joined a paramilitary organization for boys. When Bolsheviks overran their sector, he and his unit waged partisan warfare. Pilecki then joined the regular Polish Army and fought in the Polish– Soviet War of 1919–20. After the war he took officer training courses and in 1926 was assigned to a cavalry regiment as a reserve ensign, or second lieutenant. In late August 1939 he was mobilized and took part in heavy fighting during the German invasion. After his unit was defeated and disbanded, he returned to Warsaw and helped found the Secret Polish Army, one of Poland’s first resistance organizations.
After Auschwitz opened in May 1940, Pilecki devised his bold plan to gather intelligence on the camp and organize inmate resistance—he would purposely become a prisoner.
In September, bearing a false identity card, Pilecki walked into the midst of a Warsaw street roundup and was picked up with 2,000 other Poles. They spent two days under guard in an outdoor arena before being loaded into freight cars bound for Auschwitz. Pilecki was admitted as inmate No. 4859.
At Auschwitz, Pilecki endured crippling work details and illness while organizing a secret group known as the Union of Military Organizations (Polish acronym ZOW) that worked to improve inmate morale, provide news from outside, distribute surplus food and clothing, gather intelligence and train men to seize the camp in the event of a relief attack. ZOW and Pilecki also smuggled out reports of camp atrocities and, later, the camp’s gas chambers. These reports were a principal source of intelligence on Nazi war crimes for the Western Allies.
Pilecki finally determined to break out and appeal to the Polish Home Army to raid the camp. His chance came in April 1943 when he was assigned to night-shift work outside the fence. Pilecki and two other men overpowered a guard, cut the phone line and escaped, taking a number of stolen German documents with them. Pilecki made it back to Warsaw and wrote a report on Auschwitz that London received but considered wildly exaggerated.
Rejoining the Polish resistance, Pilecki fought in the August 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Captured, he remained a German POW until liberated in early July 1945. He then joined the 2nd Polish Corps in Italy.
That September, Pilecki returned to Poland under a false identity to gather intelligence on the Soviet occupation for the Polish government in exile. On May 8, 1947, the Polish communist secret police arrested him and tried him on charges including espionage for “foreign imperialism.” Found guilty, Pilecki was executed in Warsaw on May 25, 1948.
After the 1989 communist collapse, the Polish government posthumously awarded Pilecki the Order of the White Eagle (its highest decoration), the Commander’s Cross of the Order of the Rebirth of Poland and the Order of the Star of Perseverance.
A Polish historian has since rightly called Pilecki “exceptionally courageous,” and Poland’s chief rabbi referred to him as “an example of inexplicable goodness at a time of inexplicable evil.”
Pilecki’s unmarked grave has yet to be found.
Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.