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Witold Pilecki War Service
Early Military Career
Pilecki was a Calvary-platoon commander in the 19th Infanty Division of the Polish Army at the start of the Second World War. He was involved in heavy fighting against the German invasion of Poland, and later against the Soviets invading from the east. Pilecki's division was eventually disbanded. He and his commander, Major Włodarkiewicz, returned to Warsaw and formed the Secret Polish Army. The Secret Polish Army was one of the first secret organizations in Poland, and provided military intelligence and leadership to fellow Polish soldiers. The organization was later incorporated into the Home Army. It was then when Pilecki proposed a near-suicidal mission to his superiors.
Captured and Imprisoned
Pilecki proposed a plan to his commanding officers that would help gather evidence of Auschwitz, which would later be presented to Allied nations. If accomplished, the mission would immortalize Pilecki as a national hero.
His plan was to be purposely taken prisoner by German forces and imprisoned in Auschwitz. Little was known about the purported "death camps" at the time, and infiltrating it was the best way to gain intelligence of camps. Pilecki's superiors provided him a fake identity card with the name of "Thomasz Serafinski." On September 19, 1940, Pilecki deliberately wandered into the streets during a crackdown by the Germans. He was captured along with 2,000 innocents. After a few days of tourture, Pilecki was transferred to the Auschwitz concentration camp.The mission has begun. There was no turning back for Pilecki.
The Mission That Exposed Auschwitz
Upon entering Auschwitz, he was assigned "#4859." He was now able to collect evidence on the horrific conditions of the German camps, but was forced to withstand treatment that caused millions to perish. Pilecki was stricken with pneumonia, but survived the sickness. After defeating pneumonia, he organized an underground organization dubbed the Union of Military Organizations (Związek Organizacji Wojskowej, ZOW). ZOW merged with a few other underground organizations that turned a rag-tag group of prisoners into an espionage team tasked with exposing the camp. ZOW's tasks were to improve inmate morale, set up intelligence networks, distribute rations and equipment to members, provide news from outside, and train detachments for a possible prison overthrow.
In October, 1940, reports finally reached Warsaw. In March, 1941, Pilecki's personal reports made it to Britain. He had hoped Allied forces and the Home Army would stage a liberation attack on the camp, but such attacks were deemed impossible against the overwhelming German forces. The Gestapo upped their efforts to eliminate ZOW members from the camp and succeeded by executing many members.
Pilecki decided it was necessary to escape the camp and personally relay his reports to the Home Army and Allied nations. Pilecki was assigned to a bakery and worked the night shift. He and two other comrades overpowered a guard, cut the communication lines, disguised themselves in SS uniforms, and escaped using an officer's car along with several documents. The escape was truly remarkable and unbelievably daring.
After several days, he eventually made contact with the Home Army. Pilecki joined the Home Army's intelligence department and presented his reports. Britain refused air support and the Russians showed no interest in freeing the prisoners, but his reports helped convince the U.S. of Nazi atrocities.
The Warsaw Uprising first began on August 1, 1944. Pilecki decided to join Kedyw's Chobry II group, but concealed his identity and past military history. He fought as a mere private until his superiors were severely hampered by Nazi aggression. He then exposed his identity and accepted command. Pelcki and his forces held a fortified area referred to as the "Great Bastion of Warsaw." The stronghold created many difficulties for German supply lines, and held for two weeks against fierce opposition. Pilecki accepted the inevitable truth that the Germans would soon overtake the area. He stashed away some weapons in a private apartment and went into seclusion. He was eventually captured and taken to the Łambinowice and Murnau prisons.
Escape and Return to Communist Poland
On July 9, 1945, Pilecki was liberated from the POW camp. He then joined the 2nd Polish Corps stationed in Italy. He began writing a monograph about Auschwitz while stationed there. In October, 1945, he would return to Poland with another false identity in attempt to gather intelligence for the exiled government. The government-in-exile announced a liberation was extremely unlikely, and any resistance forces and civilians should flee to the east to avoid Soviet persecution.
Pilecki's cover was eventually blown, and he was ordered to leave the country. Instead of leaving, he began collecting evidence of Soviet atrocities and persecution of Poles. He soon discovered the harsh Soviet gulags. The Gulag was recognized as a major instrument of political repression in the Soviet Union.
Arrest and Execution
Pilecki was arrested in Poland by the Ministry of Public Security. The organization was a secret police force of the new communist government that was tasked with eliminating anti-communist opposition and undercover operatives. He was interrogated by several men who were notorious for their savage approaches to interrogation.
Pilecki refused to spill sensitive information on other prisoners and undercover operatives. On March 3, 1948, a testimony began against Pilecki which was presented by a future Polish prime minister, Józef Cyrankiewicz. Jozef was an Auschwitz survivor, but accused Pilecki of illegal crossing over borders, use of forged documents, not enlisting with the military, carrying illegal arms, espionage, and attempted assassinations against members of the Ministry of Public Security. Pilecki denied the espionage and attempted assassination charges, but pleaded guilty to the other charges.
Pilecki, along with three other comrades, were sentenced to death. On May 25th, 1948, Pilecki was executed at the Warsaw Mokotów Prison by Staff Sergeant Piotr Śmietański, who was nicknamed by prisoners as the "Butcher of Mokotow Prison." Pilecki's grave site was never revealed by the communist regime.
Merits & Awards
A symbolic gravestone was built in his memory at Ostrowa Mazowiecka Cemetery after the fall of Communist Poland. In 2003, those involved with Pilecki's murder were charged with complicity. Pilecki and his fellow comrades were politically rehabilitated in 1990.
Pilecki received the Order of Polonia Restituta in 1995. The Order is one of the highest decorations for military and civilian accomplishments.
In 2006, he received the Order of the White Eagle - the highest decoration a military member or civilian can achieve.