On this day, September 19, 1940, Witold Pilecki voluntarily allowed himself to be captured and sent to Auschwitz in order to smuggle out information and start a resistance.
As the author of Witold's Report, the first intelligence report on Auschwitz concentration camp, Pilecki enabled the Polish government-in-exile to convince the Allies that the Holocaust was taking place.
At Auschwitz, while working in various kommandos and surviving pneumonia, Pilecki organized an underground Union of Military Organizations (Związek Organizacji Wojskowej, ZOW). Many smaller underground organizations at Auschwitz eventually merged with ZOW. ZOW's tasks were to improve inmate morale, provide news from outside, distribute extra food and clothing to members, set up intelligence networks and train detachments to take over the camp in the event of liberation.
From October 1940, ZOW sent reports to Warsaw, and beginning in March 1941, Pilecki's reports were being forwarded via the Polish resistance to the British government in London. In 1942, Pilecki's resistance movement was also broadcasting details on the number of arrivals and deaths in the camp and the inmates' conditions using a radio transmitter that was built by camp inmates. The secret radio station, built over seven months using smuggled parts, was broadcasting from the camp until the autumn of 1942, when it was dismantled by Pilecki's men after concerns that the Germans might discover its location.
Pilecki decided to break out of the camp with the hope of convincing Home Army leaders personally that a rescue attempt was a valid option. When he was assigned to a night shift at a camp bakery outside the fence, he and two comrades overpowered a guard, cut the phone line and escaped on the night of 26/27 April 1943, taking with them documents stolen from the Germans.
When the Warsaw Uprising broke out on 1 August 1944, Pilecki fought as a simple private, without revealing his actual rank. Later, as many officers fell, he disclosed his true identity and accepted command. His forces held a fortified area called the "Great Bastion of Warsaw". It was one of the most outlying partisan redoubts and caused considerable difficulties for German supply lines. He held for two weeks in the face of constant attacks by German infantry and armor. On the capitulation of the uprising, Pilecki hid some weapons in a private apartment before being captured. He spent the rest of the war in German prisoner-of-war camps at Łambinowice and Murnau.
Pilecki returned to Poland in October 1945, where he proceeded to organize his intelligence network document Soviet atrocities against the Polish people. On 8 May 1947, he was arrested by the Soviet-puppet Polish Ministry of Public Security. Prior to trial, he was repeatedly tortured. On May 25, 1948, Pilecki was executed at the Mokotów Prison in Warsaw.
Thomas E. Keefe
Assistant Professor of Humanities,