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On This Day: Witold Pilecki Allows Himself to Be Captured by the Nazis

Last updated: February 13, 2023

On Sept. 19, 1940, Polish resistance member Witold Pilecki deliberately had himself arrested and sent to Auschwitz, where he spent two years supplying Allied forces with information about the concentration camp.

Pilecki Enters Auschwitz

Witold Pilecki was a dedicated member of the Polish resistance, formed in the wake of Germany’s defeat of the Polish army in the fall of 1939. He was a co-founder of the Polish Secret Army, later part of the Home Army.

He decided to infiltrate the Auschwitz concentration camp, where he could gather intelligence and organize a resistance movement within the camp. “I was haunted by a simple idea: to agitate the minds, to stir the mass to an action,” he wrote in a report in 1945.

On Sept. 19, he inserted himself into a group of captives with false papers identifying him as “Tomasz Serafinski.” Along with 2,000 other prisoners, he was herded onto a train and taken to Auschwitz, arriving the night on Sept. 21.

“In my memories I would call that place the moment in which I had done with everything what had existed on Earth so far, and began something which was probably somewhere outside me,” he wrote.

Actions in Auschwitz

Events in Polish History

The Auschwitz camp had been opened in June 1940. At the time of Pilecki’s arrival, it primarily held Polish resistance fighters and intellectuals, though there was also a significant numbers of Jews and Soviet POWs.

His account of entering Auschwitz is harrowing: “Here our hair of head and body were cut off, and we were slightly sprinkled by cold water. I got a blow in my jaw with a heavy rod. I spat out my two teeth. Bleeding began. From that moment we became mere numbers — I wore the number 4859.”

Pilecki soon established the Union of Military Organizations, a network of five-man cells working toward rebellion. Within a month, Pilecki was smuggling out intelligence reports detailing conditions inside the camp.

He confirmed in 1941 that the Nazis were intent on exterminating Jews, and the following year his organization discovered the gas chambers. His reports reached Britain and the United States, serving as the most detailed source on the inner working of the concentration camps.

Pilecki pressured his senior officers in the Home Army to unite all the resistance movements in Auschwitz and prepare an uprising. The merger was achieved in late 1941, and the prisoners were ready to revolt if the Germans decided to destroy the camp, but that moment did not come.

In the spring of 1943, the Nazi SS began arresting high-level resistance officers within the camp. Realizing that the chance of a revolt was diminishing, Pilecki decided to escape.

Late on the night of April 26, Pilecki and two members of his organization took advantage of an off-camp assignment and escaped from the bakery where they were working. After a few days of travel, all three made it safely to the base of a Home Army unit.

Pilecki tried to convince the Home Army and other Allied forces to attack the camp and free the prisoners, but the resistance leadership determined that an attack on Auschwitz would be futile and likely end in the slaughter of many prisoners.

In August 1944, the Home Army launched a rebellion against German troops in Warsaw. Pilecki, who had joined an underground anti-communist movement, initially took part in the Warsaw Uprising anonymously. However, as the fighting dragged on, he soon revealed himself and took a leadership role.

The Warsaw Uprising was crushed in early October and Pilecki was arrested. He spent the remainder of the war in a German POW camp until being liberated on July 9, 1945.

Arrest and Execution

Sources in this Story

  • Diapositive Information Service: Witold Pilecki
  • Witold Pilecki’s Auschwitz Report: Witold’s Report
  • NPR: Meet the Man Who Sneaked Into Auschwitz
  • Institute of National Remembrance: Rotamaster Wiltold Pilecki
  • Jewish Virtual Library: Witold Pilecki
  • Polish Resistance Home Army (AK) Museum: Home Army (AK) History
  • Warsaw Uprising 1944: Timeline
  • The Times of London: Polish Left-Wing Relations

During Pilecki’s time in the POW camp, the Soviets had driven the Nazis from Poland and taken control of the government. Pilecki returned to Poland in September 1945 to gather intelligence on the Communist government, trying to rebuild his networks as the Communists cracked down on resistance movements.

Pilecki was arrested by the Communist Polish police on May 8, 1947. He was brutally tortured by interrogators for six months before signing a statement confessing to conspiring against the government.

Accused of espionage, among other crimes, he was found guilty in a show trial and sentenced to death. He was executed on May 25, 1948.

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