/ Dan Lewis / 6 am Fri, Aug 15 2014
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  • Inside job: the story of Witold Pileki, leader of the Secret Polish Army

    Inside job: the story of Witold Pileki, leader of the Secret Polish Army

    Unknown to most of the world until the late '80s, Witold Pilecki was a leader of the Secret Polish Army. Dan Lewis on an all-round badass.

    With their homeland occupied, the underground band of freedom fighters had few options left. The ragtag band of the resistance — this group, at least — numbered only 8,000 (with arms for only half of them), a paltry sum compared to the heavily armed platoons patrolling their streets. With few options remaining, one of them came up with an idea: get arrested. If he did, he’d almost certainly be sent to the large prison in the area. The enemy had been transporting prisoners there by the trainload for months now. From the inside, he surmised, he could begin a prison uprising, overthrow the guards, and add the manpower of tens of thousands more to the resistance’s total.

    The man’s name was Witold Pilecki. He was a leader in the Tajna Armia Polska (“TAP”) — the Secret Polish Army — in 1940. The prison he successfully entered was Auschwitz.

    In mid-1940, Pilecki proffered his plan to TAP, and the organization approved. They pieced together a set of forged documents under the name Tomasz Serafinksi. On September 19, 1940, the plan went into action. That day, the Gestapo arrested 2,000 Poles in a lapanka — a roundup of innocent people who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Pilecki made sure he was one of those 2,000, and, after two days of interrogation-by-torture, was sent to Auschwitz. His mug shot from there is above.

    At the time, no one knew (or believed) that the Nazis were systematically murdering Jews and others in concentration camps such as Auschwitz. Pilecki and TAP were no exception. But Pilecki’s ability to infiltrate the camp began to change that. He managed to organize a small resistance group within the death camp, focusing mostly on increasing morale — any attempts to forcibly resist the Nazis would have certainly failed. Similarly, his ability to communicate with those outside of Auschwitz’s walls was limited, to say the least. So Pilecki did what few others were able to do: he broke out.

    On the night of April 26, 1943, he and two others were assigned to work at a bakery located outside of the main fence. The three men overpowered the guards, cut the phone line, and Pilecki made his way to Warsaw — a trip which took four months. With him, Pilecki carried a trove of official documents he stole from the Germans; these documents and the experience of those he met in Auschwitz became a 100-page report detailing the horrors of the Nazi death camp.

    After the war, Pilecki turned his attention to communism; he was a Pole-in-exile hoping to remove Poland from communist rule. He returned to Poland in late 1945, aiming to set up an anti-communist intelligence network, but his fake identity was compromised the next July. Rather than flee, Pilecki remained in Poland collecting information demonstrating the Soviets’ inhumane practices. This dedication to the cause would prove fatal. In May of 1947, he was arrested and, after a sham trial, was convicted of forgery, espionage, and a laundry list of other crimes against the Polish state. He was executed on May 25, 1948.

    Pilecki’s heroism was mostly unknown until 1989. The communist Polish government kept his life and history under wraps; only when the Iron Curtain began to dissolve were Pilecki’s life acknowledged and his feats revealed.

    Bonus fact: During the Holocaust, only about 800 people tried to escape from Auschwitz, even though an estimated 1.1 million prisoners were murdered there. Escaping from the concentration camp was not a simple task — only about 140 would-be escapees were successful — but that was not why the number of attempts is so low. According to British historian Laurence Rees, if a person escaped from Auschwitz, the Nazis would exact retribution on the escapee’s prison block mates, picking ten at random and starving them to death.

    From the Archives: The Two Soviets Who Saved the World: Two more unsung heroes of the 20th century.

    Related:Auschwitz: A New History” by Laurence Rees. 39 reviews, 4.5 stars. Available on Kindle.

    This article was first posted at nowiknow.com.


    Notable Replies

    1. Looking forward to reading this. Most people don't know Poland actually maintained a government in exile during the Nazi occupation. My Ex's grandfather was in the Polish Home Army - which I believe is a sister group.

      He was captured and either escaped or was let go 3 times by the Nazis. He was gone from his family for months at a time. He was an engineer by trade and did fun things like blow up bridges. They have a picture of him getting the Polish equivalent to the National Medal of Honor from Lech Walesa.

      When Poland got fucked over by the allies and given to the Soviets, he spent a few years in prison because he wouldn't sign papers claiming loyalty to the Communist Party.

      My MiL is extremely proud of him. I wish I had met him.

    2. dobby says:

      Resistance to Nazis is great but unfortunately the enemy of my enemy is not always my friend. Some Polish guerrillas carried out a secondary goal of persecuting any unarmed Jews they were able to find, even after the German surrender they perpetrated many murderous attacks against the returning human skeletons to prevent them from returning to their homes that Poles wanted to keep.
      The quick research I did shows that Witold Pilecki was the first one to expose Aushwitz, he was a good guy when the allies could not care less about stopping the death machine to divert a single bomber on a single day to damage the rail lines.

    3. bbucko says:

      Some Polish guerrillas killed Jews but numerous Poles helped Jews by hiding them in the cellars, barns and other secret places. And they paid great price for this: when discovered by Nazis whole families (sometimes whole villages) were shot, burned or hanged.

      BTW. if you want to see how soviets killed Rotmistrz Pilecki using some made-up excuses during a show trial you can watch this film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2elOo6jii4. Unfortunately it's only in Polish.

    4. Yes. Remember too the reason so many Jews were in Poland was because they were the only country in Europe that allowed them in.

      The Poles hate the Soviets as much if not more so than the Nazis. At one point the Home Army fought the Soviets and the Nazis. They were killing Poles in 1940.

      There is a really good film on the Katyn massacre on youtube. I have only watched a clip of it, and it was pretty hard to watch. Schindlers List hard.

      Thanks to my MiL I read a lot on Polish history. I think their perseverance and love of freedom is inspiring. Their people are probably the biggest supporter in Europe of the US, and we basically ignore them. I have a friend who was in Iraq and hooked up with a GROM unit. They flipped out when they saw a polish flag on his ruck sack, and adopted him as their own. They got a real raw deal after WWII. The American ambassador wrote a book on it titled, "I saw Poland Betrayed".

    5. All I know is that after I saw my first dozen swastikas decorating the walls of Warsaw, I decided never to visit Poland again. Freaked me completely out. Maybe this man isn't venerated enough by his own people.

    Continue the discussion bbs.boingboing.net

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