Auschwitz Redemption. The man who escaped from hell

Witold Pilecki's sense of humour was undimmed even in the camp: "If you do not get me out of here, I'll lose the rest of my strength fighting the lice. In my present condition, I am fast approaching the chimney of the crematorium," he wrote to the camp doctor, Dr. Władysław Dering.

He was threatened with unmasking, transfer to another camp in Germany, or a relapse into typhus, all of which could have ended with a phenol injection by a medic from SS. He was also discouraged because the Polish underground state did not respond to the information about what was going on behind the wires that he had passed on to Warsaw a year earlier. Witold Pilecki took advantage of the relaxation of Auschwitz's surveillance over the Easter holidays to escape from the camp with two colleagues on the night of April 26-27, 1943. "On the way out I had fewer teeth than when I arrived here and a broken sternum. I paid very cheaply for such a time in this 'sanatorium'" - recalled one of the greatest heroes of World War II later.

And this was neither the first nor the only escape from the camp. In the entire history of the camp, about 150 successful escapes are documented, although there could have been as many as 900 people who made such an attempt.

Prisoner number 4859

In the early fall of 1940, the Germans were already holding several thousand prisoners at Auschwitz, a concentration camp that was then exclusively for Poles. Most of them were people who were considered dangerous for political reasons or who had been captured by Hungarian and Slovak border guards when they tried to join the Polish army in France. Pilecki, a second lieutenant in the Polish Cavalry, a participant in the Polish-Soviet War and the 1939 War of Defense, was a member of one of the first underground organisations, the Polish Secret Army, which brought together pre-war officers.

It is widely believed that Pilecki was "the Auschwitz volunteer". Formally, this was indeed the case - he volunteered for the task of infiltrating the camp, organising a conspiratorial network there, and eventually writing a report on the criminal actions of the Germans. The title of Jack Fairweather's book, "The Volunteer '', refers to this fact. Except that the idea probably did not come from Pilecki himself, but someone else came up with this thought of sending him on what was essentially a suicidal mission . The head of the Polish Secret Army, Mjr Jan Wlodarkiewicz, recommended him to General Stefan Rowecki, saying that he was the only officer who could get through to Auschwitz. Pilecki suspected that suggesting him as a candidate for the job might have been part of a personnel gambit within the organisation, but of course refusal would not have occurred to him.

Since the Germans were conducting regular roundups in Warsaw at that time, he allowed himself to be captured during one of them and was imprisoned in Auschwitz on September 22, 1940, with the number 4859. He ended up in a place where Schutzhaftlagerfuehrer Karl Fritzsch greeted the new arrivals with the words, "You have not come here to a sanatorium, but to a German concentration camp from which there is no other exit than through the chimney."

The smoke was already coming from the first crematorium built before the decision was made to send the Jews there (this decision was made two years later, in January 1942, at The Wannsee Conference). The crematorium was built in August 1940 and was delivered and installed by the German company Topf und Söhne from Erfurt. The world did not know what the Germans were up to, and a Polish officer was to be the first to report it.

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At Auschwitz, prisoners faced death on a daily basis, mostly due to disease and lack of medical care. They could have been shot without warning by the SS men who guarded them 24 hours a day from watch towers. They also could have been selected for extermination by the guards. Germans and Austrians as well as representatives of the German minority from pre-war Poland or Czechoslovakia were recruited for the units of the camp SS, usually from the lower social classes.

Pilecki spent 947 days in Auschwitz. It was already an extraordinary achievement to survive in these inhuman conditions, and the dream of getting out of the camp seemed to be a pipe dream. However, we are talking about an extraordinary man. His organisational skills, bravery, and social skills are material for another story. At this point, it should suffice to recall that he created an unprecedented network in the camp's underground by founding a Union of Military Organization based on the system known as "Fives" It was a structure that was almost impossible for the camp's Gestapo to crack. The organisation helped and protected the prisoners by eliminating the most brutal kapos or confidants whenever possible (they were infected with typhus, thus condemned to extermination, false denunciations were written against them ).

  Witold Pilecki's sense of humour was undimmed even in the camp: "If you do not get me out of here, I'll lose the rest of my strength fighting the lice. In my present condition, I am rapidly approaching the chimney of the crematorium," he wrote to the camp doctor, Dr. Władysław Dering.

Two hundred for one

The first German camp was established in the summer of 1940 in the Polish town of Oswiecim. And immediately there were daredevils who tried to escape from there.

Usually we associate concentration camps with a place surrounded by barbed wire and with high-voltage electricity running through it. But that was not all, there were other security measures. - Concrete slabs were buried under the barbed wire so that the prisoners could not dig a tunnel. In addition, a three-metre-high fence made of concrete slabs was erected along the road that ran past the Auschwitz main camp, as Dr. Adam Cyra of the Auschwitz Museum, author of the book "Rotmistrz Pilecki," explained in an interview with TVP Weekly.

The camp also included auxiliary farms and facilities outside the barracks which created more convenient conditions for prisoners' escape.

- The first prisoner to escape from the camp was Tadeusz Wiejowski, Adam Cyra recounts. - He managed to escape thanks to the help of Polish workers who worked at the construction site. They too were later imprisoned in the camp, and only one of them survived the war. After the fugitive disappeared, the Germans ordered a 20-hour roll call that lasted from 6pm to 2am the next day. During this roll call, an ailing Polish Jew named Dawid Wongczewski died of exhaustion. He is the first documented fatality of Auschwitz, a place where more than a million people were murdered during the war. Wiejowski himself fell into the hands of the Gestapo a year later and was executed.

The death of a single prisoner murdered outside the camp is part of the drama, but much worse were the consequences suffered by others - the families of those who escaped and fellow prisoners who remained behind the wires. Collective responsibility was the most important element of the Nazi system for maintaining order.
Witold Pilecki became an Auschwitz prisoner on September 22, 1940. He was given the number 4859. photo: http://base.auschwitz.org/wiezien.php?lang=pl&ok=osoba&id_osoba=178609
The most famous and symbolic story from Auschwitz is the death of Polish Franciscan priest Maximilian Kolbe in August 1941. After one prisoner escaped, the Germans sentenced ten other prisoners from the same block to death by starvation. Among them was the pre-war sergeant Franciszek Gajowniczek, for whom the Franciscan gave his life.

When a guard was killed during an escape, the prisoners suffered far worse consequences. - In June 1942, three escapees killed an SS man. The repression was extremely cruel," says Dr. Cyra. - Workers who happened to be working nearby were shot, then 200 camp inmates and 10 other hostages chosen from among Auschwitz residents. Then family members of the escapees were brought to the camp and hanged in full view of everyone.

A similar fate befell the families of the authors of the most spectacular escape in the history of Auschwitz. In the summer of 1942, four prisoners - 23-year-old Kazimierz Piechowski, who spoke fluent German, Ukrainian Eugeniusz Bendera, priest Jozef Lempart, and 21-year-old Warsaw scout Stanislaw Jaster - drove through the camp gate in a Steyr vehicle as if nothing unusual had happened.

Although they did not kill any of the SS men, they left the camp wearing the uniforms of German officers and, to make matters worse, stole the commandant's car. They wore the SS uniforms because earlier, as a fictitious work commando, they got into the warehouse with equipment and clothing. It is important to note that Jaster was Pilecki's collaborator in the Resistance Movement and was supposed to pass information from "Witold" to Warsaw. Unfortunately, his family had to pay dearly for this act of bravery. The Gestapo quickly showed up at Jaster's parents' home in Warsaw. Both were deported to Auschwitz, where they died. Jaster later joined the "Osa"-"Kosa 30" unit of the Home Army headquarters in Warsaw and died under circumstances that remain unexplained to this day.

The escape of the Auschwitz prisoners would not have been possible without the help of the inhabitants of Oświęcim and the support provided by the structures of the Polish underground state in the vicinity of Oświęcim, even if this help often ended tragically. Perhaps the most drastic example is the case of the provocation staged by the camp's Gestapo. A substitute prisoner named Mieczyslaw Mutka escaped from Auschwitz wearing a SS uniform. He was taken in by soldiers of the Home Army. This enabled the Germans to reach the local Polish commanders and arrest them. The prisoners were executed at the Death Wall. In another incident, after torture, a captured prisoner handed over a farmer who helped him. This was Wawrzyniec Kulig from Poreba Wielka, who is now considered a hero. These two were also executed by the Germans at the Death Wall.

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These circumstances made Pilecki's opportunities much more difficult. For as early as 1942 he was thinking of going to Warsaw and requesting military action from the Home Army in Auschwitz. By that time, the concentration camp had already become a mass extermination camp, and prisoner transports were arriving from all over Europe.

Pilecki assumed that it would be possible to instigate an uprising of the prisoners in the camp and liberate it with the support of Home Army units. However, the commander of the Home Army at that time, General Stefan Rowecki "Grot", and the top leadership of the headquarters did not fully consider this idea at any time. For one thing, the armament of the several thousand-strong SS garrison guarding the camp exceeded the capabilities of the underground many times over; for another, there were large SS and Wehrmacht garrisons in nearby Upper Silesia. Even if several tens of thousands of people could be liberated, there was no solution for where they should hide and how they should survive.

In 1943, feigning illness, Pilecki miraculously escaped transport to Mauthausen, where up to seven thousand prisoners were sent. He risked a lot because the Germans could just as well have qualified him for extermination.

During this time, another escape attempt from the camp took place. Four prisoners managed to get out of the camp and stole documents from the Labour Department about the execution and death of prisoners. Unfortunately, they quickly fell into the hands of the Germans, and one of them, Boleslaw Kuczbara, who knew Pilecki well, ended up in Pawiak for interrogation. Pilecki learned of his interrogation when a new transport of prisoners arrived from Warsaw. "Witold" did not trust Kuczbara and assumed that the Germans would get him sooner or later.

This accelerated the decision to escape. Another argument was that the entire conspiratorial network that had been built up since 1940 - after the executions of collaborators and the transfer of others to German camps - had thinned out. When Pilecki communicated his decision to the higher-ranking Captain Stanislaw Machowski, the latter asked him, "Can you come and go from Auschwitz like this whenever you want?" "You can" - Pilecki answered.

A favourable opportunity for escape was the Easter holidays, as this meant a reduced staffing of the camp SS and an alcohol-fueled relaxation of the wardens. A bakery 2 km from the camp was chosen as the place for the escape. Pilecki made sure in advance that he was assigned there by forging a signature on the decision of Hauptsturmfuehrer Franz Hoessler.

At night, thanks to the forged key, Pilecki, together with his fellow prisoners Edward Ciesielski and Jan Redzej, managed to pass through the iron door to freedom. They reached the Soła River, which flows into the Vistula and continued east to the border. Pilecki barely made it out alive on May 1 in the Niepołomice forest when he was shot by a German patrol.

And when he reached the Home Army unit in Bochnia, something unheard of happened... he met Tomasz Serafiński. Pilecki had been using the name Tomasz Serafiński since the beginning of the underground activity, because he had received such documents from another officer in Warsaw. And the man he met was that very officer. Unfortunately, this had its consequences.

The real Serafiński was later arrested and intensely interrogated in a prison on Montelupich Street in Krakow. The Germans thought he was a refugee from Auschwitz. They released him when they discovered the mistake. A tattoo with a number was missing on his arm.

After unsuccessfully trying to convince the Home Army command in Krakow to attack the camp, Pilecki decided at that time to ask for it in Warsaw. There he began to write a report for the headquarters.

The communists have completed the job

One of the first versions of the report was buried in the Bielany district of Warsaw. During the communist era, Pilecki's report, entitled "Report W," which he handed over in the fall of 1943, was kept in the collection of the Central Archives of the Polish United Workers' Party.
The route of Witold Pilecki's escape from Auschwitz on a 1943 GG map (source map polona). Infographic by Anna Tybel-Chmielewska/TVP
Later - in Italy in 1945 - a second report was written that was more extensive but, like the first, posed a problem for historians. Pilecki used a numerical code to provide greater security for all participants in the camp conspiracy. The key to this was not written down anywhere and was only discovered during postwar research by the head of the Home Army security department, Jozef Garlinski, also an Auschwitz prisoner. An earlier report from 1943, on the other hand, was deciphered by Dr. Cyra with the help of materials seized by the Secret Police from Pilecki during his arrest in 1947.

The subsequent fate of Rotmistrz Pilecki is essentially known. It is worth mentioning, however, that during the Warsaw Uprising, probably for the first time, he arbitrarily disobeyed an order of his command when, as an important Kedyw officer charged with forming the "NIE" organisation, he joined the fight on the city streets. After the uprising, he was sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Murnau and later, after the liberation by the Americans, joined the II Corps of General Anders.

There he received another and, as it turned out, his last assignment. He was to do intelligence work on the situation in Communist-controlled Poland. In 1947 he fell into the hands of the Secret Police and was sentenced to death after an extremely brutal investigation and torture in which his collarbones were broken and his fingernails torn off.

An interesting aspect of this story is the inaction of Jozef Cyrankiewicz, also a former participant in the Auschwitz conspiracy (he was sent to the camp in 1942) and the Prime Minister of the communist government after the war. The case is explained by Dr. Cyra. According to him, Cyrankiewicz belonged to another organisation founded by members of the Polish Socialist Party, moreover, he only associated the name "Serafiński". After the war, when he wanted to contact Tomasz Serafiński from Auschwitz, he met the real Serafiński in Krakow. So, according to Cyra, he could not know that the heroic founder of the organisation was Witold Pilecki, who was accused of treason.

Be that as it may, Pilecki's pardon was not granted. He was killed by a shot to the back of the head in prison in Mokotow on May 25, 1948. The body was not released to the family, and to this day it is not known where it was buried.

Prof. Władysław Bartoszewski, who was taken to Auschwitz in 1940 on the same transport as Pilecki, said thirty years ago: "Pilecki's wartime fate raises the reflection that in Poland (and almost in the whole world) far too little is known about this chapter in the history of Auschwitz, which began in June 1940 and lasted for more than twenty months, when there were no transports when the Birkenau site had not yet been made the place of mass extermination of Jews - men, women, and children from many countries in Europe."

–Cezary Korycki

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Main photo: Execution wall in the courtyard between blocks 10 and 11 at the Auschwitz camp. Photo: PAP/Jerzy Ochoński
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