One of World War II’s greatest heroes was almost forgotten | Abroad

One of World War II’s greatest heroes was almost forgotten | Abroad
One of World War II’s greatest heroes was almost forgotten | Abroad

Poland today commemorates war hero Witold Pilecki, who died 75 years ago. He voluntarily allowed himself to be captured by the Nazis during World War II to expose the horrors of Auschwitz. After the war, this did not result in a statue, but an execution. “For decades he has not existed in the collective memory of Poland.”

Pilecki wordt in mei 1901 geboren in het toenmalige Russische Rijk. Al op jonge leeftijd raakt zijn nationalistische kant geprikkeld. Als Polen na de Eerste Wereldoorlog in ere wordt hersteld, dreigt de Sovjet-Unie de gebieden alsnog te annexeren. Pilecki verzet zich daartegen.

Het kenmerkt Pilecki, die uitgroeit tot een van de fascinerendste verzetsstrijders in de Poolse historie. In zijn 47-jarig bestaan maakt hij beide wereldoorlogen en de Pools-Russische Oorlog mee.

Bij de start van de Tweede Wereldoorlog wordt opnieuw een beroep op Pilecki gedaan. Als cavalerieofficier vecht hij tegen de Duitsers die Polen binnenvallen. Maar Polen valt na een maand. De twee militaire brigades waarin hij dient worden vrijwel volledig vernietigd. Van de weinige overlevenden slaat een groot deel op de vlucht.

Pilecki blijft. Hij voegt zich bij het ondergrondse verzet tegen de Duitse bezetters. In die groepering ontstaat het idee om in Duitse concentratiekampen te spioneren. Over die kampen is dan nog relatief weinig bekend. “Maar Pilecki wist dat hij zijn leven op het spel zette”, zegt cultuurhistoricus Iwona Gusc tegen

Witold Pilecki in de gevangeniskleding van Auschwitz.

Almost three years voluntarily in Auschwitz

Pilecki, father of two children, volunteers. “He knew exactly when and where raids were organized,” says Gusc. “He made sure he was in that neighborhood then, so he was arrested with the masses.”

In September 1940 he arrives in Auschwitz, in the main part occupied by the Germans Stammlager was named. Several dozen fellow prisoners are beaten to death on the spot. Others are warned that they won’t last long.

Pilecki eventually stays there for almost a thousand days. In the camp he has to keep the morale of Polish political prisoners high and record the situation in the camp. He does this by smuggling letters out through prisoners.

Bomb Auschwitz. Even if everyone dies in the process.

Witold Pilecki, spy in the concentration camp

His findings are bundled in a report that offers the Allies for the first time an insight into the gruesome crimes committed by the Nazis. His first message is spot on. “Bomb Auschwitz,” quotes The Washington Post. “Even if everyone here dies. The conditions are appalling.”

Partly due to the reports of Pilecki and resistance fighters such as Jan Karski, an increasingly better picture of the mass genocide emerges in the course of the war. “Jews are brought to Eastern Europe under terrible conditions from all occupied countries,” said the British Foreign Secretary at the end of 1942.

“People slowly work themselves to death. The weak are starved to death or deliberately killed in mass executions. The number of victims is probably in the hundreds of thousands: all completely innocent men, women and children.”

He has conducted research in inhumane conditions.

Iwona Gusc, cultural historian

During his three years in Auschwitz, Pilecki sets up an underground organization that tries to help prisoners. In 1942, his organization manages to reach the outside world via a handmade radio transmitter. This while the members themselves are also exposed to the atrocities in the concentration camp: they are starved and subjected to hard work.

“He’s done research in inhumane conditions,” says Gusc. “And as far as we know, Pilecki was always incredibly empathetic to others. He clearly showed that he was unbiased in terms of ethnic background. He saw the human tragedy.”

The debate over whether bombing would have been the right approach will probably never be settled. During his years in Auschwitz, Pilecki continues to hope for outside help. In 1943 he finally abandons that hope and decides to escape. A job outside the camp boundaries offers him that opportunity.

Pilecki fights in Warsaw Uprising

Pilecki resurfaces a year later. Then at the famous Warsaw Uprising. The Polish resistance army tries to liberate the Polish capital from the German occupiers.

The resistance fighters lose. Tens of thousands are killed or injured and Warsaw is almost completely destroyed. Pilecki is imprisoned in a camp for Polish prisoners of war. There he is liberated by the Americans a year later.

But after the end of the Second World War, the turmoil in Poland is not over yet. The Soviet Union wants to tighten its grip on the country. To Pilecki’s disgust, the deposed Polish government does not return.

“A civil war was raging in Poland. A communist regime had not yet been installed, but eventually managed to seize power. In that intervening period – until 1947 – Polish groups tried to oppose that regime. Pilecki’s group too,” explains Gusc .

From war hero to enemy of the state

Pilecki sets up an espionage network, through which he continues to share information with the deposed Polish government. “But when the secret police got going, the communist regime also started to persecute political opponents,” says Gusc. “State propaganda portrayed him as an enemy of the state.”

The resistance hero is condemned by the regime and brutally tortured. He was finally executed on May 25, 1948. All documents describing his heroic deeds are tucked away in a private archive. History is erased.

“There was even censorship on the use of his name,” says Gusc. Partly for this reason, Pilecki’s story is not widely known internationally, she suspects. “How can it be picked up internationally if it doesn’t make the history books domestically?”

In the nineties, Pilecki still gets the credit he deserves. The communist regime falls and under the new regime the Polish war archives are broken open. War heroes such as Pilecki still receive the awards posthumously. Among other things, Pilecki is admitted to the Order of the White Eagle, the highest Polish decoration.

Since then, countless institutions, streets and monuments have been named after him. “Everyone now sees that he was wrongly convicted and tortured. He was a kind of forgotten hero. His contributions to the underground resistance were not well retold. If that had been done immediately, he would have received medals immediately.”

Familie van Pilecki is uit op schadevergoeding

  • In november vorig jaar stapte Pilecki’s zoon naar de rechter om een vergoeding te krijgen voor de arrestatie en executie van zijn vader. De familie eist bijna 6 miljoen dollar.
  • Gusc: “Ook zijn familie heeft een lastig leven gehad. Ze werden gezien als vijand, want hun naam was besmet.”

The article is in Dutch

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