US daily lauds Polish war hero Witold Pilecki

Brockell wrote that Pilecki was a soldier of the Polish Underground State who voluntarily went to Auschwitz "to start a resistance." Public domain

The Washington Post on Sunday wrote about Witold Pilecki, the Polish war hero who volunteered to go to Auschwitz and then warned the world about the Nazi death machine, in connection with the 75th liberation anniversary of the Nazi-German Auschwitz death camp.

Gillian Brockell, the author of the article, wrote that Zofia and Andrzej Pilecki discovered in the 1990s that their father was a hero. "As teens in post-war Poland, they had been told he was a traitor and an enemy of the state, and they listened to news reports about his 1948 trial and execution on the school radio," the daily said.

Brockell wrote that Pilecki was a soldier of the Polish Underground State who voluntarily went to Auschwitz "to start a resistance." She added that Pilecki sent secret messages to the Allies who defeated Germany, becoming the first person "to sound the alarm about the true nature of Nazi Germany's largest concentration and extermination camp."

The daily cited facts from Pilecki's life, including those about his birth into an aristocratic Polish farming family in 1901, his participation in the Polish-Soviet War, the September Campaign and the defensive war after Germany's invasion of Poland, as well as his joining the Polish resistance movement.

Former war correspondent Jack Fairweather, author of a book about Pilecki told the Washington Post that "the French resistance is so famous, but in actual fact, over half of all the intelligence from continental Europe to reach London came from the Polish underground."

Pilecki's first big mission was to get arrested and be sent to Auschwitz. On September 18, 1940, he placed himself in the middle of a Gestapo sweep and was sent to the Geman-Nazi camp.

The newspaper noted that "Pilecki was to gather information about conditions inside and organize a resistance cell, perhaps even an uprising. (...) The dangerous mission was voluntary, he was beaten and starving in the camp," Brockell added.

Despite extremely difficult circumstances, Pilecki organised his underground unit. "They formed a network to steal and distribute food and extra clothing, sabotage Nazi plans, hide injured and sick prisoners, and improve morale with a sense of brotherhood and regular news from the outside world," the daily said.

Fairweather said that "with almost a thousand men by 1942, and — barring for one incident with a Gestapo spy — not one of Pilecki's men betrayed each other, in extraordinary circumstances of starvation and violence not one of Pilecki’s men betrayed each other."

The article said that "Pilecki never knew whether his reports reached the Allies, but Fairweather and his researchers were able to track down how they were smuggled across Europe to the highest levels in London."

"Over the next two years, Pilecki continued to send messages to London via risky escapes by his men and notes passed to Polish farmers neighbouring the camp," the daily said, adding that he reported about "the Nazis conducting disgusting medical experiments on patients in the camp hospital."

"The Nazis killed thousands of Soviet POWs in a mass execution. The Nazis were testing a way to gas prisoners en masse. The camp was expanding. Huge trainloads of Jews were being gassed and cremated. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children were being murdered," the newspaper added.

The article's author said that "by spring 1943, it was clear the Allies weren’t going to help the prisoners of Auschwitz. Without any outside help, an uprising would never succeed. Increasingly frail and in danger of being found out, Pilecki decided to escape from the camp."

In 1944, Pilecki fought in the Warsaw Uprising, which Brockell described as "the largest action taken by a European resistance group in World War II." She added that "the Soviets held back their advance so the Nazis could crush the Poles. Then they swooped in and took over."

Poland would spend the next four decades as a communist puppet state behind the Iron Curtain. But Pilecki didn't see much of it. He remained loyal to the idea of a free Polish republic and continued sending messages to British intelligence. He was arrested by communist authorities in 1947, tortured repeatedly and executed as an enemy of the state the following year.

"For a lot of us in the West, we think of May 1945 as the end of the Second World War in Europe, and parades and so on," Fairweather said. "Pilecki's story is a powerful reminder that what happened in Eastern Europe was the Allies gave [Soviet leader Joseph] Stalin a free hand to occupy and subjugate half of continental Europe. And the war didn’t end for so many people," the daily said.

The newspaper added that "Poland would spend the next four decades as a communist puppet state behind the Iron Curtain. But Pilecki didn't see much of it. He remained loyal to the idea of a free Polish republic and continued sending messages to British intelligence. He was arrested by communist authorities in 1947, tortured repeatedly and executed as an enemy of the state the next year."

The Germans established the Auschwitz camp in 1940, initially for the imprisonment of Poles. Auschwitz II-Birkenau was opened two years later and became the main site for the mass extermination of Jews. The Germans killed at least 1.1 million people at Auschwitz, mainly Jews, but also Poles, Roma and Soviet prisoners of war.