Witold Pilecki: soldier, hero, patriot


Amid bitter controversy over its World War II history, Poland will on Friday commemorate the 70th anniversary of the death of Captain Witold Pilecki, one of the country’s most celebrated heroes.

Famous for voluntarily becoming a prisoner of the Auschwitz concentration camp, Cpt Pilecki was executed in Warsaw by the Stalinist political police after months of torture and a trial on exaggerated charges of clandestine armed resistance against the Communist regime.

As one of the best-placed witnesses to the annihilation of the European Jewry perpetrated by the German occupying authorities and later a victim of Communist oppression, Pilecki (often referred to as rotmistrz Pilecki after his officer’s rank, the Polish cavalry equivalent of lieutenant, though he was promoted to captain in 1944) is central to the Polish perception of the country’s 20th century history.

The Law and Justice (PiS) government caused a global controversy earlier this year by pushing through parliament a law to criminalise “falsely accusing the Polish nation of participation” in Nazi crimes. Condemned by Israel, the law provoked a worldwide backlash and prompted some prominent Jewish politicians to dismiss it as an attempt at whitewashing Polish history.

Rotmistrz Pilecki serves in the eyes of the Polish public opinion as one of the best counterexamples to such portrayal of the country’s past. After deliberately falling into German hands on 19 September 1940, he was sent to Auschwitz and there organised a resistance movement among the camp’s prisoners which numbered as many as 1,000 members.

With the number 4859 tattooed on his forearm, indicating his order of arrival out of well over a million prisoners, he witnessed the transformation of Auschwitz from a relatively small prison camp primarily for "Aryans" (that is, non-Jewish Poles - mainly political prisoners) to a chief instrument in the genocide of Jews (and Roma and Sinti). His reports, smuggled out of Auschwitz with prisoners’ laundry, were among the first testimonies to the horrors of the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” though the Allied authorities tended to dismiss them as grotesque exaggerations.

Pilecki escaped Auschwitz after more than 18 months on the night of 26 to 17 April 1942. He remained active in the resistance and was again captured by the Germans after the failure of the Warsaw Uprising in the summer of 1944. Sent to a prisoner of war (POW) camp in Bavaria, he was liberated by the US army and joined the Polish troops embedded in the British occupying forces.

Sent back to Poland in December 1945 to organise clandestine resistance to the Soviet-imposed government, Pilecki organised a network of informers within the Communist security apparatus and the armed forces. Arrested in May 1947, Pilecki was tried for spying for the benefit of foreign intelligence and conspiring to assassinate members of the Communist establishment. Pilecki denied any violent intentions and claimed his activities were in the service of the legal Polish government in exile rather than foreign intelligence. Found guilty and sentenced to death, he was shot in the back of the head in the small hours of 25 May 1948.

While his death sentence was annulled in 1990, Pilecki remained relatively obscure until the 2000s. He was awarded the country’s highest order, the Order of the White Eagle in 2006 by the then president, Lech Kaczyński.