Nothing prepares you for the shock of visiting Birkenau and Auschwitz – even 75 years later, and after movies like “Schindler’s List” and hundreds of books on the subject have documented the Holocaust for all of us to learn from.

The killing of Jews by the Germans is extremely well documented today. They started in 1941 and continued until November 1944, by which time the war was well and truly lost. Yet for most of the War, the Allies were not aware of what was happening, and when they finally did, the conquest of German-occupied Europe received a much higher priority than the rescue of Jews. Nothing much could be done in practical terms until that happened.

Yet one Polish Army officer realised the importance of getting the word out to the British and Americans that something barbaric was happening at Auschwitz, and decided that only an inside view could provide the necessary documentation for the Allied High Command to realise the civilisational importance of what the Germans were doing. That man was Witold Pilecki.

On September 1 1939, Germany invaded Poland. The Polish Army was hopelessly outgunned. A few days before, the German Foreign Minister Joachim Von Ribbentrop and his Soviet counterpart Vyacheslav Molotov had met in Moscow and agreed to the carve up of Poland between the two. On September 17 the USSR invaded Poland and occupied the eastern third while the Germans occupied the Western two-thirds.

Witold Pilecki was a farmer and forestry officer. He volunteered for service and was assigned to the Polish 19th Infantry Division. The fighting was hopelessly one-sided despite the bravery of the Polish Army. When the fighting ended Pilecki shed his army uniform, and became part of the Polish Underground. In 1940, hearing of a new prison camp in Auschwitz (Ozwiecim in Polish) that was torturing and killing Poles, he volunteered to come out of cover, get arrested so that he could be imprisoned in Auschwitz to see what was happening.

A few pictures below to show what he must have seen and experienced.

Birkenau
Photo Courtesy Daya Ravi

Railway trains brought carriages to these sidings, where at the gates, SS and Wehrmacht officers inspected the recent arrivals. Armed guards patrolled the area with German Shepherd dogs at the ready. Orders were shouted as the engines wheezed, releasing steam and smoke.

Railway Carriage used to transport prisoners to Birkenau
Photo Courtesy Daya Ravi

And scores of Jews disembarked from each carriage, squinting into the light, clutching sparse belongings in one hand and holding on desperately to loved ones with the other. They had not eaten well, had not been able to use a proper latrine, and believed they were being re-settled.

Hungarian Jews at the ramp in Birkenau, May/June 1944

The guards separated the obviously infirm, the women and children from the men. The men were inspected by German doctors, and some of the men asked to join the women and children. The old, women and children were marched off towards the “showers” where they were immediately gassed to death. The men were put into work camps for hard labour, draining swamps and clearing land to grow crops for the Reich, working in the new I G Farben factory close by, digging earth for buildings.

Photo Courtesy Daya Ravi

Life in camp was unremittingly hard. At first the camp was intended to be for Poles and other lesser human beings, including Jews. But the real killing started after the German leadership agreed on the Final Solution, sometime in January 1942 at the infamous Wannsee Conference.

A prison building in Birkenau….

Auschwitz and Birkenau were sister camps, and when we talk of Auschwitz we usually include the other camps close by – such as Monowitz, Plaszow (where the events depicted in “Schindler’s List” took place), and nearly forty other sites. Some at farms and some at industrial sites where the inmates were used as slave labour.

And in Auschwitz

The extermination of the lesser mortals started slowly and then increased on an industrial scale. The statistics are astonishing. Of the estimated 1.3 million people sent to Auschwitz, at least 1.1 million died, around 90 percent of them Jews. Approximately one in six Jews killed in the Holocaust died at the camp. To accelerate the rate of extermination the Germans used their legendary efficiency to create an assembly line of killing. Birkenau saw most of the exterminations.

The Crematorium in Auschwitz

The German Army dynamited most of these killing facilities in late 1944 shortly before the Soviet Army arrived.

The Wehrmacht demolished the infamous “showers” in Birkenau in 1944 but enough remains to tell the tale.\
The crematoria in Auschwitz survived the War.

And so he spent three years in conditions of extreme brutality in Auschwitz, organizing an underground there, documenting conditions, assisting in escapes and trying to get the horrors taking place known to the British and Americans. He and other prisoners managed to build a radio. They even managed to carry on the war – by inserting live typhus lice into the pockets of Wehrmacht uniforms so that the wearer would suffer the bite and die of typhus! He made prisoners looking to escape to recite a careful oral history of the camp. However there were no air raids, no commando attacks or any acknowledgement that Pilecki was being heard.

Finally, when he realised the Germans were likely to eliminate him, he himself escaped and resumed being part of the Warsaw Underground in 1944. The German Army was in retreat in Russia. Shortly after, the Soviets pushed the Germans right to the Vistula. The Warsaw Underground saw their chance, and staged an uprising against the Germans. Pilecki fought with great bravery in the uprising and the Underground managed to hold the Germans for 57 days before surrendering. He was again arrested and sent to a camp in Germany.

When the War finally ended the Soviets installed a Communist dictatorship. The Communists began to systematically marginalize and eliminate those members of the Underground who had no Communist sympathies. Witold returned to Poland. There he was arrested by the Communist dictatorship and accused of being a Nazi collaborator. In 1948 he was shot to death after a show trial. His body was thrown into an unknown grave.

When Communist rule in Poland ended in 1991, his heroic story came to light. He was rehabilitated in Polish history.

When describing the trial of Adolf Eichmann – kidnapped from Argentina by the Mossad in 1960 and made to stand trial in Israel – the historian Hannah Arendt remarked that there was nothing sinister about Eichmann – he was not a monster and did not seem fired up with zeal. He was an ordinary man who did some horrible things. She described him as a symbol of “the banality of evil”. She was criticised in Israel for saying this, as it somehow implied evil was ordinary. But she was absolutely right. Survivors of Auschwitz would often say there was no depth that man could not descend to in the right circumstances.

Yet this remarkable man transcended himself and all the limitations of our human condition to try and do something so noble and so self-less. He was 47 when he died.

14 thoughts on “Witold Pilecki

  1. I didn’t know about this Pilecki. Something new to learn every day.

    Yes, Arendt phrased it well. So well that we have to be thankful that evil, which can so easily diffuse among a society, has not become more extensive. It is, in fact, a surprise that we are all here. As Arendt wrote, “The lesson of such stories is simple and within everybody’s grasp. Politically speaking, it is that under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that “it could happen” in most places but it did not happen everywhere. ”

    But then we don’t ever want to become complacent, which is what Sinclair Lewis warned though his “It Can’t Happen Here.” As I remarked in response to your comment at my blog, recent political developments in India and the US show that it is very easy for the right person at the right time to bring out the worst in us!

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    1. Thanks for leaving your usual thoughtful comment!

      I am sure you would have heard of the Stanley Milgram experiment? I first came across this in Arthur Koestler’s “Janus”. If I may repeat the basics of it: A set of volunteers were recruited for an experiment to study the effect of punishment is on a subject’s ability to memorize content. Each volunteer – drawn from diverse backgrounds – was asked to sit at the controls of the experiment. The subject was asked to memorize something. The subject and volunteer were then separated and the subject strapped into a chair. The volunteer was asked to query to subject on the content. Each time the subject made a mistake, the volunteer was asked to administer a small electric shock. The intensity of the shock increased with every additional mistake the subject made. The shocks could upto 450 volts.

      Actually the subject was not given any shocks. but the volunteer could hear screams and entreaties to stop. The volunteer of course would have no way of knowing this but was told to keep asking the subject to carry on even when the subject would stop or falter.

      Milgram thought that most volunteers would baulk at some stage and would refuse to progress with the experiment. He thought no one would initiate a 300 volt shock, let along 450 volts. He was absolutely wrong. Some 70% of the volunteers hit the 450 volt button. People in obedience to authority would have little or no hesitation in inflicting pain or even causing death. He repeated this experiment outside Yale in other locations and got similar results.

      Milgram did his experiment to test if there was something in the German national psyche that lead them to inflict the Holocaust in obedience to orders. He wrote “Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority”.

      The applicability of his work to the Holocaust has been rebutted mainly because in the Holocaust, every participant knew severe harm was going to visit the victim whereas here, the volunteer was assured no permanent damage was take place – else no volunteer would have shown up possibly! So what could it be? A mix of anti-semitism built into the Christian world view, the creation of the “other”, or the need to emphasize the German Volk?

      As you say, it needs one man to push these buttons. It was Hitler then. And then the instinct to obey in all of us will kick in.

      Depressing isnt it?

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  2. I had heard of Pilecki the first time when you told me about him a couple of weeks ago. Incredible. That such people lived, makes humanity somehow seem better than it really is.

    For those people who beat the drums of war – all of this must be required reading. War is horrible under each and every circumstance. I am yet to hear of a war where appalling tragedy has not happened. Why does man do this to a fellow man ?

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    1. Thanks Ramesh! Both of us are students of history and we know war is inevitable most of the time. There is no such think as a noble conflict. Yet it is those who never have to pick up a weapon who are the most fervent proponents of violence.

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  3. Thank you for sharing this story of the remarkable Pilecki who carried out such a self sacrificial act so that the world may come to know about the horrors of Auschwitz and the other camps and the suffering of the Jews there. Certainly all heroes don’t wear capes and people like Pilecki make you feel that your life is less than worthy. It is humbling to read this and it reminds me of the verse from the Bible that says: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). The black and white photos by Daya has captured the grim landscape and environment of Birkenau perfectly and a shudder ran down my spine when I imagined that children of her age would also have once been gassed or tortured within its confines. However, despite the anti-Semitic sentiment that prevails in most Muslim countries, including my own, I have nothing but admiration for the Jewish race. Their superior intellect and achievements are nothing short of legendary and despite the Holocaust, they have emerged stronger and more resilient than ever. I wish that similar stories would emerge of people against whom strong attempts at annihilation are being carried out today. The Rohingyas who I work with are a case in point, not to mention tribal communities everywhere. I wish that they too will become resilient, but time alone will tell. They say history exists to teach us to improve, to right the wrongs. Really? I couldn’t tell.

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    1. The quotation from John is one of my favourite Biblical sayings. It is the basis for altruism and for love of your fellow man. Thank you for reminding us of it. It is so disappointing that we do not find more examples of it in our world and I agree that reading of the life of Witold Pilecki makes us feel we should do more in ours in whatever small way we can. We do not have to aspire to great acts of heroism, but I believe every small act paves the way for Moksha, or Kingdom in Heaven, or whatever form of salvation you aspire to. The Jewish people are a remarkable race who rely on the power of the mind and memory to keep their story alive. In the face of massive pogroms, as you say, they have recovered and prospered. May be there is a God – who does not let us forget our many crimes so that they haunt us and make us vigilant.

      Hope is the basis for life, and I am always hopeful that we will all be better human beings despite all the evidence to the contrary. The number of people who have died in wars since 1945 is apparently the lowest in human history. I will dig up the reference for you.

      Thanks for leaving a thoughtful comment Metilda!

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  4. She described him as a symbol of “the banality of evil”. Survivors of Auschwitz would often say there was no depth that man could not descend to in the right circumstances.

    Absolutely true!

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  5. Actually Ravi. Christians are not anti-Semitic In fact we pray for them and mean them no harm. So an anti-Semitic Christian is actually a paradox that does not exist, at least in principle and belief.

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  6. In principle there can be no anti-Semitism. But its not the case in belief. I have no doubt that a person like you and others like you have no truck with being “anti” any religion – let alone the Judaic faith. But in my limited reading (and I am no Bible expert) the concept of extra deum is integral to the way the Church Fathers put clear blue water between the old Jewish religion and the new Christian faith. Quoting from Laurence Rees’s “The Holocaust: A New History”:

    “The gospel of St John, in the King James version of the Bible, records that the Jews ‘sought to kill’ (John 7:1) Jesus. At one point they even pick up stones to throw at him (John 8:59). As for Jesus, he tells the Jews that they are children of the ‘devil’. (John 8:44) Harmful ideas about the Jews were thus built into the most holy Christian text; and generations of priests branded the Jews a ‘perfidious’ people who had ‘wanted to have Lord Jesus Christ killed’. (It appears that from 1959 to 1963, Pope John XIII removed from the liturgy this and other passages offensive to Jews). So it’s not hard to understand why Jewish persecution was commonplace in a medieval Europe dominated by Christian culture. In many countries Jews were banned from owning land, from practising certain professions and from living wherever they chose. At various periods, in a number of cities across Europe, the Jews were forced to live in ghettos and wear a special mark of identification on their clothing – in Rome in the thirteenth century it was a yellow badge. One of the few jobs open to Jews was that of moneylender, moneylender, since Christians were prohibited from practising ‘usury’. And as Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice illustrates, the Jewish moneylender subsequently became a hated figure. In Germany, in 1543, Martin Luther wrote On the Jews and Their Lies. The Jews, said Luther, ‘are nothing but thieves and robbers who daily eat no morsel and wear no thread of clothing which they have not stolen and pilfered from us by means of their accursed usury’. He called on the populace to ‘eject them forever from this country … away with them!’

    I would like your opinion on this Metilda. Has Rees misquoted the Bible? My sincere apologies in advance if this upsets you. You know by now how much I esteem your faith and your own personal faith.

    My limited point is = there was a seam of anti Semitism that existed in the minds of ordinary Christians of that day (as it does in the minds of Muslims today). All it needed was a demagogue to tap into it. Its what is said or not said. Look at how Trump woos Israel but stokes a subtle anti-Semitic theme in America.

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  7. Hey Ravi. I am not upset at all. Dialogues like these from genuine enquirers are always welcome. The way I see it, it gives me a chance to explain my faith and beliefs as best as I can, given the limitation that I am no Bible scholar but just an ordinary Catholic living out my faith.
    So, in response to your inquiry, let’s not forget firstly that Jesus himself was a Jew. In the context quoted, I would explain it as Jesus scolding them for their stubbornness in not recognising Him as the promised Messiah and the Son of God, despite his fulfillment of the prophecies that were told about Him, thereby making themselves followers of Satan.

    So…to further discuss …. who is a Jew?

    This is a designation unique to the Gospel of John and is often used to refer to certain members of Jesus’ own people, who rejected him.To some extent, it may reflect the “bitterness felt by John’s own community after its ‘parting of the ways’ with the Jewish community, and the martyrdom of St. Stephen illustrates that verbal disputes could, at times, lead to violence by Jews against fellow Jews who believed in Jesus.” (God’s Mercy Endures Forever, no. 24)Nevertheless, this designation can never be understood as referring to the Jewish people as a whole at the time of Jesus, much less to the Jewish people of today.

    Some have argued that “the New Covenant “abrogated” or “superseded” the Old Covenant, and that the Sinai Covenant was discarded by God and replaced with another made by Jesus. The Second Vatican Council, in Dei Verbum and Nostra Aetate, rejected these ideas. In a major address in 1980, Pope John Paul II linked the renewed understanding of Scripture with the Church’s own understanding of her relationship with the Jewish people, stating that the dialogue, as “the meeting between the people of God of the Old Covenant, never revoked by God (cf. Rom. 11.29), and that of the New Covenant is at the same time a dialogue within our Church, that is to say, between the first and the second part of her Bible” (Pope John Paul II, Mainz, November 17, 1980, no. 3).”(cf. also God’s Mercy Endures Forever, no. 6)

    In short, the Church believes that the Jewish Covenant is still valid and that Jews are still called to fidelity to that Covenant. Further, the Church teaches that the Jewish people belong, in some mysterious way, to the community of the Church.We also believe that the Jewish Covenant finds its fullest expression (fulfillment) in the Covenant of Jesus.”Thus, both Christianity and Judaism seal their worship with a common hope:’Thy kingdom come!'”(God’s Mercy Endures Forever, no.11; cf. 1974 “Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate (no. 4)”).

    This, of course, is the present Catholic stand, quite different from Rees and certainly Martin Luther who appear to have a different perspective on Judeo-Christian relations. Catholics also may have played a big part in the anti-Semitic sentiments in the past and its consequential attitudes towards Jews, but Vatican II has corrected that, hopefully to some significant measure. (My source is the US Catholic Bishops writings.)

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