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