|Born||May 13, 1901
Olonets, Karelia, Russia
|Died||May 25, 1948 (aged 47),
Witold Pilecki (May 13, 1901– May 25, 1948; Polish pronunciation: [vitÉlt piletski]; codenames Roman Jezierski, Tomasz SerafiÅski, Druh, Witold) was a soldier of the Second Polish Republic, the founder of the Secret Polish Army (Tajna Armia Polska) Polish resistance group and a member of the Home Army (Armia Krajowa). As the author of the first intelligence report on Auschwitz, Pilecki's operation enabled the Polish Government in Exile to convince the Allies that the Holocaust was taking place.
During World War II, he volunteered for a Polish resistance operation to get imprisoned at Auschwitz concentration camp in order to gather intelligence and escape. While in the camp, Pilecki organized a resistance movement and as early as 1940, informed the Western Allies of Nazi Germany's Auschwitz atrocities. He escaped from the camp in 1943 and took part in the Warsaw Uprising. He remained loyal to the London-based Polish government in exile and was executed in 1948 by the communist secret police Urzäd BezpieczeÅstwa on charges of working for "foreign imperialism", thought to be a euphemism for MI6. Until 1989, information on his exploits and fate was suppressed by the Polish communist regime. His life is currently being commemorated in coin form by the Polish government for the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp
Witold Pilecki was born May 13, 1901, in Olonets (OÅoniec) east of Lake Ladoga in Karelia, Russia, where his family had been forcibly resettled by Tsarist Russian authorities after the suppression of Poland's January Uprising of 1863–1864. His grandfather, Jzef Pilecki, had spent seven years in exile in Siberia for his part in the rising. In 1910, Pilecki moved with his family to Wilno (now Vilnius, Lithuania), where he completed Commercial School and joined the secret ZHP Scouts organization. In 1916, he moved to Orel, Russia, where he founded a local ZHP group.
During World War I, in 1918, Pilecki joined ZHP Scout section of the Polish self-defense units under General WÅadysÅaw Wejtko in the Wilno area. When his sector of the front was overrun by the Bolsheviks, his unit for a time conducted partisan warfare behind enemy lines. Pilecki subsequently joined the regular Polish Army and took part in the Polish-Soviet War of 1919–1920, serving under Major Jerzy Däbrowski. He fought in the Polish retreat from Kiev as part of a cavalry unit defending Grodno (in present-day Belarus). On August 5, 1920, he joined the 211th Uhlan Regiment and fought in the crucial Battle of Warsaw and at Rudniki Forest (Puszcza Rudnicka) and took part in the liberation of Wilno. He was twice awarded the KrzyÅ Walecznych (Cross of Valor) for gallantry.
After the Polish-Soviet War ended in 1921 with the Peace of Riga, Pilecki passed his high-school graduation exams (matura) in Wilno, and passed the exams for an NCO position in the Polish Army. He also studied at the Stefan Batory University in Wilno, and rebuilt his family estate, ruined during the war. He then took officer training courses. Assigned to cavalry regimen, in 1926, ensign, or the second lieutenant of the reserves; while in the reserves, he would subsequently actively support local paramilitary training activities. In the interbellum, he worked on his family's farm in the village of Sukurcze, and was known as a social work activist and an amateur painter. On April 7, 1931, he married Maria Pilecka (1906– February 6, 2002), ne Ostrowska. They had two children, born in Wilno: Andrzej (January 16, 1932) and Zofia (March 14, 1933). In 1938, he received the Silver Cross of Merit, for his involvement in the community and social work.
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Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, on August 26, 1939, Pilecki was mobilized as a cavalry-platoon commander. He was assigned to the 19th Infantry Division under Jzef Kwaciszewski, part of Polish Army Prusy. His unit took part in heavy fighting against the advancing Germans during the invasion of Poland and was partially destroyed. Pilecki's platoon withdrew southeast toward Lww (now L'viv, in Ukraine) and the Romanian bridgehead and was incorporated into the recently formed 41st Infantry Division, where he served as Division's second-in-command, under Major Jan WÅodarkiewicz. During that conflict (known in Poland as the September Campaign), Pilecki and his men destroyed seven German tanks, shot down an aircraft and destroyed further two on the ground. On September 17, Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland pursuant to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Involved in more heavy fighting on two fronts, by September 22, Pilecki's division was disbanded, partially surrendering to the enemies. He returned to Warsaw with his commander, Major WÅodarkiewicz.
On November 9, 1939, the two men founded the Secret Polish Army (Tajna Armia Polska, TAP), one of the first underground organizations in Poland. Pilecki became its organizational commander as TAP expanded to cover not only Warsaw but Siedlce, Radom, Lublin and other major cities of central Poland. By 1940, TAP had approximately 8,000 men (more than half of them armed), some 20 machine guns and several anti-tank rifles. Later, the organization was incorporated into the Union for Armed Struggle (Zwiäzek Walki Zbrojnej), later renamed and better known as the Home Army (Armia Krajowa). Within AK, TAP units became the core of the Wachlarz unit.
In 1940, Pilecki presented to his superiors a plan to enter Germany's Auschwitz concentration camp at OÅwiäcim (the Polish name of the locality), gather intelligence on the camp from the inside, and organize inmate resistance. Until then, little had been known about the Germans' running of the camp, and it was thought to be an internment camp or large prison rather than a death camp. His superiors approved the plan and provided him a false identity card in the name of "Tomasz SerafiÅski." On September 19, 1940, he deliberately went out during a Warsaw street roundup (Åapanka), and was caught by the Germans along with some 2,000 innocent civilians (among them, WÅadysÅaw Bartoszewski). After two days of torture in Wehrmacht barracks, he was sent to Auschwitz. Pilecki was tattooed on his forearm with the number 4859.
At Auschwitz, while working in various kommandos and surviving pneumonia, Pilecki organized an underground Union of Military Organizations (Zwiäzek Organizacji Wojskowej, ZOW). Many smaller underground organizations at Auschwitz eventually merged with ZOW. ZOW's tasks were to improve inmate morale, provide news from outside, distribute extra food and clothing to members, set up intelligence networks, and train detachments to take over the camp in the event of a relief attack by the Home Army, arms airdrops, or an airborne landing by the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade, based in Britain.
ZOW provided the Polish underground with priceless information on the camp. From October 1940, ZOW sent reports to Warsaw, and beginning March 1941, Pilecki's reports were being forwarded via the Polish resistance to the British government in London. These reports were a principal source of intelligence on Auschwitz for the Western Allies. Pilecki hoped that either the Allies would drop arms or troops into the camp, or the Home Army would organize an assault on it from outside. Such plans, however, were all judged impossible to carry out. Meanwhile the Gestapo redoubled its efforts to ferret out ZOW members, succeeding in killing many of them. Pilecki decided to break out of the camp, with the hope of personally convincing Home Army leaders that a rescue attempt was a valid option. When he was assigned to a night shift at a camp bakery outside the fence, he and two comrades overpowered a guard, cut the phone line and escaped on the night of April 26/27, 1943, taking along documents stolen from the Germans.
After several days, he made contact with the Home Army units. On August 25, 1943, Pilecki reached Warsaw and joined the Home Army's intelligence department. The Home Army, after losing several operatives in reconnoitering the vicinity of the camp, including the Cichociemny commando Stefan JasieÅski, decided that it lacked sufficient strength to capture the camp without Allied help. Pilecki's detailed report (Raport Witolda–"Witold's Report") was sent to London. The British authorities refused the Home Army air support for an operation to help the inmates escape. An air raid was considered too risky, and Home Army reports on Nazi atrocities at Auschwitz were deemed to be gross exaggerations (Pilecki wrote: "During the first 3 years, at Auschwitz there perished 2 million people; in the next 2 years–3 million"). The Home Army in turn decided that it didn't have enough force to storm the camp by itself. In 1944, the Russian army, despite being within attacking distance of the camp, showed no interest in a joint effort with the Home Army and the ZOW to free the camp. Until he became involved in the Warsaw Uprising, Pilecki remained in charge of coordinated ZOW and AK activities, and provided what limited support he was able to offer to ZOW.
On February 23, 1944 Pilecki was promoted to cavalry captain (rotmistrz) and joined a secret anti-communist organization, NIE ("NO or NIEpodleglosc - independence"), formed as a secret organization within the Home Army with the goal of preparing resistance against a possible Soviet occupation.
When the Warsaw Uprising broke out on August 1, 1944, Pilecki volunteered for the Kedyw's Chrobry II group. At first, he fought in the northern city center without revealing his actual rank, as a simple private. Later, as many officers fell, he disclosed his true identity and accepted command. His forces held a fortified area called the "Great Bastion of Warsaw". It was one of the most outlying partisan redoubts and caused considerable difficulties for German supply lines. The bastion held for two weeks in the face of constant attacks by German infantry and armor. On the capitulation of the uprising, Pilecki hid some weapons in a private apartment and went into captivity. He spent the rest of the war in German prisoner-of-war camps at Åambinowice and Murnau.
On July 9, 1945, Pilecki was liberated from the POW camp, and soon afterwards he joined the 2nd Polish Corps, which was stationed in Italy, where he wrote a monograph on Auschwitz. As the relations between the Polish government in exile and the Polish Committee of National Liberation worsened, in September 1945, Pilecki accepted orders from General WÅadysÅaw Anders, commander of the 2nd Polish Corps (main unit of the Polish Armed Forces in the West) to return to Poland under a false identity and gather intelligence to be sent to the government in exile.
Pilecki returned to Poland in October 1945, where he proceeded to organize his intelligence network. In the spring of 1946, however, the Polish government-in-exile decided that the postwar political situation afforded no hope of Poland's liberation and ordered all partisans still in the forests (cursed soldiers) either to return to their normal civilian lives or to escape to the West. In July 1946, Pilecki was informed that his cover was blown and ordered to leave; he declined. In April 1947, he began collecting evidence on Soviet atrocities and on the prosecution of Poles (mostly members of the Home Army and the 2nd Polish Corps) and their executions or imprisonment in Soviet gulags.
On May 8, 1947, he was arrested by the Ministry of Public Security). Prior to trial, he was repeatedly tortured. The investigation on Pilecki–s activities was supervised by Colonel Roman Romkowski. He was interrogated by Col. Jzef RÅaÅski, and lieutenants: S. Åyszkowski, W. KrawczyÅski, J. Kroszel, T. SÅowianek, E. Chimczak, and S. Alaborski – men who were especially famous for their savagery. But Pilecki sought to protect other prisoners and revealed no sensitive information.
On March 3, 1948, a show trial took place . Testimony against him was presented by a future Polish prime minister, Jzef Cyrankiewicz, himself an Auschwitz survivor. Pilecki was accused of illegal crossing of the borders, use of forged documents, not enlisting with the military, carrying illegal arms, espionage for general WÅadysÅaw Anders (head of the military of the Polish Government-in-Exile), espionage for "foreign imperialism" (thought to be British intelligence) and preparing an assassination on several officials from the Ministry of Public Security of Poland. Pilecki denied the assassination charges, as well as espionage (although he admitted to passing information to the II Polish Corps of whom he considered himself an officer and thus claimed that he was not breaking any laws); he pleaded guilty to the other charges. On May 15, with three of his comrades, he was sentenced to death. Ten days later, on May 25, 1948, he was executed at Warsaw's Mokotw Prison on ulica Rakowiecka (Rakowiecka Street) by Staff Sergeant Piotr Smetanski. Nicknamed by the prisoners the "Butcher of the Mokotow Prison," Smetanski is believed to have been paid 1,000 Polish Zloty for each execution he carried out. Smetanski emigrated from Poland to Israel in 1968.
Pilecki's conviction was part of a prosecution of Home Army members and others connected with the Polish Government-in-Exile in London. In 2003, the prosecutor, CzesÅaw ÅapiÅski, and several others involved in the trial were charged with complicity in Pilecki's murder. Cyrankiewicz escaped similar proceedings, having died; ÅapiÅski died in 2004, before the trial was concluded.
Witold Pilecki and all others sentenced in the staged trial were rehabilitated on October 1, 1990. In 1995, he received posthumously the Order of Polonia Restituta. In 2006, he received the Order of the White Eagle, the highest Polish decoration. His place of burial has never been found. He is thought to have been buried in an unmarked grave near Warsaw's Powäzki Cemetery's garbage dump.
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