Rotamaster Witold Pilecki
By the end of August 1939, the 19th Division of Infantry, commanded by General brig. Józef Kwaciszewski (including Pilecki’s squadron), was directed to the area of Piotrków Trybunalski, in order to protect the main road from Piotrków to Tomaszów Mazowiecki. On the night of September 5th, the German XVI Artillery Corps destroyed the Polish division, and the scattered soldiers (among whom was Pilecki) crossed Vistula river and joined the ranks of the regrouping 41st Division of Infantry Reserves. The newly appointed cavalry commander of the Division – Major Jan Włodarkiewicz, had the second lieutenant Witold Pilecki take the position of his second in command. While fighting the Germans, the troops of the 41st Division of Infantry Reserves directed themselves southeast as a means of creating a safe passage to Romania. After the Soviet invasion of September 17, Hungary and Romania became the immediate objects of interest for the Polish command, which wanted to facilitate the march of the troops southwards and eventually enable them to crossover through the borders. On the September 22 Pilecki’s division gets obliterated, and the soldiers ordered to surrender their weapons. The majority has not surrendered though. A part of them escaped to Hungary and continued fighting along with the allied French. Others, among which was Pilecki, returned to the homeland with the intention to carry on fighting in the underground.
After the 17th of September, Pilecki’s closest family members living in Sukurcze had found themselves under Soviet occupation. To avoid the fates of other Polish families – arrested and deported to Siberia by the NKVD, Maria Pilecka and her children hid amongst the local inhabitants, waiting for an opportunity to break through to the General Government. It was only in April of 1940 that they were able to cross the Soviet-German frontier, and arrive at Maria’s parents’ in Ostrowia Mazowiecka. Only here was she finally able to learn that her husband is alive and currently resides in Warsaw.
Upon arriving in Warsaw Witold Pilecki and the soldiers of Major Jan Włodarkiewicz created a military organization – the Polish Secret Army (Tajna Armia Polska). November 9, 1939 marked the onset of its activity. At this time there were already other underground military formations in existence, with the oldest one – the Servitude to the Victory of Poland (Służba Zwycięstwu Polski) dated September 26, 1939. Later the name changed to the more recognized Union for Armed Struggle (Związek Walki Zbrojnej). The head of the Polish Secret Army was major Włodarkiewicz (codename “Drawicz”) with Pilecki on his side, being intensely involved in working for the organization. He himself fulfilled the duties of the organizational inspector, chief of staff of the PSA’s Headquarters, chief of supplies, head of the management and mobilization, chief of supplies and finally chief of special forces. Polish Secret Army encompassed with its reach the municipal areas of Warsaw, Siedlce, Lublin, Radom and Krakow. In the primary stages of PSA’s operated simultaneously but independently of other underground organizations. This was until the fall of France, and the subsequent call of the Polish government in exile (through its emissaries), to unite the underground military formations in the Fatherland. PSA’s command launched a cooperation with the Union for Armed Struggle, and eventually merged under their command in 1941.
Being an effective conspirator, Witold Pilecki worked since 1940 as a franchise owner of a cosmetics warehouse “Raczyński i Ska”, which allowed him for quite a lot of freedom in mobility around Warsaw city. Despite the multitude of activities Pilecki was always able to find time for his closest. Although he remained in constant touch with his wife, the contact with his children was limited at best – they have only managed to spend a few days with each other.
In 1940, the German authorities begun operating the first concentration camps on Polish territories. Apart from achieving social intimidation, the Germans desired to acquire free labor force, seize precious private belongings and of course carry out the systematic extermination of prisoner population.
The arrests made among the soldiers of the Polish Secret Army, placement of even greater number of convicts in the Auschwitz concentration camp and its increasingly horrid reputation (with the gradually more evident gossip of purpose of human extermination), impacted Witold Pilecki’s decision to willingly place himself in the camp. He has realized that decision, on September 19, 1940, during a round-up raid in Żoliborz, where under the name of Tomasz Serafiński he was captured and sent off to Auschwitz as prisoner no. 4859. In the autumn of 1941 he received a promotion to the rank of lieutenant, which further proves the fact that Pilecki entered the camp voluntarily, and clearly for the purpose of setting up a military underground in the camp and gathering reliable material, which could serve as a proof for the crimes committed by the Germans. Otherwise, the Union for Armed Struggle (and later Home Army – Armia Krajowa, AK) kept a strict rule, which prohibited the promotion of personnel imprisoned as a result of armed struggle.
Despite his extensive preparation as well as rational ideas about the brutal realities of the camp, after crossing the sinister „Arbeit macht frei” sign, Pilecki, went through an absolute shock just as every other new inmate.During his time in Auschwitz Witold fell seriously ill thrice, but was brought back to health by Jan Dering, MD. – also a fellow soldier of the PSA. His camp experiences did not make Pilecki break down, but even more so – made him more and more motivated and devoted to actively fight his oppressors. The initial underground and undercover activities mainly involved prisoners brought from Warsaw and were carried out under the name: Secret Military Organization. It consisted of the so-called: fives (group of five men, who only knew about each other – so in case of a betrayal, or German counteraction – only that five would “go down”). While more, new conspirators were being included in the group, the name changed to the Union of Military Organizations, and finally ended up having its members in every division of the Oświęcim camp. A bit later on, working in parallel to “Mr. Tomasz Serafiński’s” activities, similar ventures were being commenced by the other military and political organization with Union of Armed Struggle – Home Army also being one of them.
The subsequent goal that Pilecki desired to achieve next, was to merge all of the partisan groups of Auschwitz and prepare them for a general uprising. The talks with Witold’s superior officers, carried out at a concentration camp, proved to be quite a challenge, but Pilecki’s idealism, and a recognizable lack of personal interest in seizing power, have finally won over the officers. The unification had eventually happened under the short-lived command of Kazimierz Heilman-Rawicz, a colonel from the Union for Armed Struggle, and after his expulsion to the Mauthausen camp – of an air force colonel Julian Gilewicz. Meanwhile “Tomasz Serafiński” continued his work on developing a conspiracy network. Also, apart from these triumphs, Pilecki held numerous talks and negotiated an agreement between various political factions in the camp, which was eventually suitably achieved. As a proof, serves the example of Christmas Eve of 1941, which was attended by the representatives of all the different organizations, with the most prominent figures such as Stanisław Dubois and Jan Mosdorf.
After achieving their initial goals, the prisoners/conspirators begun monitoring the radio frequencies, readying a list of means for active self-defense as well as a plan for a possible mutiny, which could be sparked any day, by a German decision to liquidate the camp. Witold Pilecki along with his comrades, had worked extensively on military plans, which they designed for various critical situations that could happen at Auschwitz. The weapon stock was hidden and disguised under the construction office’s barrack. Another important field of Pilecki’s operation was the delivering of reports to the High Command of the ZWZ-AK (Union of Armed Struggle – Home Army) in Warsaw. Initially he had passed them on through the released prisoners/conspirators. Later on, as the Germans retracted the collective responsibility punishment for the camp escapes – organizing prison break outs became a new domain for the Union of Military Organizations. These of course, allowed for even more opportunities to get out camp reports and materials to the Warsaw High Command. The first great escape took place in May of 1942.
By the spring of 1943, the first arrests of the immediate colleagues of “Tomasz Serafiński” started to occur. The Gestapo had gathered more and more information on the camp’s underground. The Auschwitz authorities have decided to redirect the “elderly” Polish prisoners to the camps located within the territory of the III Reich. When the underground managed to confirm this information, Witold Pilecki decided to plot an escape for himself from the camp. Alongside two other prisoners: Jan Redzej and Edward Ciesielski, Pilecki had fled KL Auschwitz on a Christmas holiday night (26/27 of April 1943). Witold wanted to present his findings about the concentration camp realities directly to the Home Army High Command in order to gain authorization for a military operation against it, and resulting from it – liberation of the prisoners. Following his getaway, he was surprised to meet in a town of Wiśnicz – the authentic Tomasz Serafiński, whom he remained in constant contact with until his very end, exchanging his personal stories, and of his fellow escapees. It so happened that Tomasz Serafiński (codemane “Lisola”) was at the time the deputy commander of the Home Army post in Wiśnicz and it is thanks to his contribution, that the escapees were able to finally inform the Krakow district High Command of their presence. Consequently, the men requested to be recognized by their superiors as soon as possible and awaiting orders. While just out of the camp, anticipating contact from the underground – Pilecki found time to paint two pictures, which were then presented to Tomasz, who in exchange gifted Pilecki with two history books about the Borderlands. It is also through Tomasz, that Pilecki passed on a detailed report about the atrocities committed in KL Auschwitz along with a precise plan of a military action aimed at liberating the prisoners. Unfortunately, the Krakow command, fearing a provocation, remained very suspicious of the three men (Pilecki, Redzej and Ciesielski), who escaped imprisonment. Unable to cooperate with Krakow, Pilecki made contact with Warsaw and on August 22, 1943 left for the capital city, hoping for an approval of the Home Army High Command on speeding up the process of giving a green light for the action at Auschwitz.
At this point, it is important to mention that the crew of the Oświęcim camp consisted mostly of the SS divisions, totaling 3000 men. Around the camp, the Germans have concentrated numerous units of armed forces, ranging from the regular Wermacht, through the police forces and finally administrative functionaries (who were armed). With such numbers and firepower at the time, it was estimated that the partisan forces could hold the camp and keep it open for about half an hour, during which some 200-300 prisoners would escape. The rest would have to seek refuge on their own, which was then equivalent to a certain massacre. Nevertheless, a decision was upheld to go forth with such military operation, in case the Germans choose to carry out a genocide of the camp’s population. Eventually it was in this form, Pilecki’s efforts got the approval through the official orders of the Chief Commander of the Home Army – General Tadeusz Komorowski (codename “Bór”). Witold acknowledged the flaws of his initial plans, like the impossibility of an optimistic outcome for the imprisoned, and in the end accepted the Home Army’s restraint. The information was passed on back to the camp, through and to, the military men of the underground. Meanwhile Pilecki got involved vigorously with the underground conspiracy and took on a new personality of a “Roman Jezierski”. Because of his unremitting interest in the fates of the camp inmates, Pilecki was able to locate their families to care for them and give them material support (to the extent possible at the time). He remained in touch with the camp reality up until the very beginning of Warsaw Uprising. This bond has gotten especially strong since January of 1944, when a whole prison unit (Division II of the High Command under the codename “Kratka”) went under the command of Pilecki’s co-escapee – Jan Redzej (codename “Klemens”). On February 23, 1944 – Witold Pilecki was promoted to the rank of a Cavalry Captain (Rotmistrz) with seniorship since 1943.
In 1944 it became clearer than ever, that the Polish territory will be overrun by the Soviet Army, which would not by likely to leave out of free will. Facing the danger of further occupation (this time by the USSR), which was estimated to last between 5 to 10 years, the underground readied itself for a prolonged activity. A need for a new underground, military and political organization has become evident. An organization which would be capable of strengthening the society and making it more resilient to the communist propaganda, mobilizing its national spirit and protect the people and institutions of the underground from infiltration. The creation of a conspiracy organization “NIE” (a short for “Niepodległość” – Independence) was handed over by General “Bór” Komorowski to Colonel August Emil Fieldorf – “Nil”. It was a conspiracy movement within a conspiracy – an challenge that Pilecki couldn’t miss out on. In cooperation with Stefan Miłkowski (responsible for the political aspects of the new organization), he was in charge of organizing the structure of military planning. Any further progress over the development and perfection of “NIE” was hampered by the Warsaw Uprising.
Even though Pilecki shouldn’t have been involved in the partisan fighting in the capital city (mainly due to his “NIE” commitment), he couldn’t remain being a passive witness. At the very beginning he fought as a regular infantryman in the “Chrobry II” Grouping, trying to stay as anonymous as possible. Unfortunately as the time passed – the officer core was getting decimated, and Pilecki revealed himself with his real rank. During the course of the initial fighting in the Uprising, Pilecki fought in the 1st Company “Warszawianka” in the building of the Military Geographic Institute. During the course of the fighting he quickly moved up the command hierarchy, from the second in command to the head commander of the 2nd Company of the battalion I, which was supposed to defend the area between the streets Towarowa and Srebrna with the Hartwig warehouses. He has soon became friends with chaplain of “Chrobry II” Grouping father Captain Antonim Czajkowski (codename “Badur”). He also met with his fellow escapee from Auschwitz – Edward Ciesielski (codename “Beton”). It is from him, that he has learned of the death of Jan Redziej, who fell at some point in the capturing of MGI.
After 63 days of fighting – the Warsaw Uprising had fallen. The partisans had to surrender their weapons as well as their freedom. On October 5, 1944, Calvary Captain Pilecki and the men who survived in the “Chrobry II” Grouping were moved to Ożarów, and after a few days departed to Lamsdorf, and then (on October 19) to Murnau (German POW camps). Pilecki remained there until the liberation, taking care of the young partisans, which has earned him the nickname of a “daddy”. On July 9, 1945 – the Cavalry Captain was free and leaving Murnau for Italy, where he was given orders to join the II Corpus of the Polish Armed Forces and at the same time – take an immediate leave of absence, during which he was to prepare for his return to Poland. He has settled in San Giorgio, and shared his time between writing memoirs from Oświęcim, and talking to his superior commanders in the PAF, about the tasks awaiting ahead and ways of fulfilling them. In the second half of October of 1945, he finally moved out back to his country, together with Maria Szelągowska – his colleague from the times of occupation and Bolesław Niewiarowski – a friend from the partisan battles. He arrived in Warsaw on December 8, 1945 with the identification documents issued under the name “Roman Jezierski”, which was Pilecki’s identity from the “kennkarte” (German ID for Polish citizens) he’s possessed during the Warsaw Uprising, and one he was imprisoned with after its end.