Born in 1901, Pilecki joined the Home Army in Warsaw, and after two of his comrades were interned at a newly established camp at Auschwitz, Pilecki audaciously volunteered to investigate.
Assuming a fake name, on 19 September 1940 he deliberately entered a German roundup and was promptly sent to the camp, describing his entry as the moment he “bade farewell to everything I had hitherto known on this earth and entered something seemingly no longer of it”.
Pilecki immediately set about organising the Union of Military Organisation (ZOW), an internal, cell-structured network numbering hundreds of activists, with Pilecki at the centre. ZOW’s purpose was to build inmate morale, smuggle news from the inside to the Underground State, and prepare for an uprising when the Home Army gave the order.
Alongside other prisoners, Pilecki endured tremendous suffering, enduring starvation and contracting pneumonia and typhus. He chronicled the horrors he witnessed in reports smuggled out in 1940, 1941 and 1942. He bore witness to the first use of gas at the camp, writing that the Soviet POWs “had been so tightly packed that even in death they could not fall over”. He was keenly aware of the fate of the Jews, documenting the evolution of Auschwitz from forced labour to extermination camp.
He bore witness to the first use of gas at the camp
Unfortunately, his reports did not spark the action he had hoped from the Allies or Home Army. He escaped on 26 April 1943, hoping to convince the Underground to liberate Auschwitz. Receiving a gunshot wound in the process, he and his two comrades journeyed 100km on foot.
Re-joining the Home Army, Pilecki fought tooth and nail in the doomed Warsaw Uprising of 1944, leading a unit that held a vital building on Jerusalem Avenue. Upon defeat, he was interned at a POW camp, but was eventually liberated by the Americans.
After the war, with his country now under the yoke of Soviet oppression, he spent a few months with the remnants of the Underground State in Italy, returning to his homeland on a final intelligence mission in October 1945. He was arrested on 5 May 1947, tortured horribly, subjected to a show trial, executed and buried in a mass grave in 1948. The memory of his heroism was suppressed until the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1989.