Witold Pilecki’s Story of the Ultimate Courage

The movie “The Enigma Secret”, which came out in 1979, presented the Polish version of the events, and never achieved the publicity, as its British counterpart “The Imitation Game”, which appeared in 2014. Not unlike the Polish soldiers’ contribution to the final results of WW2. Having sustained the most casualties (after Russia) and having the fourth most populous army, Poland wasn’t even invited to the victory parade in 1946 in London. It must have been on demand from Stalin, who decided that the only legitimate Polish Army was on the Eastern front and under his command.

As a result of the war, and the failed Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s diplomacy, Poland lost more than 18% of its population, 38% of its national assets, and the majority of its eastern territory. And, most importantly, we lost our independence, for which we fought bloody battles for over a hundred years, to a murderous and brutal regime in Russia. The Polish Army coming from the East, with the Russians, were the liberators. Polish soldiers, who fought Nazis on the Western front, coming back to their country after the war was over, were treated as spies and methodically hunted down, interrogated and executed.

The most glaring example was the one of Witold Pilecki. Two years after Poland gained independence, he enlisted in the Polish volunteer army and in 1920 fought a short, but victorious war with the invading Soviet Army. Here he is as a cavalry officer.

When WWII broke out, he fought the Germans invading our country, this time the invasion was from the West.  After Poland fell, Pilecki was very active in the underground. In communication with the Polish government in exile and hearing about the atrocities in Auschwitz, in 1941 he let himself get arrested during the roundup, hoping to be sent there and witness the rumored but unconfirmed reports of the carnage in this hell on earth. His silent wish was granted, and he ended up in Auschwitz. There he was, a prisoner with the number 4859 tattooed on his inner forearm.

There he saw the unspeakable crimes, much worse than he could even imagine before. His intelligence data, smuggled out of the camp, formed the basis for the report about the mass extermination of Jews in occupied Poland and directed to allies and the United Nations.

So, if the allies said they didn’t know about the carnage in Auschwitz, well, they lied and there is no excuse for ignoring Pilecki’s sacrifice.

With incredible luck and wits, after almost three years of daily staring death in the eyes, he was able to escape through the bakery outside the camp, work, which he volunteered for, and was accepted, by the Germans. Then he fought in the Warsaw Uprising and, again, against all the odds, was lucky to survive. 200,000 people had died. Then, as his participation in the Uprising and his loyalty to the government in exile had become known to the communists after the war, the authorities arrested him. The communist interrogations were so brutal, they didn’t even compare with his interactions with the Germans in Auschwitz.

The trial was as fair as staged trials during the terror show trials in the Soviet Union. His clemency was denied by his co-prisoner from Auschwitz, who now was the prime minister of Poland, and who, the rumor goes, had a lot to hide. Pilecki was executed by the Staff Sergeant, called a Butcher of the Mokotów Prison, with a shot to the back of the head, a typical technique developed and used by the KGB. Witold Pilecki survived the German invasion of Poland, voluntary imprisonment in Auschwitz, the Warsaw Uprising and was killed by the Polish government forces, indoctrinated and trained in the Soviet Union. His last words:

I’ve been trying to live my life so that in the hour of my death I would rather feel joy, than fear.

— Pilecki after the announcement of the death sentence, Bartłomiej Kuraś, Witold Pilecki – w Auschwitz z własnej woli, “Ale Historia”, in “Gazeta Wyborcza”, 22 April 2013.
During Pilecki’s last conversation with his wife, he told her: “I cannot live. They killed me. Because Oświęcim [Auschwitz] compared with them was just a trifle.” His final words before his execution were “Long live free Poland”.

His body ended up in an unmarked grave, and we still don’t know, where are his remains. Just very recently, the monument in his memory was built in Warsaw, close to the place he was voluntarily picked in the roundup, not far from the place I lived and close to my school.

It took two generations for the Polish people to finally be able to decide on our future.

Was it all worth it? Was the Warsaw uprising, sacrifice under Monte Cassino, battles in Tobruk, heroics in the Battle of Britain, the worst assignments by the Russians on the East front and the largest resistance forces to Nazi occupation in Europe, worth the enormous carnage, loss of human lives, loss of property and a large part of our territory? Poland was the only nation, which didn’t have a collaborative government during the German occupation.

The SS Waffen Division was famously formed using foreign troops. Here are the numbers of recruits.

Albania     7,000

Belgium   40,000

Denmark   6,000

Estonia    20,000

Finland      3,000

France    20,000

Hungary  20,000

India         2,000

Latvia      80,000

Netherlands  50,000

Norway      6,000

Romania   50,000

The UK.     54

Russia          3 Divisions and 2 Sturm-Brigades, Kaminski and RONA, recruited from hard criminals and specializing in unspeakable cruelty, particularly on the Polish people

Poland – none.

Not a single Pole ever joined the German invading forces.

I’ve just come back from Canada from the celebrations of the Polish contribution to the development of that country during the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. There I met an eighty-some, almost ninety years old combatant of the Warsaw uprising. Was it worth it? I asked. He was barely a teenager at that time and in possession of only a couple of hand grenades. We felt that we had to rise, was the answer. They couldn’t take the German abuse anymore. The end of the war seemed inevitable, the Russians were on the other side of the river and with the strength of their propaganda, the Russians did everything to make Polish youth fight the occupants.

The promised Russian help never arrived, and the Poles ended up holding the bag, instead of promised weapons and air support. And, to top all the irony, after the war, Russia treated all the Warsaw Uprising combatants as a mortal enemy and systematically hunted them down and exterminated. The stories of his fighting, resilience, and salvation, were the ones of youthful exuberance, boundless perseverance and unbroken faith for the cause of the freedom. Just like the history of the Polish nation. There was no bitterness in his voice and, it seemed to me, that if asked, he would fight again, with no hesitation.

With the people like my older friend, Poland will not perish.

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