Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Historical Tidbit: The Heroism of Witold Pilecki

Witold Pilecki (Source)
Did you know...

That a polish spy purposely got himself taken to Auschwitz in WWII just to prove that it was a death camp, rather than a prison camp?

It's true. Witold Pilecki is apparently the stuff of legend, though we don't hear much about him in the states.

Pileck was a revolutionary by birth. He was born in 1901 in Russia where his family had been forced to settle by the Tsarist regime. His grandfather, Jozef, did seven years in exile in Siberia for participating in the Polish uprising.

He moved to Lithuania in 1910 to finish commercial school, then back to Russia in 1916. During WWI, his ZHP Scout section in Wilno joined in the fighting against the Bolesheviks. When his sector was overrun, his unit turned to partisan warfare behind enemy lines. He also fought in the Polish retreat from Kiev and was decorated several times. 

After the war, he passed exams and joined the Polish army. He also married Maria Ostrowska and together they had two children. Though he'd been in the reserves, Pilecki was mobilized in 1939. He and his unit fought the Germans as they advanced across Poland, suffering many casualties. 

Later that year he helped organize the Secret Polish Army, one of the first underground organizations in Poland.  He became it's commander and it soon numbered 8,000 men, more than half of them armed. 

In 1940, he went deliberately into the streets of Warsaw and allowed himself to be rounded up with 2,000 other civilians. He was soon sent to Auschwitz. While there he suffered torture and the trails of all death camp prisoners, but he did other things as well. He organized a Union of Military Organizations (ZOW, in Polish) and a variety of other underground groups to help boost morale in the camp, distribute extra food and clothing, provide prisoners with news from the outside, set up intelligence networks, and train men to take over the camp should the Home (Polish) Army attempt a rescue.

Auschwitz Photos (Source)

The ZOW provided invaluable information about the running of the camp. Pilecki hoped that either the Allies woudl mobilize and drop arms, or else that the Home Army would assault Auschwitz from the outside. Unfortunately, such plans are complex and neither was ever carried out. But the Germans felt the sting from the work of the Polish underground. Many prisoners suspected of being part of it were executed.

Finally, Pilecki decided his efforts would be best spent convincing his higher-ups to mount a rescue operation to Auschwitz. When he was assigned overnight duty at a camp bakery near the fence, and two other inmates overpowered the guards and escaped the Auschwitz prison camp on April 26, 1943. With them they took vital documents, stolen from the Germans.

Despite his efforts, he could not gain enough support to rescue the prisoners of Auschwitz. There were too many and it was just too great an undertaking. Pilecki did give the ZOW whatever support he could manage. He eventually took another field command and was eventually captured. He spent the remainder of the war in a German POW camp. 

Staged Trial (Source)
After the war, he was liberated, and continued spying for the Polish government in exile. After Yalta, Poland's fate was sealed and he was ordered to either return to civilian life or escape into the west. He refused, still loyally recording Soviet atrocities and the persecution of Polish civilians. Eventually he was arrested, tortured, and put on a farcical trial, where he was condemned.

He was executed May 25, 1948 at the Warsaw Mokotov Prison. All those sentenced in the staged trial were cleared in 1990. In 1995 he posthumously received the Order of Polonia Restituta. The next year he was also awarded the highest Polish decoration, The Order of the White Eagle.

His place of burial was never identified. (Source)

Now this is someone that historical fiction should be written about! His whole life is inspiring! 

Citadels of Fire

In a world where danger hides in plain sight and no one aspires to more than what they were born to, Inga must find the courage to break the oppressive chains she’s been bound with since birth.

As a maid in the infamous Kremlin, life in 16th-century Russia is bleak and treacherous. That is, until Taras arrives. Convinced that his mother’s death when he was a boy was no mere accident, he returned from England to discover what really happened. While there, he gains favor from the Tsar later known as Ivan the Terrible, the most brutal and notorious ruler ever to sit upon the throne of Russia. Ivan allows him to take a servant, and to save Inga from a brutal boyar intent on raping her, Taras requests Inga to stay in his chambers.

Up against the social confines of the time, the shadowy conspiracies that cloak their history, and the sexual politics of the Russian Imperial court, Inga and Taras must discover their past, plan for their future, and survive the brutality that permeates life within the four walls that tower over them all, or they may end up like so many citizens of ancient Russia: nothing but flesh and bone mortar for the stones of the Kremlin wall.

What do you think of Pilecki's life story? Would you read a book about him?


  1. Holy cannoli what a brave man! I hadn't heard of him, but I'm super impressed. And yes, I would read his story!

    1. I know, right? I only recently heard of him too and knew I'd have to do a post on him. Thanks so much! :D

  2. Now that's a story! I love finding out about unsung heroes. So glad you posted this.

    1. Yeah they're great stories to hear, aren't they? Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Now that's a story! I love finding out about unsung heroes. So glad you posted this.

  4. What an inspiring man and a true hero, so yeah I'll put a couple of bucks in for a film. It would be worth it.