As we enter into our third month in lock down, I hope that everyone is healthy and doing well. While going through my list of possible subjects, I came across the name Witold Pilecki and next to it I had written “Polish Army officer”, but after doing research I have learned that he was so much more than that.
Witold was born May 13, 1901 in Karelia, Russia to Polish Catholic parents. The family had been forcibly moved there following Poland’s January Uprising of 1863-1864. The family would eventually move to Wilno (present day Vilnus, Lithuania), where Witold would join the ZHP Scouts, sort of like the Boy Scouts.
In 1918 he joined the Polish Self Defense unit in Wilno where they collected weapons and disarmed the retreating German army. After World War I from 1919-1920 during the Polish-Soviet War Witold commanded the ZHP Scouts, but they were overrun by the Bolsheviks. He later joined the Polish Army and fought in the retreat from Kiev. However, on August 5, 1920 he joined the 211th Uhlan regiment where he fought in the Battle of Warsaw, Rudniki Forest and the Liberation of Wilno.
During World War II, Witold, who was working with the Polish resistance got himself arrested and thrown into Auschwitz in 1940 under the name of Tomasz Serafinski, prisoner #4589. While in Auschwitz he began an underground resistance movement known as the ZOW (Zwiak Organizacji Wojskowej), whose primary objectives were: to keep up prisoner morale, smuggle in food, medication and clothes, and gather intelligence and smuggle it out to the resistance.
As early as 1941 he learned of the Nazi plans to exterminate the Jewish population and in 1942 of the gas chambers. He put together two plans to stop the horror, 1. The RAF would bomb the walls of the camp, allowing inmates to escape and 2. Free Polish paratroopers were flown in from Britain and invade the camp via the air. Neither plan came to be. At the same time, he was also smuggling out information about what was going on in the camp. The information was sent to Britain, first report arrived in 1941, and the United States, neither of whom act on it.
The Gestapo learned of the ZOW and by 1943, they are closing in on them. It is time for Witold to find a way out. He escapes with two other men after spending two and a half years in the camp.
From August to October 1944 Witold fought with the Home Army to liberate Warsaw from the Nazi’s before the Red Army could liberate it. The Home Army wanted Warsaw to go under control of the Polish Government in exile and not under the control of the Soviet backed government. He was captured by the Nazi’s and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp.
In 1945 after being freed from the POW camp, he joined the Free Polish troops in Italy. By July 1945 he agrees to return to Poland and spy on the new Soviet government. April 1947 sees Witold being captured by the Polish Communist regime where he was tortured, interrogated on espionage and following a trial, he is given three death sentences. He is executed May 25, 1948.
Details of his bravery did not come to light until after the fall of the Communists regime in 1989. After that he was awarded, posthumously, the Order of the Restituta in 1995 and the Order of the White Eagle in 2006, Poland’s highest decoration.
I just touched a little bit on Witold’s story, I encourage you to look more into it, he was a brave man who risked it all for what he believed in. And he was the first to warn the world of the Nazi plan to wipe out the Jewish race, we can only imagine what would have happened if the British and American governments had listened to him.
I hope that you have enjoyed this blog and will come back again to read the next story, if you become a follower, you’ll never miss one. Until then, take care of yourselves and stay healthy.