It was an idea that carried the greatest possible danger.
|Prisoner Number 4859: Pilecki|
In the autumn of 1940, Witold Pilecki, one of the founders of the Secret Polish Army, hatched a plan to break into Auschwitz.
His aim was to find out what was taking place in the camp and organise resistance to the SS guards.
Witold acquired forged identity papers bearing the name Tomasz Serafinski. He then got himself deliberately arrested during a Gestapo round-up in Warsaw. Two days later, after being tortured, he was sent to Auschwitz as prisoner number 4859.
|Pilecki's previous incarnation|
Witold began gathering information as soon as he arrived at the camp. He didn’t have to wait long to witness the violence of the SS guards against their victims.
‘By beating their heads, kicking those lying on the ground in their kidneys and other sensitive places,’ he wrote, ‘jumping with boots upon their chests and bellies, they were afflicting death with some kind of nightmarish enthusiasm.’
Witold himself was taken to the bathhouse where he was stripped of all his possessions. His hair was cut off and then the bathroom chief, who’d taken a dislike to him, punched him in the face, causing two teeth to come out.
|Journey of no return - for most|
Witold was given a striped uniform and then assigned to blockhouse 17a.
The blockhouse leader, known as ‘Bloody Alois’, was a psychopath. ‘He used to beat, torture, torment and kill several persons a day.’
Witold and his fellow inmates slept on the floor: the day began at 4.20am in summer, an hour earlier in winter. They then had 12 hours of torment and torture at the hands of their prison guards. Witold detailed full catalogue of the inhumane treatment they suffered.
His work was to help build the camp crematorium: ‘We were,’ he wryly noted, ‘building the crematorium for ourselves.’
|anti-German - Polish Home Army|
After a day’s hard labour, the men often had to perform exercises. A favourite among the camp guards was getting the men to perform a swimming-style breast-stroke, albeit without the benefit of a swimming pool. They had to ‘swim’ around the camp’s gravel parade ground until their chests were bleeding and raw.
Witold’s tales of brutality make for terrible reading: violent and unpredictable guards, inmates torn to pieces by dogs and men forced to stand for hours in the driving snow.
|The hated SS|
Witold had a constitution of concrete. After surviving pneumonia, he began to set up a highly secret organisation inside the camp. Called the Union of Military Organisations, or ZOW for short, it was charged with distributing illicit food and clothing and training inmates to prepare for a camp take-over in the event of an Allied attack.
On occasions, Witold managed to send smuggled reports to Warsaw, detailing conditions inside Auschwitz. These reports were then forwarded to London and elsewhere in order that the desperate conditions in the camp might be made known to the world.
The gas chambers, enforced sterilisations and frightening human experiments were all written up in the report.
|'Work makes you free' - the gate to Auschwitz|
The Gestapo did everything they could to root out members of ZOW and succeeded in killing many of them. Witold knew it would only be a matter of time before they came for him. By 1943, he knew he had to escape.
One day, he was assigned a shift in a bakery that lay outside the perimeter fence. Witold knew that this was probably his last chance of getting away. On the night of 26 April, 1943 - after two-and-a-half years in Auschwitz - he and two fellow members overpowered their guard and cut the phone line. They then made a dash for freedom.
|Steve McQueen's famous escape: the reality for Pilecki|
and comrades was infinitely more dangerous
They crossed the River Sola and headed on foot towards Oswiecim. After a journey of high drama, they eventually made contact with the Polish Home Army. Almost four months later, Witold got back to Warsaw where he wrote up his detailed report.
It was hoped that this report - which detailed the extent of the mass killing in Auschwitz - would prompt an Allied air attack on the camp in order to help the inmates escape.
But the British government considered the report to be hugely exaggerated and did nothing. Witold’s work languished on a pile of unpublished documents - a forgotten and neglected record of man’s humanity to man.
Astonishingly, it was not published until the year 2000, more than 55 years after the war was ended and Auschwitz finally liberated.
Witold himself was by then long dead. He was executed by Stalin’s secret police in 1948 for allegedly working as a British spy.
Not until 2006 did he receive posthumously the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest decoration for gallantry and bravery.