People who’ve never served in the military – and some who do, but aren’t in the infantry – shake their heads and wonder what it takes to find someone who can run toward gunfire, when the natural numan instinct is to run away from it.
But training, and the testosterone that most young men have in great abundance, mixed together with enough esprit de corps or coercion or whatever, can overcome, or at least tame, the instinct of self-preservation enough that armies can and do exactly that; charge toward people who can kill them, and – sometimes – vanquish them.
But beyond that – what does it take to not only see and understand hell, but willingly walk into it?
It was 72 years ago today that Witold Pilecki (pronounced “Pi-LETZ-ki”) undertook perhaps the most daunting intelligence mission in history.
And if you’re American and not Polish, your response may well be “Witold who?”
Sit back for a moment.
If you were to develop a laboratory process to develop a perfect strain of militant patriot, the end result might be a lot like Witold Pilecki.
Born in the Finnish-Russian area near Petrograd, Russia, where his family was forcibly resettled by the Czarist Russians after his grandfather spent seven years in Siberia for participating in a failed uprising against Russian rule in 1863, he grew up steeped in the militant patriotism of the motivated exile. The family moved to Lithuania when he was a boy – where he joined the Boy Scouts.
For those of you who have watched your kids make Pinewood Derby cars and go camping, that seems pretty innocent. But in Poland – or among ethnic Poles scattered all over Russian Europe at the time – Scouting in Poland – the “Związek Harcerstwa Polskiego” (Polish Scouting and Guides) or ZHP – was, however, considered an underground paramilitary organization and an instrument of undesirable Polish patriotism. ZHP fought in the Russo-Polish war as well as as part of the Polish Underground in World War 2.
And that was Pilecki’s introduction to war. At age 17, as World War 1 devolved into the Russian Civil War, his Boy Scout troop became an irregular combat unit that fought against the Bolsheviks and, when the area was overrun, served as a guerrilla group until Poland’s independence. He then joined the new, regular Polish Army as a cavalryman, and fought at the Battle of Warsaw, the high-water mark of the Bolshevik advance into Poland. as well as the ensuing pursuit of the Bolsheviks back to Ukraine.
And then he finished high school, at age 20.
Over the next decade and a half, he was a gentleman farmer, a reserve cavalry officer, a husband and father (with two children born in the thirties), and a social worker.
When World War 2 started, he was called up and, at age 38, served as a cavalry platoon leader, and a ferocious one; his platoon destroyed seven German tanks, shot down one airplane, and destroyed two more on the ground as they retreated across Poland. During the war – which lasted barely over a month – he went from leading a platoon of 40 horsemen to the deputy commander of an Infantry division with a paper strength of 12,000 men (although by that point in the war it was more like 4,000). When Poland surrendered, he and his commander, Jan Włodarkiewicz. slipped away and went to Warsaw to found a resistance group. The two men built the group into one of the network of underground armies that undertook the resistance against the Nazis.
And it was while serving among the commanders of the Polish underground that the word of a German concentration camp near the Polish town of Oświęcim – “Auschwitz”, in German.
It was believed to be a fairly run-of-the-mill labor camp at the time Pilecki undertook the mission. On September 19, 1940 – 72 years ago today – carrying fake paperwork undre the name “Tomasz Serafiński”, Pilecki deliberately out into the middle of a roundup of Jews, and was hauled off to Auschwitz. He undertook to form an underground organization to gather information and eventually rebel against the Germans.
At the time, Auschwitz was still a labor camp – a terrible enough place, to be sure, but it hadn’t yet morphed into the Vernichtungslager, or “Extermination Camp”, that it would shortly.
But as it did, Pilecki was there. He and his organization – the “ZOW” (“Związek Organizacji Wojskowej“, or Union of Military Organizations) gathered information, built a radio transmitter out of smuggled parts and improvised bits and pieces, and reported on the gathering horror as the work camp evolved into a death camp.
It was Pilecki’s intelligence that the final, definitive reports of trains full of Jews being brought to the camp, gassed and burned – transmitted seventy years ago this month, and then smuggled via the Polish Underground (the “Home Army”, or Armija Krajowa, as it had become, the Polish nationalist branch of the resistance) to the Polish Government in Exile, and thence to Winston Churchill and FDR.
Who did shamefully little with it. We’ll come back to that later in this series.
Remember – this was in the middle of a concentration camp. The Gestapo eventually caught wind of the guerrilla group forming amid the death camp, with the radio transmitter, and began homing in on Pilecki. And in April of 1943, he and a couple of comrades overpowered a guard while assigned to a job outside the wire, cut the phone line to buy time to escape, and got away cleanly. Pilecki linked up with the Armia Krajowa in a few weeks, and went back to Warsaw. His war wasn’t nearly over.
He led an AK unit in the Warsaw Uprising in August of 1944 (of which much more in a couple of years); after the uprising’s betrayal by the Soviets, he – saved by his military commissions from drumhead execution – went into a German POW camp.
Which was liberated by the Soviets; Pilecki went to Italy and served in the Free Polish Army for the remainder of the war.
And that was when the real war began. The Polish government in exile sent Pilecki, under another fake ID, to organize anti-Soviet resistance; it’s largely forgotten in the west today, but armed resistance to the Soviets continued in Poland until the early fifties.
It was there, in 1946, that Pilecki’s cover was blown. He was arrested, tortured by the Soviets’ Polish Communist puppets, and executed after a show trial on May 25, 1948.
A few weeks back – not long after President Obama was making his “Polish Concentration Camp” gaffe – the people of Poland were undertaking a forensic expedition to find Pilecki’s remains; buried in an unmarked grave by the Communists, it’d taken decades of research.
“[Pilecki is] a hero because he volunteered to go to Auschwitz,” says Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland.
“He went to find out what was happening and tell the world.”…Since the fall of Communism in Poland, Pilecki has received several posthumous honors from the Polish government.
“But he is even more of a hero to the Jewish people of Poland,” according to Rabbi Schudrich.
Pilecki’s story is, in many ways, a microcosm of the Polish story; Poland was torn over the plight of its Jews; many Poles were virulently anti-semitic and actively collaborated with the Nazis – but the biggest contingent among the Righteous Among The Nations are Poles who risked and frequently lost all to help Jews hide, escape and resist; the nation then suffered years of battle between Stalinists and nationalists and the ensuing decades of Communist rule before finally leading the Soviet world in its own flight to freedom starting thirty years ago.