In March 1948, the communist authorities sentenced to death in a show trial Witold Pilecki, one of the most heroic soldiers of the Home Army (AK). In his publication “Six Faces of Courage” (London, 1978), a British historian, Prof. Michael Foot, named him one of the six most courageous members of the resistance movement during World War II.
After the collapse of communism, the Supreme Court acquitted Cavalry Captain Witold Pilecki of all charges and since then the process of restoring memory of his life and deeds has been in progress in Poland and in the world.
Witold Pilecki was born in 1901 in Olonets (Karelia, Russia), in the north-western borderland of the Russian Empire. He spent the first nine years of his life there. He was one of the five children of Julian and Ludwika née Osiecimska.
Witold came from a family with patriotic traditions. His mother would read novels by Henryk Sienkiewicz and patriotic poetry to her children.
The Pilecki and Osiecimski families were repressed for their participation in the anti-Russian January Uprising of 1863-64. Witold’s grandfather, Józef Pilecki, together with his family, was exiled to Siberia for seven years and his estate near Nowogródek (today Navahrudak, Belarus) confiscated. Among the soldiers of the Uprising, there were also two brothers of his mother, Hipolit and Hieronim Osiecimski, who managed to escape to France; the family lost their estates in the Mogilev Region.
“Then, however, being a teenager,
Who would listen to stories told by old aunts,
I was dreaming of a sabre, of Polish troops,
Of a trotting horse, of a night march, of a gallop.
On tree branches I was building castles.
I had my hiding places in the garden alleys.
I grouped flowers into military units:
These were cavalrymen, and those were dragons,
Hussars, Cossacks and peasant infantry.
Nettle stood for the Germans, yellow flowers for the Tartars.
I cut through the enemy lines with a wooden sword,
Saving my own troops from being crushed in the grass.”
Ludwika Pilecka with her children left Karelia in 1910 and moved to Vilnius, which was an important centre of Polish culture, tradition and underground freedom movement in the 19th century. After the 1905 Revolution and due to the Tsar’s concessions concerning education in the Russian-held territories, children in Vilnius could be taught in Polish. Witold began his education in a primary school. His father, Julian, had to remain in Olonets to provide for his family.
The end of the World War I on 11 November 1918 resulted in Poland regaining its independence. For three consecutive years, the reborn Second Republic continued fighting for its ultimate borders, including the war with Soviet Russia for its eastern borders.
Witold, who returned to Vilnius in autumn of 1918, was involved in fighting, which included defending the city as a member of voluntary self-defence units, and, in August of 1920, took part in the Battle of Warsaw near Płock within the ranks of the 211th Regiment of the Niemen Cavalry and in General Lucjan Żeligowski’s division.
In 1926, Witold Pilecki settled in Sukurcze near Lida (presently Belarus), becoming an administrator of his family estate where his parents and siblings had lived since 1918. Good management and successful investments in the development of the estate secured the family’s financial stability.
“He fostered my sensitivity towards nature. He showed me a ladybird and explained that it was also a part of God’s act of creation. I remember how he taught us everything as if he knew that time was running out and that he would soon have to leave us (…) First of all, he used to say that one had to be brave; that telling the truth was the most important thing of all - starting with ordinary life situations; that one had to be able to admit to a mistake. He did not tolerate lying and fantasizing. He wanted me to know how to cope with every situation. He admonished me when I was stooping at the table. Faith, hope, love, God, Honour and Homeland. When I remember those times, I realize that my father tried to pass these “signposts” over to us, taking into account our childish perception of things. I cannot fully understand this combination of his great sensitivity and delicate feelings with his stubbornness and determination in getting to the truth.”
“More or less in the middle of the Sukurcze estate,
There was the very heart of Sukurcze:
The spacious old manor house, the huge park, the courtyard,
My love of these things was probably the reason,
That there were no comparably beautiful things for me,
But even a visitor or a strange traveller,
Couldn’t but notice its charm and beauty.”
In spite of having suspended his artistic studies, Witold did not give up entirely his creative passions and skills. When he lived and worked on his family estate in Sukurcze, he painted pictures (e.g. for the parish church in Krupa), drew sketches for his children and his friends’ children, wrote verses and poems, and played the guitar.
“Ideological commitment – high; diligence and engagement in work – very high; training and tactical capabilities – very high; resistance to hardships – good. Fit for a front-line platoon commander.”
The nucleus of the Polish Underground State – the clandestine military organization Service for Poland’s Victory was established even before the capitulation of Warsaw. Its aim was to fight the occupying forces and to organize the army and the structures of administration. Soon afterwards, successive organizations emerged, including the Secret Polish Army, founded in Warsaw in November 1939. One of its founders and subsequently organization inspector was Witold Pilecki. The Secret Army engaged in the process of unifying the Polish underground and was incorporated into the structures of the Union for Armed Struggle, which later became the Home Army (ZWZ-AK).
As a soldier of the Secret Polish Army and with knowledge and approval of the ZWZ-AK commander, General Grot-Rowecki, Witold Pilecki, undertook the most courageous mission of his life – he agreed to be voluntarily detained in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
On 19 September 1940, he let the Germans arrest him in a roundup under the false name of “Tomasz Serafiński” and was sent to the camp in the second Warsaw transport.
“Not only the gun butts of SS-men struck our heads – something more struck them also. All our ideas were kicked off in a brutal way, to which ideas we had been acquainted on the Earth (to some order of matters, i. e. law). All that fizzled out. They tried to strike us most radically. To break us mentally as soon as possible.”
“Then, among Poles standing arm in arm, one thought was felt, we were all united by our rage, our desire of revenge. Now I felt myself to be in an environment perfectly ready to start my job, and I discovered in me a substitute of joy... In a while I was terrified if I was sane – joy here – this was probably insane... After all I felt joy – first of all for that reason I wanted to start my job, so I did not get in despair. That was a moment of a radical turn in my mental life. In an illness it would be called: the crisis had happily gone.”
“In that time the basic task was to establish a military organization, in order to keep up the spirits of my colleagues, by the delivery and dissemination of news from the outside, by the organization – to the best of our ability – of additional food and distribution of underwear among those organized, transmission of news to the outside and, as the crown of that all – the preparation of our units to seize the camp, when it became the order of the day, when an order to drop weapons or to land troops was given.”
“Together with a hundred of other people I at last reached the bathroom (...). Here our hairs of head and body were cut off and we were slightly sprinkled by nearly cold water. Here my two teeth were broken out, for that I was bearing a record tag with my number in my hand instead in my teeth, as it was required on that particular day by the bathroom chief (“Bademeister”). I got a blow in my jaws with a heavy rod. I spat out my two teeth. Bleeding began... Since that moment we became mere numbers.”
“I probably fought the hardest battle of my life. The problem was how to eat now and leave something for the morning. (…) Oh! Intensity of hunger goes through the entire scale of gradations. Sometimes, one felt that he would be capable of cutting out a piece of a dead body lying near the hospital.”
“I have to confess here that, for the first time, it seemed to me that I had not enough strength to go on fighting, to fight at all. I was in a dangerous psychological state. To have doubts about the sense of fighting means to break down. When I noticed that, I revived. I continued crushing lice on my neck and legs.”
“Yes, the picture of Oświęcim was changed radically. Then you could see (at least on the area of the base camp itself) neither breaking of heads to pieces by a spade, nor killing by knocking down a plank into one's intestines, nor crushing of the chest of a lying strengthless prisoner; there were no ribs broken by the pressure of the body of degenerated butchers who jumped with their heavy boots upon the chest of a prisoner. At that time, quietly and in silence, prisoners undressed stark naked, numbers, noted down in HKB by a German doctor of SS, stood in the corridor of block 20 (new numbering) and patiently awaited their turn. They came in individually behind a curtain into bath, where they were seated on a chair. Two butchers wrenched their arms backward, throwing out their chests forward, and Klehr made a phenol injection with a long needle just in their hearts.”
In spite of undercover activities, both after his escape from Auschwitz and before his stay in the camp, Witold Pilecki also tried to find time for his wife and children who had stayed in Ostrów Mazowiecka in the General Government since April 1940. They succeeded in leaving their native lands occupied by the Red Army where they were threatened with being deported by the NKVD to Siberia. Pilecki met with his family whenever he could and he sent letters full of love and fatherly advice to his children.
An unusual example of Witold Pilecki’s rapport with his children and bringing them up “from a distance” is an instruction of how to use a saw written for his son. In his letters, Pilecki took care of suggesting proper activities for his children, developing new skills and shaping their characters. “While performing this work you have to saw calmly, evenly and nicely, so the saws do not break; you have to be calm and move your hand evenly, without pressing on the fret saw (…). When I was eight I used to make nice boxes, shelves and all frames for pictures, and in the recent years, that skill, which is very pleasant by the way, has proved very useful for me.”
A shelf made by Andrzej Pilecki according to the instruction prepared by his father.
In July 1945, after the liberation of the Murnau camp by the Allies, Witold Pilecki left for Italy. The end of the war did not mean victory for the Captain nor for the majority of the Polish Underground. Although Poland was freed from the German occupation by the Red Army, Stalin imposed a puppet communist government in the country. In spring of 1945, the NKVD arrested 16 leaders of the Polish Underground State, including the last commander of the Home Army, Leopold Okulicki and the Government Delegate at Home, Jan Stanisław Jankowski. They were both killed in Soviet prisons. Many AK members decided to begin undercover operations which were mercilessly persecuted by the communist Secret Police (UB). Members of the AK, even those who were not engaged in the anticommunist activities were often sentenced to death or long-term imprisonment.
Witold Pilecki was against military struggle because he thought it ineffective in the current political situation and under the Soviet occupation of the country. He considered it reasonable to oppose communism by influencing the process of educating the young generation.
In spite of imminent dangers and of General Anders’ order to report to the 2nd Corps, Witold Pilecki did not want to leave Poland and persuaded his superiors to let him stay.
“I will stay. All cannot leave, somebody must remain regardless of consequences.”
“Compared with them, Auschwitz was just a trifle.” - During his wife’s visit in prison he is quoted as saying.
“All my life I have worked for Poland.”
Pilecki’s trial was one of the show trials organized by the communist authorities against thousands of former Home Army soldiers and participants of the anticommunist underground. Sentences – political decisions – were determined out of the courtroom. It was an element of terror aimed at destruction of the pro-independence opposition and at terrorizing the society.
It was not until after 1989, when communism collapsed in Poland, that it was possible to publically and commonly speak and write about the Captain. On 1 October 1990, Witold Pilecki was acquitted of all charges and in 1995 he received posthumously the Commandor’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta, and in 2006, the Order of the White Eagle.
In 2008, the Senate of the Republic of Poland issued a decree on restoring the person and heroic deeds of Witold Pilecki to the collective memory of Poles.
Numerous publications on the Captain himself – historical documents, albums – in Polish, English, French or Italian have been published. Pilecki’s report from KL Auschwitz was published in Polish and English. Many places in Poland have been named after Captain Pilecki, like schools, streets or squares.
In 2006, TV Theatre performance “Death of Captain Pilecki” (Śmierć rotmistrza Pileckiego) directed by Ryszard Bugajski was aired.
„Raport Witolda. Witold Pilecki – Tomasz Serfiński” (Witold’s report), oprac. Adam Cyra, „Biuletyn Towarzystwa Opieki nad Oświęcimiem” 1991, nr 12
Adam Cyra, „Ochotnik do Auschwitz. Witold Pilecki (1901-1948)” (A volunteer to Auschwitz. Witold Pilecki 1901-1948), Oświęcim 2000
Jacek Pawłowicz, „Rotmistrz Witold Pilecki 1901-1948” (Cavalry Captain Witold Pilecki 1901-1948), Warszawa 2008
Wiesław Jan Wysocki, „Rotmistrz Witold Pilecki 1901-1948” (Cavalry Captain Witold Pilecki 1901-1948), Warszawa 2012
Krzysztof Tracki, „Młodość Witolda Pileckiego” (Witold Pilecki in his Youth), Warszawa 2014
Specjalne podziękowania dla — Andrzeja Pileckiego, Zofii Optułowicz-Pileckiej, Adama Cyry, Dominiki Arendt-Wittchen
Autorzy wystawy — Ewa Wójcicka, Dorota Szkodzińska
Współpraca — Łukasz Kubacki, Jerzy Morawski
Konsultacja merytoryczna — dr Adam Cyra