1901 - 1948

Witold Pilecki

Polish History Museum

“I tried to live in such a way that, when dying, I would rather feel happy than scared.”

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.

Julian Pilecki was working in Olonets as a forester. In nearby Petrozavodsk, he met his future wife, daughter of a Polish forester also forced to work far away from his native country.

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.

Witold as a child with his mother Ludwika and elder sister Maria. Sankt Petersburg, 1905.

“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.”

A fragment of Witold Pilecki’s poem “Sukurcze” (1930s) on his childhood pastime.
The Theatre Square in Vilnius; a postcard from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. 

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.

In Vilnius, Witold actively engaged in the secret Scout Movement. The Movement put a particular emphasis on patriotic education and developing values such as courage, brotherhood and honour, but also Homeland and struggle for independence.
During World War I, the Pileckis lived in Hawryłków (Mogilev Region), and Witold and his sister were continuing education in Orel, Russia. In 1916, Witold founded the first local scout group there. The photo shows him (sitting first from the right) with members of the Orel-based group (1917).

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 1921, after passing his final high school examinations, Witold Pilecki began studies at the Faculty of Fine Arts of the Stefan Batory University in Vilnius. However, due to the family’s difficult financial situation, he had to give up studies and start working.

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.

“Since childhood, my thoughts have focused on working on a farm,” he wrote in 1926, in his curriculum vitae just before assuming the post in Sukurcze.
On 7 April 1931, Witold Pilecki married Maria Ostrowska of Ostrów Mazowiecka, a primary school teacher in the nearby Krupa village (today Krupovo, Belarus). 
They had two children: Andrzej, born in 1932, and Zofia, born a year later.
Zosia and Andrzej Pilecki while playing a cavalryman and a young lady. Sukurcze, 1936.

“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.”

Zofia Pilecka [in:] Mariusz Majewski, „Wartości Witolda Pileckiego”, „Gość Niedzielny” 39/2013
Witold Pilecki with his friend, Aleksander Żeligowski from ”Krakusy”, on a porch of the manor house in Sukurcze.
Witold Pilecki with his wife and friends in front of the manor house in Sukurcze.
Witold Pilecki with his son Andrzej in a pen for calves.
In front of the manor house in Sukurcze.

“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.”

Witold Pilecki, quotation from the poem “Sukurcze”.
Apart from working at the estate and spending his time with his family, Witold was an active social worker: he established a farmers’ association, headed a voluntary fire brigade and chaired a local dairy. In the photo: Witold as a lecturer on modern farming.
Picture of St. Anthony with the Holy Infant painted in March 1930 by Witold Pilecki for the parish church in Krupa.

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.

A drawing from the letter to goddaughter Zosia Serafin.
Witold Pilecki expanded his military experience gained during the 1918-1920 fighting for the borders also in the Second Republic. In 1926, he was assigned as second lieutenant of the reserves to the 26th Greater Poland Cavalry Regiment. From 1928, he participated in cyclic military exercises. Initially, his skills were assessed as average, but soon he reached the “excellent” grade. In 1932, he started to form a voluntary cavalry unit “Krakus” in the Lida County.
Witold Pilecki in the uniform of the 26th Greater Poland Cavalry Regiment.

“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.”

Opinion from the promotion application of the second lieutenant of the reserves Witold Pilecki to the rank of lieutenant which – due to unknown reasons – was not granted before the war.
On 1 September 1939, the Third Reich attacked Poland, and on 17 September the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east. Poland was divided according to the rules set forth in a secret protocol to the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact of 23 August 1939. 2nd Lt. Res. Witold Pilecki fought against the Germans in the ranks of an infantry unit of the Polish Army “Prusy”. The lost defensive war against superior and better armed forces led to the German and Soviet occupation of Poland.

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).

2nd Lt. Witold Pilecki, with the Commander of the Secret Polish Army, Major Jan Włodarkiewicz aka “Drawicz”.

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.

Witold Pilecki – KL Auschwitz prisoner No. 4859.
KL Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest German Nazi concentration and death camp operating during World War II. For the first two years (1940-1942), it functioned exclusively as a concentration camp, mostly for Poles, and it was the place were detainees were exterminated due to inhuman conditions, murderous labour, tortures, executions and medical experiments. In March 1942, another camp, KL Auschwitz II-Birkenau was put into operation, which became a place of immediate extermination of Jews in gas chambers under the Nazi plan “Endlösung der Judenfrage” (ultimate solution of the Jewish issue), which was aimed at total extermination of the Jewish population of the countries occupied by the Third Reich. On 27 January 1945, the camp was liberated by the Red Army soldiers. 

“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.”

Witold Pilecki Report of 1945 (in:) Adam Cyra, “Ochotnik do Auschwitz” (Volunteer to Auschwitz), Oświęcim 2000, p. 266.
Witold Pilecki lived in the Auschwitz camp for two years and seven months until the time of his brave escape with two co-prisoners on the night of 26-27 April 1943. He fully experienced the hardships of camp life, the permanent threat of being killed and murderous practices aimed at terrifying and psychologically breaking the inmates. He survived and organized a clandestine Polish network in the camp under the name of the Union of the Military Organization.

“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.”

Witold Pilecki Report of 1945 (in:) Adam Cyra, “Ochotnik do Auschwitz” (Volunteer to Auschwitz), Oświęcim 2000, pp. 273-274.

“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.”

Witold Pilecki Report of 1945 (in:) Adam Cyra, “Ochotnik do Auschwitz” (Volunteer to Auschwitz), Oświęcim 2000, p. 275.
Witold Pilecki was providing the Polish underground authorities reports on the situation in KL Auschwitz – for the first time, as early as October of 1940 – which were forwarded to the government in London. After his 1943 escape, Pilecki wrote two reports and in 1945, after the war, he prepared the third one which contained an extensive account of his camp ordeal. Pilecki’s reports are extraordinary documents of how the Polish clandestine military organization functioned in KL Auschwitz, as well as a moving account of an eye-witness of Nazi crimes.

“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.”

Witold Pilecki Report of 1945 [in:] Adam Cyra, „Ochotnik do Auschwitz” (Volunteer to Auschwitz), Oświęcim 2000, p. 269.

“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.”

Witold Pilecki Report of 1945 [in:] Adam Cyra, „Ochotnik do Auschwitz” (Volunteer to Auschwitz), Oświęcim 2000, p. 293.

“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.”

Witold Pilecki Report of 1945 [in:] Adam Cyra, „Ochotnik do Auschwitz” (Volunteer to Auschwitz), Oświęcim 2000, p. 299.

“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.”

Witold Pilecki Report of 1945 [in:] Adam Cyra, „Ochotnik do Auschwitz” (Volunteer to Auschwitz), Oświęcim 2000, pp. 339-340.
In 1942, mass transports of European Jews started to come to KL Auschwitz II – Birkenau, which was the way of implementing the plan of total extermination of the Jewish population. Then, the Germans started to erect a complex of four huge crematoria, which were completed between March and June of 1943 – that terrifying and most tragic machine of the Holocaust. Before his escape, Witold Pilecki had seen the beginnings of the murderous practices and wrote about them in his reports, also in the report of 1943. The information reached the Allied countries via the Polish Government in London.
Quotations from Witold’s report of 1943.
In 1943, due to the threat of unmasking and prisoners fit for work being transported to other camps in Germany, Witold Pilecki decided to escape from Auschwitz. He was also eager to inform the Home Army in person about the camp and the plan to undertake a military action aimed at liberating prisoners. On the night of 26-27 April 1943, together with two other inmates, Jan Redzej and Edward Ciesielski, he made a successful escape.
In August 1943, Witold Pilecki went to Warsaw and he was actively engaged in clandestine activities of the Home Army’s Directorate of Sabotage and Diversion (KEDYW), where he served administrative roles. From spring of 1944, his principal activity was a service under the command of Colonel August Emil Fieldorf “Nil” in the “NIE” Organization, a strictly secret organization within the structures of the AK. The organization was to begin operation during the expected occupation of Poland by the Red Army, to counteract Soviet indoctrination and to maintain the struggle for independence.

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.

„Dear Zosieńka, you have such nice hair and you want to cut it. Try to keep it. More patience!” From a letter to his daughter Zofia dated 18 October 1943.
„Look for your equals – for the strong ones and square up to them. You will succeed, so push your sword deep into your enemies!! But to destroy weak creatures, the small ones, to take life away from them when God protects them - that is the conduct of cowards but never of knights.” From a letter to his son Andrzej. 1943/1944.
„My Dear Boy, I awfully regret that I cannot cuddle you closely to my chest. You took my rhymed remarks to your heart and probably even burst into tears. But as becomes a knight, you are thanking me politely for my letter.” From a letter to son Andrzej of 28 May 1944.

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.”

Instruction of how to use a fretsaw. 

A shelf made by Andrzej Pilecki according to the instruction prepared by his father.

In the Warsaw Uprising, the greatest military effort of the Polish Underground which began on 1 August 1944, Witold Pilecki – already a cavalry captain – was fighting in the “Chrobry II” Grouping. The Uprising was aimed to liberate the capital from under the German occupation and take control of the city before it was entered by the approaching Red Army. The lonely and sacrificial struggle against the German units of poorly armed insurgents supported by civilian population of Warsaw, having no expected support of Russia and the West, lasted for long 63 days.
After the fall of the Uprising, Pilecki was taken prisoner of war to the officers’ camp in Murnau from where he was communicating with his family by post.

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.

General Leopold Okulicki (from the left) and Jan Stanisław Jankowski during the show trial of 16 leaders of the Polish Undergroud State in Moscow, June 1945.
In Italy, Witold Pilecki reported to the 2nd Polish Corps under General Władysław Anders’ command who was preparing for the awaited conflict of the USSR with the Western Allies and liberation of Poland from the Soviet occupation. A network of contacts with the country was also being organized. The Captain was assigned the mission to collect information on the taking over of power by the communist regime. In December 1945, using the identity documents from the times of the occupation and the Murnau camp under the name of Roman Jezierski, he arrived in Warsaw.

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.

“Appreciating the importance of this issue in the life of the Polish Nation, special attention has to be devoted to it and while working among local communities, all available means should be applied to realize the assumed plan.”

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.”

Witold's Pilecki words [in:] Wiesław J. Wysocki, „Rotmistrz Witold Pilecki”, Warszawa 2012, p. 114.
Witold Pilecki was arrested on 8 May 1947 and detained in X Department of the Mokotów Prison where he was subjected to cruel interrogations for half a year. The aim was to force Witold Pilecki to “voluntarily” sign fabricated testimonies. As he euphemistically described it during the trial: “I signed protocols, most often not reading them since I was very tired at the time.” In the transcript of court proceedings these words are followed by a statement: "On grounds of state security, the presiding judge ordered that the trial be non-public pursuant to Article 209 of the Code of Military Criminal Law (K.W.P.K).”

“Compared with them, Auschwitz was just a trifle.” - During his wife’s visit in prison he is quoted as saying.

During the trial which began in March 1948, Captain Pilecki was accused, among others, of creating a spy network and planning assassinations of state functionaries. He denied these charges. His testimonies did not count, nor did his achievements and activities during the occupation; reports on his stay in Auschwitz were not admitted as evidence in the case by Colonel Józef Rożański who supervised the investigation.
Witold Pilecki’s trial and that of seven people arrested with him began on 3 March 1948.

“All my life I have worked for Poland.”

The first sentence of Captain Pilecki’s letter to Bolesław Bierut with a petition for “granting the prerogative of mercy,” 7 May 1948.

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.

The death sentence was carried out on 25 May 1948. To this day, the place of Witold Pilecki’s burial has remained unknown. As in the case of many other victims of the Stalin era crimes in Poland, the place of burial was concealed in order to wipe out all traces of these people’s existence and to doom them to oblivion.

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.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

„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

Credits: Story

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

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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