Beyond Bravery: an Addendum

| September 14, 2013

I’ve written a previous article about Captain Witold Pilecki, the Polish Army officer who volunteered to go to Auschwitz in order to gather intelligence and organize the inmates – and who stayed there for over 2 1/2  years, then escaped.  In that article, I noted that a book had been recently written about his time at Auschwitz:   The Auschwitz Volunteer:  Beyond Bravery.  It’s essentially an annotated English-language translation of Pilecki’s expanded 1945 report of his actions and observations while an inmate.

At the time I wrote my first article about Pilecki, I’d not had a chance to read the book.  I’ve since obtained a copy and read it.

The book deals almost exclusively with Pilecki’s time at Auschwitz and the period immediately following his escape.  It is not an easy book to read, nor is it a particularly enjoyable one.

Find a copy and read it anyway.

You owe it to yourself to force yourself to read it.  You also owe that to the millions who perished during the Holocaust – and to those who perished in other genocides and in other state-sponsored, industrial-scale organized murder campaigns that have occurred throughout human history.

You will be appalled, amazed, disgusted – and uplifted. While reading the book, often you’ll be all of these at once.

A sample:  here is an incident Pilecki reports from his time at Auschwitz during the summer of 1941.  The incident occurred after three inmates were discovered to have escaped.  Policy at the time in Auschwitz was to execute 10 other prisoners from the escapee’s “block” for each individual who attempted escape, presumably to act as a deterrent to future attempts.

A “death selection” was held immediately following the roll call in which an escapee’s absence had been noted.

The Camp Commandant and his retinue arrived in front of the block in which the escapee had been living, now standing in ten ranks, and walking down a rank he would point to inmates who appealed to him, or maybe to those who did not.

This rank would then take “five paces forward” and the whole retinue then walked down the next rank.

Some ranks had several people picked; others had none.

Those who looked death bravely in the eye were usually not chosen.

Not everyone could take the tension, and sometimes one would run forward, behind the inspecting team’s back, to the rank already inspected; these types were usually spotted and taken off to their death.

It once happened that a young man was chosen, whereupon an old man, a priest, stepped out of the ranks and asked the Camp Commandant to take him and release the young man.

This was a powerful moment and the block froze in amazement.

The Commandant agreed.

The heroic priest went to his death and the other inmate returned to the ranks.

The translator, Jarek Garlinski, adds the following footnote:

This was the famous case of Father Maksymilian Kolbe, who took the place of Franciszek Gajowniczek, who had a family.  Afterwards, camp authorities more or less left Gajowniczek alone and he survived.

Father Kolbe was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1982.


“We should thank God that such men lived.”

Category: Historical

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  1. OWB says:

    Excellent, Hondo.

    The best single source for information about the Holocaust that I have found is the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Their books (unfortunately, this one does not seem to be among them at this time), available for purchase, are here:

    Of course, there is a wealth of other information there as well. For instance, I secured photo copies of the initial US Army reports from the liberation of Dachau.

    Pilecki’s story and report were featured in the annual commemoration at the Museum this year:

  2. Ex-PH2 says:

    When I see something like this, first I wonder how on earth anyone could possibly escape one of those camps, because they were so well-guarded. And then to volunteer in order to spy, escape and go back to collect more information, as Pilecki did, is just mind boggling.

    These death camps aren’t new. The Nazis just did it so well. But Stalin did the same things, and the mass graves are currently being found and excavated in Russia. And Pol Pot did the same thing to his own people.

    It’s sitll going on in North Korea now. 22,000 people have apparently vanished from a prison camp in North Korea and the prison camp has been closed.

  3. Hondo says:

    Ex-PH2: Mass extermination campaigns predate industrial society. Ghengis Khan’s hordes had a policy of systematic depopulation in many conquered areas which resisted subjugation. This consisted of both the destruction of agricultural infrastructure (in order that the land would revert to pastoral areas more suitable for grazing) and the outright massacre of cities.

    As an example of the latter, the Herat Massacre in 1221 (the city was destroyed and the population intentionally slaughtered with only a handful of survivors) killed between 600,000 and 1,200,000 (accounts vary). The Persian city of Nishapur was also reportedly massacred the same year. Some accounts of that atrocity put the death toll at upwards of 1.7 million. The Uzbek city of Ugrench received a similar treatment a year earlier. There are many others.

    Mass slaughter, unfortunately, is historically an old phenomenon. And the Nazis weren’t even the worst offenders – though theirs was indeed bad, and they may have killed more per year than other sadistic regimes. The Soviets under Communism murdered far more people over a much longer period of time.

  4. MCPO NYC USN (Ret.) says:

    Sitting here enjoying my coffee and a great piece … Thanks Hondo. I do remember this story, now that you have reminded me. In fact, my mother sent me a clipped article many years ago. As a learning moment, I will recount this incredible story of bravery, love, and faith to my son today. I am raising a good Catholic boy and he IS a believer.

    One other thing Hondo, thanks for adding another book to my “I will read that book pile”, it is about ten deep now.

  5. Just an Old Dog says:

    I just wonder how some of the guards were able to do what they did, then assimilate back into society and stay hidden for decades.
    There are so many cases that came out about these kind old family men who worked for decades, raised families and attended church who were members of death squads.

  6. JohnC says:

    FYI, there is an hour-long video on Youtube about Pilecki well-worth watching.

    @2 Ex-PH2

    His escaped was based on a highly-intricate plan. Step one: Run fast. Step Two: Repeat Step One as necessary. The escape, though, wasn’t from the death camps: Auschwitz was a pretty vast place, some parts more Work/POW-ish than others. Which is part of why his story is amazing.

    It’s not his willingness accept violence he could otherwise have avoided (and then endure it with an admirably persistent high-spirted melancholy), or even how quickly and without difficultly he realized how the treatment of the jews was of a wholly different order than the German policy re the Poles: It’s that he was really, really good at his job. As in his story should be required reading for intelligence specialist.

    And that’s not just because of his pinpoint accuracy, or the ad-hoc sophistication of his ciphers and intelligence networks. If you buy (as I do) that his organization of, and the oddly minimal descriptions of the relationships between, the Polish nationalist and communist resistance cells was intentional, it suggests a prescient foretelling of the threats posed by a post-Nazi communist regime.

    His is the sort of story that gets more impressive the more you learn about him. That it, along with those of glamor-spy Krystyna Skarbek and Irena Sendler, all three of whose lives managed to intersect, hasn’t been made into a movie is a travesty. (A prospective “Fuck you, Hollywood!” for whenever they decide to make Fast and the Furious 7 instead.)

  7. rb325th says:

    I look forward to reading then passing the book on to my sons to read as both are very much into history…. We should never forget what happened.
    As is pointed out by Ex, it still goes on in North Korea. Yet there are those who think we should normalize relations with them, or at the least let them be.

  8. Devtun says:

    Hitler’s former body guard SS Staff Sgt Rochus Misch died this week at age 96 in Germany. He was loyal to the Fuhrer to the very end…claimed no knowlege of The Final Solution. Lucky bastard…didn’t have to flee to Brazil or Argentina.

  9. Hondo says:

    JohnC: if you wouldn’t mind, please post the YouTube link for the Pilecki video. I’m certain I’m not the only TAH reader who’d be interested.

  10. JohnC says:

    Captain Witold Pilecki and the Resistance in Auschwitz:
    (There a bit more about himelsewhere on Youtube, but only czy mo?na mówi? polski.)

    The thing that I find particularly remarkable is not just that Pilecki willingly put himself on Hell on Earth, but that, despite the opportunity to leave and the Gestapo closing in, he remained even after being told his reports (of atrocities) were unbelievable, and thus no liberation was forthcoming, hoping he could somehow convinced the allies otherwise. This may be my new standard for magnamity in the face of under-appreciation.

  11. Ex-PH2 says:

    It won’t stop unless we humans recognize that we are apex predators and stop preying on each other.

  12. MCPO NYC USN (Ret.) says:

    The camps in North Korea are ghost camps. As many as three generations of families have lived and been born inside such camps since the early to mid fifties. Can imagine the existance of only knowing the camp, the ways of the camp, the lack of any resource or adequate food and medicine? There is one such story of a young man, who was born in a NK ghost camp and escaped into China. I believe 60 Minutes covered it. Very sad story. I look forward to the end of the Korean War, liberation for all of Korea and freedom for those ghosts.

  13. JohnC says:

    @12 MCPO NYC USN (Ret.)

    “There is one such story of a young man, who was born in a NK ghost camp and escaped into China. I believe 60 Minutes covered it.”

    His name is Shin Dong-hyuk. He, with the aid of a journalist, wrote about his life and escape in the book, “Escape from Camp 14.”

    One memorable part of the book which he discussed during his interview with Anderson Cooper was his motivation to escape:

    [Shin] “I paid most attention to what kind of food he ate outside the camp. … [The other prisoner talked about] a lot of different things: boiled chicken, barbecue pig. The most important thing was the thought that even a prisoner like me could eat chicken and pork if I were able to escape the barb wires.”

    [Cooper] “I’ve heard people define freedom in many ways; I’ve never heard someone define it as broiled chicken.”

    “I still think of freedom in that way: People can eat what they want. It could be the greatest gift from God.”

    “You were ready to die just to get a good meal.”


  14. OWB says:

    PH: Most of us have never preyed on other human beings, therefore do not need to stop doing that which we have never done. It is unimaginable to many who would never consider preying on another human being that there are those among who would. Some of those are just lazy while others are unable to see it for other reasons. The conflict among these disparate groups which cannot or will not look at reality is one reason why evil flourishes.

  15. cptdrfrtim says:

    Apropos of the comment near the end of the “Addendum” about Franciszek Gajowniczek’s life being saved by the sacrifice made by Fr. Maximilian Kolbe: Not only did Mr. Gajowniczek survive Auschwitz, but he also attended the canonization of Kolbe in Rome by Pope John Paul II in 1982.

    Many thanks for bringing this amazing story to light, Hondo!

    cptdrfrtim (long-time TAH lurker; first-time commenter; chaplain on third overseas deployment in less than five years)

  16. DaveO says:

    Saint Maximilian Kolbe died by gunshot. The other prisoners who were selected ended up starving to death. The saint was reported to be the last of the group, and since the camp guards needed the cell to execute another group of prisoners, they shot him.

  17. MCPO NYC USN (Ret.) says:

    JohnC …. Yes Cooper. Thanks for helping us remember.

  18. TopGoz says:

    @16: If I may make a small correction; the normal means of murdering those selected in cases like Father Kolbe’s was starvation. The “selected” prisoners were locked in a cell and given no food or water until they died; a truly horrific and agonizing death. Father Kolbe was indeed the last surviving of the group, and he was killed by an injection of carbolic acid.
    Saint Maximilian Kolbe has long been an inspiration to me, along with Fr. Vincent Capodanno, the Grunt Padre and Medal of Honor recipient. There are many resources available about these two true heroes and I encourage everyone to learn more about them.

  19. BK says:

    Thank you so much for posting this. I will read this book. As horrible as the Holocaust was, in equal proportions the individual men and women who stood up in the face of such evil had an opportunity to display what great good is in mankind.

    We will always say a blessing for the righteous among the nations, and that includes so many of our brothers and sisters in uniforms. I believe any one of TAH readers/writers would be those we’d be writing books about now, G-d forbid we should ever be so tested in our times.