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.”