Beyond Bravery

| September 8, 2013

Everyone in our military volunteers to perform hazardous duty if and when ordered.  We all did that when we raised our hand and took that oath on enlistment or commissioning.

Yet still, there are limits to what it’s reasonable to ask of anyone.  How would you react if someone came up with a mission that required an individual to:

  • allow themselves to be captured;
  • be imprisoned in a notorious concentration camp;
  • organize internal resistance and a spy network inside that camp;
  • send back regular reports of camp conditions;
  • stay there for 2 1/2 years; and
  • figure out how to escape if and when they ever wanted to come home.

Certainly few would propose such a mission for themselves or any of their subordinates.  Indeed, on hearing such a proposal I’d guess most of us would probably react with some variation of the coarse line from the old Cheech and Chong routine about kamikaze pilots:  “You outa you f**king mind!”

Now assume that someone had actually done the above.  How many of us believe that same individual would then afterwards:

  • voluntarily go behind enemy lines yet again to take part in an insurrection;
  • survive being captured a second time and held captive for another 9 months;
  • return to full duty yet again after being released; and then
  • voluntarily go behind enemy lines yet another time – this time to serve as a spy?

Most of us would probably regard any story containing such a collection of accomplishments the plot outline for a horrible spy novel.  That is, we’d say it was so ridiculously preposterous as to be completely unbelievable.

Except it isn’t preposterous.  It actually happened.

And the place to which this man allowed himself to be sent and imprisoned for 2 1/2 years?  It was called “Auschwitz”.

The man’s name was Witold Pilecki.  He was an officer in the Polish Army during World War II.

Witold Pilecki, pre-1939 photo

You’ve probably never heard of Witold Pilecki; until recently, I hadn’t either.  There’s a reason, and we’ll get to that in a bit.

Early Life.

Witold Pilecki was born in 1901 in Russia, in the region east of Lake Lagoda.  His family, however, was Polish.  They had been forcibly resettled after the Polish-Lithuanian January Uprising of 1863-1864.  His grandfather had been exiled to Siberia for seven years after that uprising.

In 1910, the elder Pilecki relocated his family to the vicinity of Wilno, Poland (today Vilnius, Lithuania).  In 1918, Witold Pilecki joined a Scout unit affiliated with local Polish self-defense units in the Wilno area.  He fought against Russian Bolshevik forces from 1918 to 1920 during the immediate aftermath of World War I and the Polish-Russian War – sometimes fighting conventionally, and at times fighting behind enemy lines in partisan operations.  He served with distinction, twice receiving the Cross of Valor (by description, it appears roughly comparable to either the Silver Star or Bronze Star with V/Device).

After the end of the Polish-Russian War, Pilecki continued his military career.  He passed NCO exams in 1921.  After taking additional officer training courses, he was commissioned a reserve officer and assigned to a cavalry regiment in 1926.

World War II.

At the outset of World War II, Pilecki’s unit (the 41st Infantry Division) initially fought against German forces – and then fought on two fronts after the Soviets invaded Poland.  His division dissolved on 22 September 1939, with some units surrendering.  Pilecki and his commander instead made their way to Warsaw.

Pilecki’s war was hardly over.  He and his commander founded Tajna Armia Polska (TAP), one of the first clandestine underground resistance organizations in Poland, on 9 November 1939.  This organization later became a part of the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa).

The Polish Home Army soon learned that the Nazis had begun large-scale concentration camp operations at Auschwitz.  However, they had no detailed knowledge of what was happening at the place.  To gather such detailed knowledge, in 1940 Pilecki conceived a plan that was on its face nearly unbelievable.  He proposed that he allow himself to be intentionally captured and sent to Auschwitz in order to gather intelligence and organize inmate resistance.

Yes, you read that correctly.  Witold Pilecki volunteered to go to Auschwitz – as an inmate.


After his superiors approved the plan, Pilecki intentionally allowed himself to be captured during a Warsaw street roundup on 19 September 1940.  He arrived in Auschwitz on 21 September 1940.

He would remain an inmate in Auschwitz for over 2 1/2 years.

After arriving at Auschwitz, Pilecki organized an internal resistance group among Polish prisoners at the concentration camp portion of the complex (Auschwitz was a complex of multiple camps, and had both forced-labor camp and extermination center sections).  This group – Union of Military Organizations (Zwiazek Organizacji Wojskowej, or ZOW) – was formed to perform multiple functions; two of these were to set up intelligence networks and train for eventual takeover of the camp in the event of a relief attack.

Beginning in October 1940, ZOW began sending reports to Polish Home Army leadership in Warsaw.  From November 1940 on, these reports include information about Nazi genocide being conducted at Auschwitz.  By 1942, these reports were detailed, including the number of arrivals, deaths, camp conditions, and the state of inmates.  For a while, a homemade radio constructed by camp inmates was used to transmit these reports – until it was dismantled in the fall of 1942 due to concerns that someone with “loose lips” might disclose its existence.  Otherwise, reports were made by smuggling messages outside the camp.

ZOW hoped that an attempt would be made to liberate Auschwitz and free its inmates.  However, for various reasons no such attempt was ever made.  Further, by early 1943, Nazi forces were aware that ZOW was operating within Auschwitz.   The Nazis increased their efforts to identify ZOW members, finding and killing many.  Pilecki thus decided it was time to escape, hoping afterwards to personally convince resistance leadership that a rescue attempt was feasible.  He and two comrades escaped during the night of 26-27 April 1943 – Pilecki being wounded in the process – but taking with them stolen documents.


Pilecki was unable to convince Polish Home Army leadership to undertake a rescue attempt on Auschwitz (losses during recon of the Auschwitz area convinced leadership that this was not feasible without external help given their current strength and that of the Nazis – and the necessary external help was not forthcoming).  During this time, Pilecki wrote a long report (100+ pages) detailing his observations while an inmate at Auschwitz.  This report of conditions at Auschwitz – today termed Witold’s Report or Pilecki’s Report – was sent to the Polish government-in-exile in London, who in turn provided it to US and UK officials.  Pilecki’s report was the first hard data detailing the scope and scale of Nazi atrocities at Auschwitz received by the western Allies.  It is today considered the first record of the Holocaust.

After his return to the Polish Home Army, Pilecki maintained contact with ZOW.  However, when the Warsaw Uprising began in August 1944, Pilecki volunteered to take part.  He first fought incognito in the northern part of the city center as a private, though he’d been promoted to Captain by that time.  After the loss of other officers in his unit, however, Pilecki disclosed his true rank and accepted command.  He and his unit acquitted themselves admirably in hard fighting until the end of the uprising, at which time Pilecki was again taken prisoner by Nazi forces.  (Since his previous captivity at Auschwitz was under another name and he’d used fake identity documents to back that false identity, the Nazi’s didn’t realize Pilecki was an Auschwitz escapee).  He remained a POW until he was released on 9 July 1945.

On his release, Pilecki again rejoined the Polish armed forces – this time the 2nd Polish Corps in Northern Italy.  While there, he composed a more extensive and comprehensive report on his experiences at Auschwitz.

Postwar Spy and Death.

By fall 1945, relations between the pro-Western Polish government-in-exile and the Soviet-imposed,   Communist-led Polish Committee of National Liberation in Poland itself had deteriorated badly.  Having no love for Communism (he had joined an anti-Communist organization during his resistance activities during World War II), Pilecki accepted orders from the commander of the 2nd Polish Corps to return to Poland under an assumed name and serve as a spy for the Polish government-in-exile.  Pilecki accepted these orders, and went to serve behind enemy lines – for the fourth time in his career – in October 1945.

By early 1946, the Polish government-in-exile determined that prospects for Polish liberation from Soviet occupation and domination in the near term were essentially nil.  They ordered resistance operations to cease and all partisans operating to stand down and return to civilian life or escape to the West.

Rather than returning to the west, Pilecki remained in Poland.

In July 1946, Pilecki was advised that his cover was blown.  Pilecki still opted to remain.  He  collected and reported information proving that the Polish People’s Referendum of 30 June 1946 had been rigged.  In April 1947, he began collecting information on postwar Soviet atrocities concerning members of the non-communist Polish wartime resistance.

Pilecki was arrested on 8 May 1947.  After his arrest, he was held at Warsaw’s notorious Mokotow Prison.  He was repeatedly tortured, given a show trial, and convicted.  He was executed 10 days after conviction, on 25 May 1948.

On the day he died, he was 47 years and 12 days old.

He is believed to be be buried in a mass grave in Powazki Cemetery in the Wola District of Warsaw, though some accounts give his possible place of burial as in a meadow next to the Sluzewiec Cemetery (also in Warsaw).  Though attempts have been made to find his actual grave, his remains have not yet been located.

Acknowledgement and Honors.

For years, Pilecki was an Orwellian “unperson” in Poland and the Soviet block; his story was thus suppressed.  With the fall of Communism, however, Pilecki was officially rehabilitated by the Polish government on 1 October 1990.  He was retroactively cleared of all charges and convictions.  He has since been posthumously awarded two of the three highest decorations granted by the state of Poland.  A symbolic gravestone in Pilecki’s memory has also been erected in Ostrowa Mazowiecka Cemetery.

Since the fall of Communism, Pilecki’s story has become better known.  A film about him was made in Poland in 2006 and was well-received.  (Reportedly, other film projects are being considered.)  And in 2012, an English-language book was published about him:  The Auschwitz Volunteer:  Beyond Bravery.  Pilecki is credited as the author; Jarek Garlinski, as translator. It’s apparently based on the longer version of his report he prepared after his release as a POW in 1945.  I’ve shamelessly stolen the subtitle for this article.

I haven’t acquired a copy and read it – yet.  I will soon.

. . .

How does one begin to describe such an awe-inspiring story and life, or one’s reaction to same?  Words fail; I simply can’t come up with anything fitting.  Perhaps the closest I’ve seen to something appropriate was a statement by Michael Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, writing about the Catholic Witold Pilecki:

When God created the human being, God had in mind that we should all
be like Captain Witold Pilecki, of blessed memory.

I’ll only add that it’s about time the world honored this man.


Notes on Sources:

Though most are short, good overviews of Pilecki’s life and/or wartime and postwar actions can be found at the following sources:,Rotamaster-Witold-Pilecki.html–Witold-Pilecki-Allows-Himself-to-be-Captured-by-the-Nazis.html

Pilecki’s report on Auschwitz can be found here: (English translation of the 1943 version) (Downloadable RTF, Polish language, 1943 version)

The book, The Auschwitz Volunteer:  Beyond Bravery, can be ordered from Amazon or other sources.  This work is apparently based on Pilecki’s 1945 expansion and rewrite of his original report.

Category: Historical, Real Soldiers

Comments (21)

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  1. James says:

    There are those that walk on a different plane of life than the rest of us.

  2. OWB says:

    We are grateful that men such as this walk among us.

  3. Cortillaen says:

    Some men and women volunteer to serve, but the exceedingly rare few like Captain Pilecki are service incarnate. “Greater love hath no man than this…

  4. streetsweeper says:

    Very awesome, Hondo! That man had courage beyond any grasp I am thinking. Wow!

  5. Pave Low John says:

    The story of Captain Pilecki reminds me of another heroic figure from Eastern Europe, Tibor Rubin. He didn’t intentionally enter concentration camps, but his accomplishments were on a similar level of awe-inspiring:

  6. 2/17 Air Cav says:

    Gary Sinese would be perfect for this role.

  7. OWB says:

    AC – what a great idea. I might even pay to see that!

  8. OldSoldier54 says:

    Holy Lord of Heaven! How do you find these things, Hondo? OUTSTANDING post!!!

    The good Rabbi had it right, IMO.

    Captain Pilecki’s understanding and commitment to Duty was right up there with Miyamoto Musashi’s.

  9. OldSoldier54 says:

    I wonder what those who deny that the Holocaust ever happened have to say about this account?

  10. Kenneth says:

    Thank you for posting another of your excellent historical articles Hondo.

  11. Smitty says:

    now that is how you Ranger the fuck up!

  12. Badger says:

    Fellas, I gotta tell you: no matter what any of us have done or will do…we will NEVER EVER have the gigantic, collosal, Uber-Brobdingnagian (yes, I used “Brobdingnagian” in a sentence) COJONES that Witold Pilecki possessed.

  13. JohnC says:

    Some additional tidbits:

    Pilecki’s chose “Tomasz Serafinski” as his nom de guerre presuming the real Serafinski was KIA. After his escape (a plan which consisted of, “Step 1: Run fast. Step 2: Repeat Step 1 as necessary”), by amazing coincidence, the first person he met was … Tomasz Serafinski.

    Pilecki is alleged to have had a fling with the other under-appreciated legendary Polish spy, Christine Granville (née: Krystyna Skarbek). (Although, by that point, who hadn’t?)

    Pilecki’s response to his show-trial verdict:

    “I tried to live my life in such fashion, so that in my last hour, I would rather be happy than fearful […] I found happiness within me, resulting from the realization, that this fight was worth it.”

  14. Anonymous says:

    Hooah! (Not to overuse the word.)