The man who volunteered to go to Auschwitz

From Nine To Noon, 10:12 am on 25 July 2019

It's a story from World War Two that had never really been told before - one of a Polish man who volunteered to infiltrate Auschwitz and get word to the Allies about what was happening inside.

This file photo taken on March 3, 1948 shows Witold Pilecki testifying in court in Warsaw.

This file photo taken on March 3, 1948 shows Witold Pilecki testifying in court in Warsaw. Photo: AFP

When war reporter Jack Fairweather was in Iraq and Afghanistan an old war reporter friend told him about a resistance cell that was in Auschwitz.

“That news was quite shocking to me, I’ve always thought of Auschwitz as this place of great suffering and victimhood, the idea that anyone could stand up to the Nazis in a place like that seemed completely intriguing and I knew I had to find out more.”

Fairweather came across the name Witold Pilecki, and a story that only a handful of people knew.

The exploits of Pilecki are extraordinary - not only did he manage to survive the daily horror of the death camp, but he smuggled reports out of the camp, formed a 1000-strong resistance army within it, helped execute SS officers by putting typhus-infected lice on their uniforms - and finally escaped the camp himself.

Fairweather has traced his story in his new book The Volunteer.

“He’d been lost to history and I needed to find out why.”

Fairweather decided that one of the best things to do was to try and walk as closely in Pilecki’s shoes as possible.

Along the way Fairweather found people who had known him and even fought with him. One of the people was Pilecki’s nephew – who was three at the time and now 86 - who Fairweather took to the apartment were his uncle was arrested by the Gestapo, waiting to be seized as part of his plan to infiltrate Auschwitz.

“He relived for me a few of the memories he had of that momentous occasion when Pilecki demonstrated that first remarkable act of courage.”

Pilecki’s son accompanied Fairweather on parts of his journey, including parts of a hundred-mile dash across southern Poland which retraced Pilecki’s account of his escape from the camp.

“Pilecki was a reserve officer in the Polish military, before the war he had been a gentleman farmer in Eastern Poland, he was married, a father of two, he had fought with his unit against the Germans when they invaded Poland in September 1939 and had experienced that shocking, rapid defeat at the hands of the German Wehrmacht.”

He then decided to create a resistance cell in Warsaw in 1939, one of several that sprung up to resist the Nazis.

Auschwitz was originally opened for Polish political prisoners, says Fairweather.

“I think that’s what a lot of people coming to the story aren’t aware of, they think Auschwitz is this place of Jewish mass extermination and in actual fact it started as a very harsh and grim concentration camp for the Polish political prisoners.”

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Photo: Supplied

The underground was receiving information from a few of the released prisoners and death notices from the camp. They began to think something unusual was happening there and decided to infiltrate, Fairweather says.

Pilecki was asked if he’d be the person to go inside.

Holed up in an apartment waiting for a round up that he was told would take place, Fairweather says just before dawn German authorities turned up shouting and firing guns.

Pilecki turned to his nephew, handing him a teddy bear that had been on the floor, just as the door burst open and he was taken away, says Fairweather.

“Three days later he was in Auschwitz.”

The nephew had never before shared his memory of the teddy bear.

One thousand people were taken by train to Auschwitz where they were beaten, dragged to the camp, stripped and given numbers. Ten men were shot in front of them, Fairweather says.

“Pilecki began to realise that his ideas of quickly forming a cell and even perhaps staging an uprising in the camp, would have to be set to one side. He really had to find a way to survive in this morally inverted and ultra-violent landscape…

 “He was having to figure it all out while he himself a prisoner while simultaneously a victim of the camp’s system. He had to find names in some cases to describe the nature of these unprecedented acts of evil, he then would give them to messengers who made it all the way to London.”

Of Pilecki’s messages that made its way from the camp to London and the head of bomber command was the following:

“For the love of God, bomb this camp, it’s so bad here, even if you kill us, it will be worth it.”

It was the first call to bomb Auschwitz, says Fairweather, reaching allied commanders in 1941.

Fairweather describes Pilecki’s escape from Auschwitz as one of the most remarkable in the camp’s history.

“Four prisoners broke into an SS warehouse near the camp, stole SS uniforms, in the middle of the day, walked over to the commandant’s garage and took his car and just drove, dressed as SS men out the camp gates.”

It was a daring act, Fairweather says.

After leaving the camp, Pilecki tried to rally a force to attack it but those inside the camp, through secret messages, said it wouldn’t be enough.

He returned to Warsaw to find the city in turmoil as the Soviet Red Army were about to enter Poland and seize the capital.

Pilecki took part in the Warsaw uprising but was captured and put in another concentration camp for the rest of the war.

At the end of the war he was faced with a choice; would he live out his life in exile or would he go back to Poland and fight again.

Pilecki went back to organise another intelligence operation and set about trying to bring down the now communist regime in Poland.

“He was still thinking about Auschwitz, it was true that what was happening around him was terrible but just the sheer weight of the experience in the camp never left him.”

In the end Pilecki was betrayed and put on show trial after a brutal torture and executed, says Fairweather.