Poles are a courageous people and Catholic, Poles are "believers" that let their faith guide them in their courage. This Polish, Catholic, patriot is more so than others because he did something about his beliefs. He went into action to tell the world the truth!
Chanukah story of courage
Have you heard of Witold Pilecki?
A new book, “The Auschwitz
Volunteer: Beyond Bravery” (Aquila Polonica: 2012), documents, in his own
words, Pilecki’s remarkable exploits, and I can’t think of a better gift to
give yourself for Chanukah.
Pilecki was a Polish army captain
who volunteered at age 39 for one of the singular missions of World War II: to
get into Auschwitz.
On Sept. 19, 1940, Pilecki left the
hideout of the underground Polish Home Army, which he helped create, to
deliberately enter a German roundup. He was taken to Auschwitz, where he
survived vicious beatings, starvation and pneumonia, and, at the same time, set
about organizing resistance units, boosting morale and documenting the murder
taking place there.
Beginning in 1941, Pilecki used
couriers to smuggle out detailed reports of Auschwitz atrocities, reports that
reached the Polish resistance and the British government in London. In 1942, he
helped organize a secret radio station, using scrap parts, that regularly
broadcast the numbers of arrivals and deaths at the camp.
Courage, they say, is not the
absence of fear, but the ability to overcome it. Pilecki was a devout
Catholic and patriotic Pole. He was married with two children when he
volunteered for Auschwitz.
“The game that I was now playing at
Auschwitz was dangerous,” Pilecki wrote in his report. “This sentence does not
really convey the reality; in fact, I had gone far beyond what people in the
real world would consider dangerous.”
Pilecki’s detailed reports of what
was happening inside Auschwitz revealed the treachery of the “final solution”
to a world that believed the camp only held Polish and Soviet prisoners of war.
Perhaps because he wrote in factual, unemotional language, perhaps because he
wasn’t a Jew, his observations continue to carry an irrefutable weight.
“They have told me: ‘The more you
stick to the bare facts without any kind of commentary, the more valuable it
will all be,’ ” he wrote, speaking of his commanders. “Well, here I go … but we
were not made of wood, let alone stone, though it seems sometimes even a stone
would have broken out into a sweat.”
Trained as an army captain, he
quickly realized that only people with trades had a chance at survival here.
“ ‘Stupid f_____ intellectual,’ was
the most insulting epithet in the camp,” he recounted.
Pilecki posed as a carpenter, and
stayed alive by suckling from horses and eating their bug-infested bran.
Despite the extreme hardship, he stayed true to his task of documenting the
suffering around him.
Here is Pilecki describing how SS
officer Josef Klehr murdered inmates with phenol, the first such record:
“At first the injection was made
intravenously, but the victim lived too long — several minutes — so in order to
save time the system was changed and the injection was made straight into the
heart and the inmate lived much less — a few seconds. The still-twitching body
was pushed into the toilet behind a wall and the next number entered.”
In the spring of 1943, frustrated
with the Home Army and the Allies’ decision not to attack Auschwitz, Pilecki
decided to escape so he could convince the Home Army commanders in person.
“Captain 159 [a fellow inmate]
looked at me in some surprise and said, ‘… can one pick and choose when one
want to come to Auschwitz and when one wants to leave?’ I replied: ‘One can.’ ”
Indeed, Pilecki joined a bakery
detail, overwhelmed a guard and made good his escape.
Once free, Pilecki finished two more
complete and detailed versions of his report. In them, he estimated that around
2 million souls were killed at Auschwitz. When the reports reached London,
intelligence officials dismissed these numbers as an impossible exaggeration.
Pilecki went on to fight in the
Warsaw Uprising, then immediately after the war began working against Soviet
domination. Despite repeated warnings that Polish authorities, now in league
with the Soviets, were closing in on him, he refused to abandon his country and
Polish communists captured
Pilecki, accused him of collaboration with the West and sentenced him to
death in a show trial. Pilecki told a friend that torture at the hands of the
Soviet-trained Poles made Auschwitz look like “child’s play.” On May 25, 1948,
Pilecki was executed in Mokotow Prison, his body dumped in an unmarked grave.
He was 47.
Pilecki was posthumously exonerated
only after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when he was elevated to the
stature of Polish national hero and deemed a Righteous Gentile. “The Auschwitz
Volunteer,” which also includes useful and moving essays by Pilecki scholars
and admirers, is the first published translation of his report.
Great good, like great evil, is
mysterious. Pilecki’s Catholic background was the same as that of
countless collaborators. Indeed, many of his torturers in the Soviet-era
Polish security services were Jewish. His life complicates the
But this much I know about Witold
Pilecki: Once he set his mind to the good, he never wavered, never stopped. He
crossed the great human divide that separates knowing the right thing from
doing the right thing.
“There is always a difference
between saying you will do something and actually doing it,” he wrote in his
report. “A long time before, many years before, I had worked on myself in order
to be able to fuse the two.”
On this holiday that celebrates
courage, let us all work to follow his example, and celebrate Witold Pilecki,
too. Happy Chanukah.
Read an excerpt from “The Auschwitz
Rob Eshman is publisher and
editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at email@example.com.
You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.
version of this article appeared in print.