...And then managed to escape.
Upon entering the gates of the Auschwitz concentration camp, Witold Pilecki said that he “bade farewell to everything I had hitherto known on this earth and entered something seemingly no longer of it.”
There are people who volunteer to serve soup at homeless shelters or answer phones. Then there are people like Polish Army Captain Witold Pilecki.
During the early stages of World War II, he’d heard ominous things about what was occurring behind the gates of Auschwitz. But neither he nor the anti-Nazi Polish resistance he worked for knew for sure what was happening. But he and the resistance knew that somebody had to find out.
So Witold Pilecki, a man of sound body and mind, raised his hand and volunteered to enter the camp himself.
On the morning of September 19, 1940, the 39-year old Pilecki deliberately placed himself on a Warsaw street during a round-up of Poles. The Germans captured roughly 2,000 people alongside Pilecki. He was shocked by the immediate influence of crowd psychology; the people behaved as though they were sheep being herded, he’d later note.
Once he and the crowd were taken inside the camp, the horrors began. This was not an ordinary prison or POW camp. This was much, much worse.
“Together with a hundred other people, I at least reached the bathroom,” Pilecki said. “Here we gave everything away into bags, to which respective numbers were tied. Here our hair of head and body were cut off, and we were slightly sprinkled by cold water. I got a blow in my jaw with a heavy rod. I spat out my two teeth. Bleeding began. From that moment we became mere numbers — I wore the number 4859.”
In the early days of Auschwitz, Polish people accounted for a large population of the camp. They were killed in public, often in extremely brutal ways. Witold Pilecki, however, was assigned to hard labor; he loaded and unloaded rocks from wheelbarrows day in and day out. It’s possible that these rocks helped build the gas chambers or the crematorium.
Pilecki soon calculated that the food rations that most prisoners received would keep a human alive for only six weeks. A guard told him that if anyone lived much longer than that, it meant they’d stolen food. And the punishment for stealing was death. Pilecki began to realize that he’d willingly walked through the gates of Hell.
Even with death staring him in the face every day, he managed to organize a network of prisoners to aid him in the name of the Polish resistance. His comrades looked after each other’s food rations, work assignments, and helped Pilecki get correspondence to his commanding officer.
Sometimes, this entailed prisoners sneaking out messages sewn into clothes when carrying laundry into town. The reports could then make their way to the Polish underground army — but it could also take as long as four months for them to get there.
Pilecki now likely suspected that he’d be dead before his first intelligence report even reached the resistance, but he soldiered on and his network grew to at least 500 strong by 1942.
Pilecki and his network’s goal was to stage an uprising that would coincide with a rescue attempt by the Polish resistance (or any other ally). But that wasn’t going to happen; the underground army didn’t even believe Pilecki’s tale of the horrors of Auschwitz. The reports were so extreme that they felt he must have been exaggerating.