A Bona Fide Hero

First off I know it’s been quite a while since I’ve blogged. No, that doesn’t mean that I’ve not had my normal quantity of deep, interesting and fascinating thoughts, but I’ve been so busy (facebook you cruel master) that I’ve not had the opportunity to blog.

Just to catch you up, it was C’s birthday this past weekend; we went to a great restaurant in Kennett Square, PA called the Half Moon Restaurant and Saloon where we dined on kangaroo loins. They were great and the experience was well worth the drive in Bob up there. We also had a lovely dinner with my mum and dad, complete with birthday cake and candles for him.

The Hero

Okay, so on to the title of this post. I’ve been thinking a lot about heros – not the sandwiches…well, sometimes the sandwiches – because I find them very strange. I find any kind of deification of an actual person to be off putting and limiting and vaguely dangerous; witness the slavish devotion to Kim Jong-Ill or Kim Ill-Sung or L. Ron Hubbard. It’s never good when the Great One can never be contradicted, when his every thought is to be regarded as a pearl of great wisdom, when the answers to all questions that have been asked or could ever be asked can be found in the Great One’s perfect thoughts and guidance.

So I was caught quite by surprise when I found out just the other day about Witold Pilecki, and the more I learned about him the more I realized he was a hero. No, I’m sure he still put his pants on one leg at a time but still. Snarkiness and cynicism fail me. He really was different from most.

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He volunteered to enter Auschwitz. He volunteered to enter that ghastly place and live there, trying to organize the inmates and spy on the Germans, to report to the world what was going on and to get it stopped.

But there’s more. His family had been dumped in far-off Karelia by the Russian Empire after taking part in the January Uprising, and he was born there in 1901. At 17 he joined the Polish self-defense scouts and fought against the Bolshevik invasion of Polish lands during World War I, even from behind the enemy’s lines. He joined the Polish Army and fought in the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1920, fighting in the crucial battle of Warsaw and was twice awarded the Krzyż Walecznych (Cross of Valor) for gallantry.

Between the wars he worked to restore his family estate which had been ruined, attended university, and married and had two children. He was what we would call a ‘community organizer’ and known for his activism, and his enjoyment of painting.

In World War II he fought the Germans’ Blitzkrieg as it invaded Poland and founded with his commander the Secret Polish Army. (Later incorporated into the Union for Armed Struggle and renamed the Home Army – Armi Krajowa or AK.)

In 1940 he presented a plan to enter Auschwitz concentration camp. (He didn’t just volunteer, it was his idea.) He deliberately got himself arrested during a roundup in Warsaw and suffered two days of torture before being put on the cattle train to the camp.

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There he survived pneumonia, witnessed the murder of hundreds of innocents, the degradation of the Polish and Jewish people, the death through overwork, neglect and lack of basic necessities. But he didn’t just witness it; he was beaten, he was starved, he did see friends hanged or shot for standing out of line, he was forced to stand in howling winds for hours on the Appelplatz in thin clothes while the dead were dragged from the barracks to make up the count (love those German beaurocrats). He did have lice on him so badly that he couldn’t see his skin underneath them, he saw the crematoria being built, the thousands of people turned into wisps of smoke, the doctor who delighted in injecting prisoners with phenol because they died nice and quickly.

He organized the Union of Military Organizations (Związek Organizacji Wojskowej, ZOW) whose purpose was to improve morale, provide and disseminate news, distribute food and clothing as best it could, and to train detachments to take over the camp in the event of a relief attack or airborne landing.

Are you counting? That’s two military organizations founded, and three wars so far.

His intelligence reports were being forwarded by Polish resistance to the Polish Government in Exile and to the British government in London, who refused to believe most of it (Anthony Eden specifically considering the claims that the Germans were gassing people as little more than Jewish and Polish hysteria) and who, with the Americans weren’t interested in doing anything to stop the killing. Bombing the train lines would have been a start, and it’s even been argued that the inmates in the camps were so close to death from infection, disease, starvation or overwork, or all of them, that bombing the camp itself would have been an act of mercy. Mercy was not forthcoming from the West.

After two years in the camp, he decided to break out hoping to personally convince AK that a mission to rescue the prisoners was a valid option. He stole many documents from the Germans and after making contact with AK, wrote the Raport Witolda, Witold’s Report, detailing what was happening in Auschwitz. It’s here and I strongly recommend you read it. Here’s an excerpt:

“Just next to us, two rollers were “working”. Supposedly, the aim was to level the ground. Yet they were working to do away the people, who were pulling them. Priests with addition of several other Polish prisoners up to the number 20-25, were yoked to it. In the second, larger one about 50 Jews were yoked. Krankenmann and another capo stood on the shafts and, by their body weight, increased the burden of the shaft, to press it down into the shoulders and necks of prisoners who were pulling the rolls. From time to time, the capo or Krankenmann with philosophical tranquillity let down his stick on somebody’s head, struck one prisoner or another, who was used as a beast of draught, with such strength that sometimes killed him at once or pushed him fainted under the roll, while beating the rest of prisoners to prevent them from stopping. From that small factory of dead bodies, many people were dragged off by their legs and laid in a row – to be counted during the roll-call.


“At nightfall Krankenmann, walking about the square, his hands behind his back, contemplated, with smile of satisfaction, those former prisoners lying already in peace.”

Still the British Army refused the AK air support for an operation to help the inmates escape considering it too risky. Also, the idea that millions of people were being killed for no particuar reason other than their race or belief or nationality was deemed an obvious exaggeration. People didn’t do that sort of thing.

So he retired, right? Nope.

He joined a secret anti-communist organization – NIE or (“NO” – Niepodleglosc – Independence) with the goal of resisting a possible Soviet occupation. He fought in the 1944 Warsaw uprising when the Poles of Warsaw struggled to liberate their city before the Soviets arrived, demonstrate Polish sovereignty, and then allow the Soviets to enter the city without facing German fire. Here we add an Eastern betrayal to the Western one – the Soviets stopped short of the city, remaining in the eastern suburbs, 100 meters from Polish positions, and let the two mismatched sides fight it out.

Please keep this uprising separate in your mind from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In this uprising, while the Soviets stood by, 16,000 Polish fighters were killed and approximately 175,000 Warsaw citizens. By the time the Soviets finally entered Warsaw it was 85% destroyed.

Our hero was taken POW by the Germans, but on liberation he joined the Polish Army (loyal to the Government-in-Exile) in Italy. There he received orders to assume another false identity and gather intelligence for the G-i-E. The hopes for a democratic and independent Poland were crushed by 1946 and Pilecki was told his cover was blown and ordered to leave; he refused to begin collecting evidence on Soviet atrocities and on the persecution of any Pole who was involved with the AK, their killings or banishment to the gulag.

In 1947, he was arrested by the communist security service, tortured (again) but revealed no sensitive information.

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Photo of Captain Pilecki taken by the communist secret police, 1947

After a show trial he was executed by the communists and his body dumped into an unmarked grave near a municipal tip, and all records or discussion of his exploits were censored by the communists. His son afterwards said:

“For years our family lived feeling profoundly wronged and ostracized, because not only was our father taken away from us, but also his good name and his memory were veiled in a poisonous shroud of accusations of treason. It burdened our hearts for a long time.

“It was very difficult to dilute this [poisoned] atmosphere, because the resistance from the communist institutions and number of individuals supporting them was very significant. Even during the III Republic [of Poland], the old regime did not allow overturn the ‘court sanctioned murder’ (pol. ‘Zbrodnia Sadowa’) committed against Cavalry Captain Pilecki and his comrades, perpetrated against them during the years of Bierut’s reign. Only the anticommunist members of the democratic opposition cultivated the truth about Cavalry Captain Pilecki, and his heroism”

Since the fall of that regime, he has finally been rehabilitated and awarded Poland’s highest honors. I think that he can safely be considered a hero, don’t you?

2 Comments

Filed under Culture, Politics

2 responses to “A Bona Fide Hero

  1. Joe

    Thanks for such a great post. Great material.

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