Witold Pilecki was a soldier of the Second Polish Republic, the founder of the Secret Polish Army Polish resistance group, and a member of the Home Army. He is now recognized as the only known person to volunteer to be imprisoned at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II.
Pilecki was born on May 13, 1901, in Karelia, Russia, where his family had been forcibly resettled by Tsarist Russian authorities after the suppression of Poland’s January Uprising of 1863-1864. In 1910, Pilecki moved with his family to Wilno (now Vilnius, Lithuania), where he joined the secret ZHP Scouts organization. In 1918, during World War I, Pilecki joined Polish self-defense units in the Wilno area, with which he helped collect weapons and disarm retreating German troops in what became the prelude to the Vilna offensive. During the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1920, Pilecki commanded a ZHP Scout section that was overrun by the Bolsheviks. He later joined the regular Polish Army and fought in the Polish retreat from Kyiv. On August 5, 1920, Pilecki joined the 211th Uhlan Regiment and fought in the Battle of Warsaw and at Rudniki Forest and took part in the liberation of Wilno.
During World War II, Pilecki smuggled himself into Auschwitz under the false name Tomasz Serafinski in 1940 and began recruiting members for an underground resistance group that he organized into a coherent movement. He began sending information about what was going on inside the camp and confirming that the Nazis were seeking the extermination of the Jews to Britain and the United States as early as 1941. Pilecki used a courier system that the Polish Resistance operated throughout occupied Europe to channel the reports to the Allies. Documents released from the Polish Archives that provided details of these reports again raised questions as to why the Allies, particularly Winston Churchill, never did anything to put an end to the atrocities being committed that they learned of so early in the war.
By 1942, Pilecki's resistance group had learned of the existence of the gas chambers and began work on several plans to liberate Auschwitz, including one in which the RAF would bomb the walls or Free Polish paratroopers would fly in from Britain. In 1943, when Pilecki realized that the Allies did not have plans to liberate the camp, he escaped with two other prisoners after he voluntarily spent 2½ years at the camp smuggling out its darkest secrets to the Allies. The documents released from the Polish Archives also included a Gestapo manhunt alert following Pilecki's escape.
In 1944, Pilecki was captured while fighting in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 and spent the rest of the war in a prisoner-of-war camp. He joined the Free Polish troops in Italy in July of 1945 and agreed to return to Poland and gather intelligence on its takeover by the Soviets. Pilecki was caught by the Polish Communist regime, tortured, interrogated for his espionage, and executed following a trial at which he was given three death sentences. Pilecki was executed on May 25, 1948, at Warsaw's Mokotow Prison.
The details of Pilecki's bravery could not truly emerge until after the collapse of Communism in 1989. He received posthumously the Order of Polonia Restituta in 1995 and the Order of the White Eagle, the highest Polish decoration in 2006.
Michael Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, said that Pilecki was “an example of inexplicable goodness at a time of inexplicable evil. There is ever-growing awareness of Poles helping Jews in the Holocaust, and how they paid with their lives, like Pilecki. We must honor these examples and follow them today in the parts of the world where there are horrors again.”