The courage within

A Pol­ish sol­dier vol­un­teered to be in­car­cer­ated at Auschwitz so he could re­port on the Nazis’ ac­tiv­i­ties in­side the death camp.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - by Glyn Harper.

A Pol­ish sol­dier vol­un­teered to be in­car­cer­ated at Auschwitz so he could re­port on the Nazis’ ac­tiv­i­ties in­side the death camp.

In the spring of 1940, Ger­man SS chief Hein­rich Himm­ler was in­ves­ti­gat­ing suit­able sites to es­tab­lish ex­ter­mi­na­tion camps. In these lo­ca­tions, en­e­mies and un­de­sir­ables of the Third Re­ich could be put to death with­out un­nec­es­sary dis­trac­tions or un­wel­come scru­tiny. One site he chose was an ugly lit­tle town of some 12,000 people in Up­per Sile­sia in Ger­man-oc­cu­pied Poland. It was malar­i­arid­den and poorly in­dus­tri­alised and few people went there. But the town of Auschwitz was per­fect. The Ger­mans took over 20 de­crepit army bar­racks and started build­ing an ex­ter­mi­na­tion camp. Two miles west of Auschwitz town were some par­al­lel blocks of huts at Birke­nau. These would be part of the Ausch­witz slaugh­ter fac­tory. In this area of 15 square miles (39sq km), from the mid­dle of 1940 to Jan­uary 1945, more than three mil­lion people would be put to death.

In Septem­ber 1940, a group of 1800 men picked up in War­saw in a rou­tine mass round-up by the Ger­mans were be­ing trans­ported to Auschwitz. De­nied food and wa­ter dur­ing the jour­ney, they had a bru­tal en­try into the camp. Hauled from the back of lor­ries un­der blind­ing lights, kicked and ri­fle-butted into line by SS men, snarled at by sav­age dogs, the new ar­rivals were shown how cheap life was at Auschwitz.

One of them later wrote: “On the way, one of us was told to run to a post at the side of the road; he was fol­lowed by a burst of au­to­matic weapons fire and mown down. Ten men were then dragged out of the ranks at ran­dom and shot with pis­tols as ‘col­lec­tive re­spon­si­bil­ity’ for the ‘es­cape’, which the SS them­selves had staged. All 11 of them were then dragged by leg straps. The dogs were teased with the bloody corpses and set on them. All this to the ac­com­pa­ni­ment of laugh­ter and jok­ing.

“We ap­proached a gate in a wire fence over which could be seen the sign ‘Ar­beit macht frei’ [Work makes you free]. It was only later that we learnt to un­der­stand it prop­erly.”

VOL­UN­TAR­ILY IN­CAR­CER­ATED

The writer of this pas­sage was a 39-year-old Pol­ish cav­alry of­fi­cer named Wi­told Pilecki. He had made the as­tound­ing choice to vol­un­tar­ily be in­car­cer­ated at Auschwitz so that he could re­port on its ac­tiv­i­ties to the Pol­ish Home Army – Poland’s anti-Nazi un­der­ground move­ment. It was an in­cred­i­bly risky mis­sion, one that Pilecki had sug­gested. It needed a man of re­mark­able courage to at­tempt it.

Wi­told Pilecki’s life was dom­i­nated by war and con­flict. He was born in 1901 at Olonets, Kare­lia – his fam­ily had been forcibly re­set­tled to this re­gion of Tsarist Rus­sia as pun­ish­ment for his grand­fa­ther’s in­volve­ment in the Pol­ish upris­ing of 1863. That grand­fa­ther, Józef Pilecki, also spent seven years in Siberian ex­ile for this “crime”. In 1910, the fam­ily moved to the eth­ni­cally Pol­ish city of Wilno, now Vil­nius, in Lithua­nia. Here, Wi­told fin­ished school and joined the se­cret Pol­ish Scouts move­ment.

This move­ment at first re­sisted the Bol­she­vik in­va­sion of Wilno and then car­ried out par­ti­san re­sis­tance be­hind the lines once the Bol­she­viks cap­tured the city. After Poland’s re-emer­gence as a na­tion state, Wi­told Pilecki im­me­di­ately joined the newly formed na­tional army and took an ac­tive part in the Pol­ish-Soviet War of 191921. He fought in the Kiev of­fen­sive and in the crit­i­cal bat­tle of War­saw. Although still in his teens, Pilecki was twice dec­o­rated with Poland’s Cross of Valour. The Pol­ish-Soviet War ended with the Peace of Riga. The Bol­she­viks were de­feated in this con­flict and gal­lant Poland pre­vented their ad­vance to East­ern Europe for a quar­ter of a cen­tury.

Dur­ing the in­ter-war years, Pilecki lived a nor­mal life. He mar­ried in 1931 and had two chil­dren. He worked on the fam­ily farm, painted, wrote po­etry and was ac­tive in char­ity work. He also re­mained ac­tive in Poland’s army re­serve, serv­ing as a ju­nior

“On the way, one of us was told to run to a post at the side of the road; he was fol­lowed by a burst of au­to­matic weapons fire and mown down. “

1. Wi­told Pilecki in 1940. 2. A busy meat mar­ket in Wilno, the Lithua­nian town Pilecki grew up in, in 1918. 3. Vladimir Lenin, whose in­vad­ing Bol­she­viks faced Pilecki’s re­sis­tance fight­ers in Wilno. 4. The en­trance to Auschwitz, adorned by the sign “Ar­beit macht frei” (Work makes you free). 5. Camp pho­tos of Pilecki. 6. Pol­ish Home Army sol­diers fight­ing the Ger­mans in the 1944 War­saw Upris­ing. 7. Re­sis­tance fight­ers rest in a church dur­ing the War­saw Upris­ing.

Hein­rich Himm­ler spear­headed the Ger­mans’ con­cen­tra­tion camp sys­tem.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.