Witold Pilecki (13 May 1901 – 25 May 1948, codenames Roman Jezierski, Tomasz Serafiński, Druh, Witold) was a Polish cavalryman and intelligence officer. He served as a rittmeister with the Polish Army during the Second Polish Republic and World War II. Pilecki was also the founder of the Secret Polish Army (Tajna Armia Polska) a resistance group in German-occupied Poland and was later a member of the underground Home Army (Armia Krajowa). He was the author of Witold’s Report, the first comprehensive Allied intelligence report on Auschwitz concentration camp and the Holocaust. He was Roman Catholic.
During World War II, he volunteered for a Polish resistance operation to get imprisoned in the Auschwitz death camp in order to gather intelligence and escape. While in the camp, Pilecki organized a resistance movement and, as early as 1941, informed the Western Allies of Nazi Germany’s Auschwitz atrocities. He escaped from the camp in 1943 after nearly two and a half years of imprisonment. Pilecki took part in the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944. He remained loyal to the London-based Polish government-in-exile after the Soviet-backed communist takeover of Poland and was arrested in 1947 by the Stalinist secret police (Urząd Bezpieczeństwa) on charges of working for “foreign imperialism”, thought to be a euphemism for MI6. He was executed after a show trial in 1948. Until 1989, information about his exploits and fate was suppressed by the Polish communist regime.
As a result of his efforts, he is considered as “one of the greatest wartime heroes”. In the foreword to the book The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery, Michael Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, wrote as follows: “When God created the human being, God had in mind that we should all be like Captain Witold Pilecki, of blessed memory.” In the introduction to that book Norman Davies, a British historian, wrote: “If there was an Allied hero who deserved to be remembered and celebrated, this was a person with few peers.” At the commemoration event of International Holocaust Remembrance Day held in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum on 27 January 2013 Ryszard Schnepf, the Polish Ambassador to the US, described Pilecki as a “diamond among Poland’s heroes” and “the highest example of Polish patriotism”.
Witold Pilecki was born on May 13, 1901 in the town of Olonets, Karelia in the Russian Empire. He was a descendant of a Polish noble family (szlachta) from the Grodno Region. His grandfather, Józef Pilecki, was an aristocrat and Polish-nationalist who had been a supporter of the secessionist Polish National Government during the January Uprising of 1863-1864. Following the defeat of the uprising, Józef Pilecki’s title was revoked and his estate was confiscated by the Russian government. He was also exiled to Siberia for seven years. After his release he and his family were forcibly resettled by Tsarist authorities to the remote territory of Karelia.
Witold’s father, Julian Pilecki, was educated in Saint Petersburg and joined the Russian civil service, taking a position as a senior inspector with the Board of National Forests in Karelia. He would eventually settle in the town of Olonets where he married Ludwika Pilecki née Osiecimska. Witold Pilecki was the fourth of couple’s five children. In 1910, Pilecki relocated with his family to Wilno (Vilnius, Lithuania), where he completed primary school and became a member of the secret ZHP Scouts organization. Shortly after the outbreak of World War I Wilno was occupied by the German Army, forcing Pilecki and his family to relocate to Mogilev, Byelorussia. In 1916 Pilecki moved to the city of Oryol, where he attended a local gymnasium and founded a local chapter of the ZHP group.
Polish-Soviet War and Military Career
Following the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, Pilecki returned to Wilno (now part of the newly independent Polish Second Republic) in 1918 and joined a ZHP Scout section of the Lithuanian and Belarusian Self-Defense Militia under General Władysław Wejtko. Wilno fell to Bolshevik forces on January 5, 1919 Pilecki and his unit resorted to partisan warfare behind Soviet lines. He and his comrades retreated to Białystok where Pilecki enlisted in Poland’s newly-established Volunteer Army. He took part in the Polish-Soviet War of 1919–1920, serving under Captain Jerzy Dąbrowski. He fought in the Kiev Offensive (1920) and as part of a cavalry unit defending the city of Grodno. On 5 August 1920, Pilecki joined the 211th Uhlan Regiment and fought in the crucial Battle of Warsaw and in the Rudniki Forest (Puszcza Rudnicka). Pilecki later took part in the liberation of Wilno and the Żeligowski rebellion. He was twice awarded the Krzyż Walecznych (Cross of Valor) for gallantry.
Following the conclusion of Polish-Soviet War in 1921, Pilecki was transferred to the army reserves and received an appointment as a non-commissioned officer. He went on to complete his secondary education (matura) later that same year. In 1922 Pilecki briefly attended the University of Poznań where he studied agriculture. He soon returned to Wilno and enrolled at the Faculty of Fine Arts at Stefan Batory University. Pilecki was forced to abandon his studies in 1924 due to both financial troubles and the declining health of his father. He remained active in the military as a member of the army reserves and served as a military instructor in Nowe Święcice. Pilecki later underwent officer-training at the Cavalry Reserve Officers’ Training School in Grudziądz. Following his graduation Pilecki was assigned to the 26th Lancer Regiment in July, 1925 with the rank of ensign. Pilecki would be promoted to second lieutenant the following year.
In September 1926 Pilecki became the owner of his family’s ancestral estate, Sukurcze, in the Lida district of the Nowogródek Voivodeship. Pilecki rebuilt and modernized the property’s manor house, which had been destroyed during World War I. On 7 April 1931, he married Maria Pilecka née Ostrowska (1906 – 6 February 2002), a local school teacher. They had two children, born in Wilno: Andrzej (16 January 1932) and Zofia (14 March 1933). Pilecki and his family would later take up residence at Sukurcze. Pilecki developed a reputation as a community leader, a prominent social worker and amateur painter. He was also a vigorous advocate of rural development, founding an agricultural cooperative and also playing a major role in the building of a milk-processing plant in the district. In 1932 Pilecki established a cavalry training school in Lida. Shortly afterward he was appointed commander of the newly-established 1st Lidsky Squadron, a position he would hold until 1937, when this unit was absorbed into the Polish 19th Infantry Division. In 1938, Pilecki received the Silver Cross of Merit for his community activism and his social work.
World War II
Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, on 26 August 1939, Pilecki was mobilized as a cavalry platoon commander. He was assigned to the 19th Infantry Division under General Józef Kwaciszewski, part of the Polish Army Prusy. His unit took part in heavy fighting against the advancing Germans during the invasion of Poland and was almost completely destroyed following a clash with the German XVI Artillery Corps on September 5. Pilecki’s platoon withdrew to the southeast, toward Lwów (now L’viv, in Ukraine) and the Romanian bridgehead, and was incorporated into the recently formed 41st Infantry Division, in which he served as divisional second-in-command under Major Jan Włodarkiewicz. Pilecki and his men destroyed seven German tanks, shot down one aircraft, and destroyed two more on the ground.
On 17 September, the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland pursuant to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Involved in more heavy fighting on two fronts, Pilecki was seriously wounded at the Battle of Tomaszów Lubelski. His division was disbanded on 22 September, with parts of it surrendering to their enemies. He went into hiding in Warsaw with his commander, Major Włodarkiewicz. On 9 November 1939, the two men founded the Secret Polish Army (Tajna Armia Polska, TAP), one of the first underground organizations in Poland. Pilecki became organizational commander of TAP as it expanded to cover not only Warsaw, but Siedlce, Radom, Lublin, and other major cities of central Poland. By 1940, TAP had approximately 8,000 men (more than half of them armed), some 20 machine guns and several anti-tank rifles. Later, the organization was incorporated into the Union for Armed Struggle (Związek Walki Zbrojnej), later renamed and better known as the Home Army (Armia Krajowa, or AK). Within the AK, TAP elements became the core of the Wachlarz unit.
In 1940, Pilecki presented to his superiors a plan to enter Germany’s Auschwitz concentration camp at Oświęcim (the Polish name of the locality), gather intelligence on the camp from the inside and organize inmate resistance. Until then, little had been known about how the Germans ran the camp, and it was thought to be an internment camp or large prison rather than a death camp. His superiors approved the plan and provided him with a false identity card in the name of “Tomasz Serafiński”. On 19 September 1940, he deliberately went out during a Warsaw street roundup (łapanka) and was caught by the Germans, along with some 2,000 civilians (among them, Władysław Bartoszewski). After two days of detention in the Light Horse Guards Barracks, where prisoners suffered beatings with rubber truncheons, Pilecki was sent to Auschwitz and was assigned inmate number 4859. During his imprisonment, Pilecki was promoted to the rank of first lieutenant.
At Auschwitz, while working in various kommandos and surviving pneumonia, Pilecki organized the underground Union of Military Organizations Związek Organizacji Wojskowe (ZOW). Many smaller underground organizations at Auschwitz eventually merged with ZOW. ZOW’s tasks were to improve inmate morale, provide news from outside, distribute extra food and clothing to members, set up intelligence networks and train detachments to take over the camp in the event of a relief attack by the Home Army, arms airdrops or an airborne landing by the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade based in Britain.
ZOW provided the Polish underground with invaluable information about the camp. From October 1940, ZOW sent reports to Warsaw, and beginning in March 1941, Pilecki’s reports were being forwarded via the Polish resistance to the British government in London. In 1942, Pilecki’s resistance movement was also broadcasting details on the number of arrivals and deaths in the camp and the inmates’ conditions using a radio transmitter that was built by camp inmates. The secret radio station, built over seven months using smuggled parts, was broadcasting from the camp until the autumn of 1942, when it was dismantled by Pilecki’s men after concerns that the Germans might discover its location because of “one of our fellow’s big mouth”.
These reports were a principal source of intelligence on Auschwitz for the Western Allies. Pilecki hoped that either the Allies would drop arms or troops into the camp or that the Home Army would organize an assault on it from outside. Such plans, however, were all judged impossible to carry out. Meanwhile, the Gestapo redoubled its efforts to ferret out ZOW members, succeeding in killing many of them. Pilecki decided to break out of the camp with the hope of convincing Home Army leaders personally that a rescue attempt was a valid option. When he was assigned to a night shift at a camp bakery outside the fence, he and two comrades overpowered a guard, cut the phone line and escaped on the night of 26/27 April 1943, taking with them documents stolen from the Germans.
Outside the camp
After several days as a fugitive Pilecki made contact with units of the Home Army. On 25 August 1943, Pilecki reached Warsaw and was attached to Section II (intelligence and counter-intelligence) of the Home Army’s regional headquarters. After losing several operatives reconnoitering the vicinity of the camp, including the Cichociemny Stefan Jasieński, it was decided that the Home Army lacked sufficient strength to capture the camp without Allied help. Pilecki’s detailed report (Raport Witolda – Witold’s Report) estimated that “By March 1943 the number of people gassed on arrival reached 1.5 million.”.
In 1944, the Soviet Red Army, despite being within attacking distance of the camp, showed no interest in a joint effort with the Home Army and the ZOW to free it. Until he became involved in the Warsaw Uprising, Pilecki remained in charge of coordinating ZOW and AK activities and provided what limited support he was able to offer to ZOW.
On 23 February 1944, Pilecki was promoted to cavalry captain (rotmistrz) and joined a secret anti-communist organization, NIE (in Polish: “NO or NIEpodległość – INdependence”), formed as a clandestine organization within the Home Army with the goal of preparing resistance against a possible Soviet occupation.
When the Warsaw Uprising broke out on 1 August 1944, Pilecki volunteered for service with Kedyw’s Chrobry II Batallion group and fought in “Mazur” platoon, 1st company “Warszawianka” of the National Armed Forces. At first, he fought in the northern city center as a simple private, without revealing his actual rank. Later, as many officers fell, he disclosed his true identity and accepted command. His forces held a fortified area called the “Great Bastion of Warsaw”. It was one of the most outlying partisan redoubts and caused considerable difficulties for German supply lines. The bastion held for two weeks in the face of constant attacks by German infantry and armor. After the capitulation of the uprising, Pilecki hid some weapons in a private apartment and surrendered to the Wehrmacht on October 5, 1944. He was imprisoned at Stalag VIII-B, a German prisoner-of-war camp near Lamsdorf, Silesia. He was later transferred to Oflag VII A in Murnau, Bavaria where he was liberated by troops of the US 12th Armored Division on April 28, 1945.
Soon after the defeat of Nazi Germany, Pilecki was stationed in Great Britain as an officer of the Polish Armed Forces in the West. In October, 1945 he was reassigned to the military intelligence division of the Polish II Corps under General Władysław Anders and was posted to Ancona, Italy. While stationed there Pilecki wrote a monograph on his experiences at Auschwitz. As relations between Poland’s London based government-in-exile and the Soviet-backed Polish Committee of National Liberation deteriorated, Pilecki was ordered by General Anders to return to Poland and gather intelligence on the prevailing military and political situation in the country. Pilecki returned to Warsaw in December, 1945 and proceeded to begin organizing an intelligence gathering network, which included several wartime associates from Auschwitz and the Secret Polish Army (TAP).
In 1946 the Stalinist regime of President Boleslaw Bierut and Minister of Public Security Stanislaw Radkiewicz launched a purge against supposed anti-government elements in Polish society. During this time many Poles were arrested for their political affiliations, ethnicity or religion. In the span of a few months over 120 of these prisoners were executed by officers of the Ministry of Public Security. Over the remainder of the year, government troops crushed what remained of Poland’s anti-Soviet partisan movement.
Afterward, the Polish government-in-exile decided that the post-war political situation afforded no hope of Poland’s liberation and ordered the remaining active members of the Polish resistance (who became known as the cursed soldiers) to either return to their normal civilian lives or escape to the West. In July 1946, Pilecki was informed that his cover was blown and ordered to leave; but he declined. In April 1947, he began independently collecting evidence of Soviet atrocities committed in Poland as well as evidence of the unlawful arrest and prosecution of Home Army veterans and ex-members of the Polish Armed Forces in the West, which often resulted in execution or imprisonment.
Arrest and execution
On 8 May 1947, Pilecki was arrested by agents of the Ministry of Public Security. Prior to trial, he was repeatedly tortured. The investigation of Pilecki’s activities was supervised by Colonel Roman Romkowski. He was interrogated by Col. Józef Różański, and lieutenants S. Łyszkowski, W. Krawczyński, J. Kroszel, T. Słowianek, Eugeniusz Chimczak and S. Alaborski – men who were especially infamous for their savagery. But Pilecki sought to protect other prisoners and revealed no sensitive information.
On 3 March 1948, a show trial took place. Testimony against Pilecki was presented by a future Polish prime minister, Józef Cyrankiewicz, himself an Auschwitz survivor. Pilecki was charged with illegal border crossing, use of forged documents, not enlisting with the military, carrying illegal arms, espionage for General Władysław Anders, espionage for “foreign imperialism” (thought to be British intelligence) and planning to assassinate several officials of the Ministry of Public Security of Poland. Pilecki denied the assassination charges, as well as espionage, although he admitted to passing information to the 2nd Polish Corps, of which he considered himself an officer and thus claimed that he was not breaking any laws. He pleaded guilty to the other charges. On 15 May, with three of his comrades, he was sentenced to death. Ten days later, on 25 May 1948, Pilecki was executed at the Mokotów Prison in Warsaw (also known as Rakowiecka Prison), by Staff Sergeant Piotr Śmietański (who was nicknamed “The Butcher of Mokotow Prison” by the inmates).
During Pilecki’s last conversation with his wife he told her: “I cannot live. They killed me. Because Oświęcim [Auschwitz] compared with them was just a trifle.” His final words before his execution were “Long live free Poland”.
Pilecki’s place of burial has never been found but is thought to be somewhere within Warsaw’s Powązki Cemetery. After the fall of communism in Poland a symbolic gravestone was erected in his memory at Ostrowa Mazowiecka Cemetery. In 2012, Powązki Cemetery was partially excavated in an effort to find Pilecki’s remains.
Pilecki’s show trial and execution was part of a wider campaign of repression against former Home Army members and others connected with the Polish Government-in-Exile in London. In 2003, the prosecutor, Czesław Łapiński, and several others involved in the trial were charged with complicity in Pilecki’s murder. Józef Cyrankiewicz, the chief prosecution witness, was already dead, and Łapiński died in 2004, before the trial was concluded.
Witold Pilecki and all others sentenced in the show trial were rehabilitated on 1 October 1990. In 1995, he was posthumously awarded the Order of Polonia Restituta and in 2006 he received the Order of the White Eagle, the highest Polish decoration. On 6 September 2013, he was posthumously promoted by the Minister of National Defence to the rank of Colonel.
Films about Pilecki include a 2006 made-for-TV movie, Śmierć rotmistrza Pileckiego (The Death of Captain Pilecki), starring Polish actor Marek Probosz; the 2015 film Pilecki starring Mateusz Bieryt; and the documentaries Against the Odds: Resistance in Nazi Concentration Camps (2004); and Heroes of War: Poland (2014) produced by Sky Vision for the History Channel UK. A number of books have been written about Pilecki. In addition, Pilecki’s comprehensive 1945 report on his undercover mission at Auschwitz was published in English for the first time in 2012, under the title The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery, and was hailed by The New York Times as “a historical document of the greatest importance”.
Sabaton wrote/performed a song about him known as “Inmate 4859” for their seventh studio album, Heroes.
Polish Army career summary
Second Lieutenant (podporucznik) from 1926
First Lieutenant (porucznik) from 11 November 1941 (promoted while at Auschwitz)
Captain (cavalry rotmistrz) from 11 November 1943
Colonel (pułkownik) from 6 September 2013 (posthumously).
Awards, decorations and citations
Knight of the Order of the White Eagle (posthumously, 2007)
Commander’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta – (posthumously, 1995)
Cross of Valour, awarded twice
Silver Cross of Merit (1938)
Army of Central Lithuania Cross of Merit
War Medal 1918–1921
Decade of Independence Regained
Warsaw Uprising Cross
Order of the Star of Perseverance (posthumously)