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An army photo of Witold Pilecki

Witold Pilecki: the man who volunteered for Auschwitz

A colourised photo of Witold Pilecki

There was something different about prisoner number 4859. Like many of his fellow prisoners, 4859 had been arrested by the Nazis and slung into a new camp on the outskirts of the town of Oświęcim. So, what set this particular prisoner apart from his fellow detainees? 4859’s real name was Witold Pilecki and, unbelievably he was locked up in the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp voluntarily.

The story of Witold Pilecki was almost unknown in Poland before the fall of the communist regime in 1989. Indeed, to anyone who was aware of the name, Witold Pilecki was a traitor who had got what he deserved. The reality was very different.

Following the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, the occupiers quickly set about setting up a network of prison camps. Of those, Auschwitz would become the largest and most notorious in the Nazi concentration camp system.

After the camp became operational with the arrival of the first prisoners in May 1940, Auschwitz was something the Polish resistance was keen to know more about. What, exactly, was going on in the converted army barracks on the outskirts of the town of Oświęcim?

Enter Witold Pilecki. A seasoned and decorated veteran of the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1921 who had seen action at the Battle of Warsaw, Pilecki was eager to help out the resistance in any way he could. He, too, was eager to find out what was going on in Auschwitz, and he had a plan how to do just that.

Pilecki’s plan was simple. He would get himself arrested, get thrown in Auschwitz and then start gathering and smuggling out intelligence about the place. He presented his plan to infiltrate the camp to his superiors in the Autumn of 1940, and they eagerly accepted.

Armed with a false identity card, Pilecki joined a protest march against the Nazi regime in Warsaw on the 19th of September. He was swiftly rounded up and detained along with 2,000 other Polish civilians. After two days’ internment in an old cavalry barracks where he was beaten with rubber truncheons, Pilecki, known to his captors as ‘Tomasz Serafiński’, was transferred to Auschwitz and given the prisoner number 4859. He was in. Now for the hard part.

Once inside the camp, Pilecki wasted no time forming an underground resistance movement. Named the Związek Organizacji Wojskowej (ZOW), the organisation’s primary objectives were boosting the morale of inmates by smuggling in food, medications and clothing into the camp, as well as gathering intelligence and smuggling it out of the camp.

With the ZOW in place, Pilecki could now begin documenting the day-to-day brutalities of prison life as he watched Auschwitz transform from a prison camp mainly housing military and political prisoners to one devoted to the mass extermination of human life. And through it all, Witold Pilecki was always just seconds away from death.

During the two and a half years Pilecki spent at the camp, he was able to smuggle out huge amounts of information to his superiors. He also began training the ZOW for a potential violent takeover of the camp should the opportunity ever arise.

Of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis in World War II, an estimated one in six met their end in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Pilecki’s reports on the conditions in the camp began arriving in Warsaw in October 1940. Smuggled out by released prisoners, escaped prisoners and civilian workers who had been persuaded to help the ZOW, the reports of German mistreatment were soon being forwarded on to the Polish government-in-exile in London, who in turn passed them on to Churchill’s government.

Pilecki’s first report to reach London arrived in the Spring of 1941. It outlined the sadistic treatment of the prisoners in the camp. Over time, especially from May 1942 onwards, the nature of Pilecki’s information began to change. The camp had been extended in 1941, with a new, purpose-built secondary camp at Birkenau named Auschwitz II constructed primarily to house prisoners of war after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Those prisoners were soon killed by overwork, starvation, illness and execution and the new camp - alongside the original Auschwitz I - was soon changed from a prison to a factory of death, killing over a million Jews, Poles, Gypsies, homosexuals and anyone else the Nazis considered surplus to requirements. Of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis in World War II, an estimated one in six met their end in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Pilecki’s reports of murder on an industrial scale stunned the resistance in Warsaw, so much so that many struggled to believe what their inside man was telling them. They felt sure that the British would act when Pilecki’s descriptions of gas ovens and mass graves and punishment executions and impossible human suffering landed on the desk of Churchill and his cabinet, but no help ever came. Even a request to bomb the train lines that carried the prisoners through the gates of Birkenau was turned down, an act that would have halted the killing, if only temporarily.

By 1943, the Gestapo was hot on the heels of the ZOW, killing several of its most prominent members. It became clear to Pilecki that the information he had about the camp was too important to lose, and therefore the time had come to get out of there before he was sniffed out, tortured and killed. He managed to get a transfer to the camp’s bakery, situated two miles outside Auschwitz. With the aid of two friends, Pilecki cut the phone and alarm lines in the bakery, overpowered a guard and escaped using a duplicate key that opened the building’s front door. Witold Piecki left Auschwitz on the night of the 26th of April 1943. He had been there for just over two and a half years.

Pilecki made his way back to Warsaw to the headquarters of the Polish resistance, known as the Home Army. He compiled a comprehensive final report about his time in Auschwitz and the horrors he had witnessed there. Known as ‘Witold’s Report’, Pilecki’s account of mass executions, forced sterilisations and grotesque experiments makes for sober reading. That nothing was done about it, not even the disruption of the camp’s transportation links is one of the war’s most tragic missed opportunities.

Following his time in Auschwitz, Pilecki fought in the Warsaw Uprising of the summer of 1944. As the Soviets advanced towards the Polish capital, the Home Army rose up and attacked the occupying German forces in the hope that the Red Army would join in the fight and free the city. Unfortunately, Stalin had no desire to see the Polish resistance and the country’s government-in-exile run postwar Poland. He wanted the country to be governed by a communist regime that gave fealty to the Soviet Union. To achieve that aim, it would be useful if the Home Army was wiped off the face of the earth.

And so, to the horror of the fighting Poles, the Red Army sat back and allowed a ferocious German counterattack to crush the uprising. After the fight was over with many Poles wounded or killed, in an atrocious act of unnecessary vengeance and staggering cultural vandalism, the beautiful city of Warsaw was razed to the ground.

Pilecki was taken prisoner after the Uprising and spent the rest of the war in captivity, first in the town of Lansdorf in Silesia and then in a prisoner of war camp in Murnau in Bavaria. The camp was liberated by advancing American troops on the 28th of April 1945. Pilecki swiftly joined the intelligence division of the Polish II Army and was sent to Italy. He would not remain there for long, and it was his decision to return to his homeland that sealed his fate.

Witold Pilecki returned to Warsaw under an assumed name in December 1945 to begin gathering intelligence on the hostile Soviet regime that was now in charge of postwar Poland. Despite being warned that his cover had been blown, Pilecki took the unfortunate decision to choose duty over self-preservation, continuing with his work regardless of the risks. It was a fatal misjudgment. He was arrested in April 1947 and thrown in jail. After enduring almost a year of unspeakable torture and deprivation at the hands of his Soviet captors, a show trial was organized and held on 3rd March 1948. The death sentence was, of course, a foregone conclusion. Witold Pilecki was shot in the back of the head at Warsaw’s Mokotów Prison on May 25th 1948. He was forty-seven years old.

The story of Witold Pilecki lay dormant for decades. It wasn’t until the fall of the communist regime in 1989 that the tale of the man who smuggled himself into Auschwitz became widely known. Today, Pilecki is a venerated figure – a hero of the Polish people. He was posthumously awarded Poland’s highest military honour, the Order of the White Eagle, in 2006.