Witold’s Report from Auschwitz November, 2020
“Who entered had died. Who left, had been born again” (p.234)
Witold Pilecki was a giant of a person. A member of the Polish underground, he voluntarily had himself captured in 1940 and sent to Auschwitz, where he spent over 2 ½ years as a prisoner, working for the resistance to the Nazi occupation of Poland. He went in under an assumed name, Tomasz Serafinski, to protect his family in Warsaw, and remain undercover. Like everyone there, he suffered immense deprivation and witnessed humanities’ worst atrocities. While not the first concentration camp, Auschwitz was the largest, and it needed a large number of prisoners to both build and maintain the camp itself. Many of these prisoners were simply worked to death, laboring under inhumane conditions while sick, hungry and numb with cold, beaten and attacked by sadistic guards and their dogs.
One by one, Pilecki managed to secretly organize other resisters inside the camp, and during his time inside, he built a strong underground network that supported other prisoners with stolen food, clothing, anti-typhus vaccine1, etc., as well as reporting out the conditions at Auschwitz to his colleagues in the Polish underground. These men were preparing themselves to attack those running the camp, should the order come from the resistance.
It is hard to overestimate the severity of conditions in the camp; Pilecki writes in great detail a report that is painful even to read. As he recounts, “a kind of duality started to occur. When the body was under constant torture, sometimes a man would feel excellent spiritually, and I don’t mean in an abstract sort of way. Contentment started to nestle somewhere in the material brains…. Still the priority was to save my own body and prevent it from dying in order to organize anything here”. (p.73) And later: “I was fighting the most challenging fight of my life – the fight with myself.”(p.81) Nearly succumbing to pneumonia and near-burial under monstrous infestations of typhus-carrying lice, he says that “to doubt in the will to fight was to break down. When I realized that, I revived”. (p.90)
As he recounts, systematic killings at Auschwitz began with the first transfer of Poles to the camp. Thirty German prisoners (Kapos) were the first exterminators. If a Polish prisoner could get a job “under the roof” or in the Commandant’s newly–formed orchestra, he (men only in the early years) had a better chance at survival. He recounts the macabre incongruity of the music: “Columns of boundless physical human misery, surrounded by the oppressors beating them with rods, had to keep up with the rhythm of the merry melodies”. (p.102) People who went to the infirmary rarely left, though there were doctors who were part of the organization and helped provide cover and other support.
Although Pilecki learned how to survive to do the work he went to do, things became worse at Auschwitz as time went on, with the development and fine-tuning of means of murder. All this he documented and smuggled out to the resistance in Warsaw. Somehow, Pilecki managed to hold onto his humanity; he could not have been other than a figure of inspiration and, as Palestinians say, “sumud” (steadfastness) to those around him. “The only way to survive in the camp was by forming relationships with others, bonds of friendship, comradeship at work, mutual support….” (p.108) He lived this philosophy every day. In his words: “The Lager (camp) was a gauge that tested characters. Some fell into swamps of moral depravity. Others were shaping their character like grinders cutting crystals. We were cut with sharp instruments. Blows caused burning pain to the flesh, but they were like ploughs for the fields of the soul.” (p.236)
Despite being under constant risk of discovery, which would have inevitably led to his exit “via the chimney”, Pilecki made no attempt to escape. The Nazi policy of “collective responsibility” – the killing of 10 prisoners for everyone who escaped – was his deterrent. Those in the organization distanced themselves from escaping for that reason, until February, 1942, when the practice was discontinued as the oppressors needed the labour force so badly, and German prisoners were being included in the selection process. His daring escape with two others after 2 years, 7 months in hell, is riveting. Pilecki continued his work with the underground after his escape, and continued to work for freedom until he died. He was captured by the Soviets after the war ended, charged with espionage and executed in May, 1948, at 47 years of age. A true hero, he shall be remembered forever.
1 The secret supply of anti-typhus vaccine was one of the great achievements of the Polish underground which helped many Auz. prisoners survive.