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Witold Pilecki

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Background Information

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Witold Pilecki
Witold Pilecki 1.JPG
pre-1939 photo
Born (1901-05-13)13 May 1901,
Olonets, Karelia, Russia
Died 25 May 1948(1948-05-25) (aged 47),
Warsaw, Poland

Witold Pilecki (13 May 1901 – 25 May 1948; Polish pronunciation:  [ˈvitɔlt piˈlɛt͡skʲi]; codenames Roman Jezierski, Tomasz Serafiński, Druh, Witold) was a soldier in the Second Polish Republic, the founder of the Secret Polish Army (Tajna Armia Polska) resistance group and a member of the Home Army ( Armia Krajowa). As the author of Witold's Report, the first intelligence report on Auschwitz concentration camp, Pilecki enabled the Polish government-in-exile to convince the Allies that the Holocaust was taking place.

During World War II, he volunteered for a Polish resistance operation to get imprisoned at Auschwitz 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 and took part in the Warsaw Uprising. He remained loyal to the London-based Polish government-in-exile and was executed in 1948 by the Stalinist secret police Urząd Bezpieczeństwa on charges of working for "foreign imperialism", thought to be a euphemism for MI6. Until 1989, information on his exploits and fate was suppressed by the Polish communist regime.

Early life

Witold Pilecki was born 13 May 1901, in Olonets east of Lake Ladoga in Karelia, Russia, where his family had been forcibly resettled by Imperial Russian authorities after the suppression of Poland's January Uprising of 1863–64. His grandfather, Józef Pilecki, had spent seven years in exile in Siberia for his part in the rising. In 1910, Pilecki moved with his family to Wilno (Vilnius, Lithuania), where he completed Commercial School and joined the secret ZHP Scouts organization. In 1916, he moved to Orel, Russia, where he founded a local ZHP group.

During World War I, in 1918, Pilecki joined a ZHP Scout section of the Polish self-defense units under General Władysław Wejtko in the Wilno area. When his sector of the front was overrun by the Bolsheviks, his unit for a time conducted partisan warfare behind enemy lines. Pilecki then joined the regular Polish Army and took part in the Polish-Soviet War of 1919–1920, serving under Major Jerzy Dąbrowski. He fought in the Polish retreat from Kiev as part of a cavalry unit defending Grodno (in present-day Belarus). On 5 August 1920, he joined the 211th Uhlan Regiment and fought in the crucial Battle of Warsaw and at Rudniki Forest (Puszcza Rudnicka) and took part in the liberation of Wilno. He was twice awarded the Krzyż Walecznych (Cross of Valor) for gallantry.

After the Polish-Soviet War ended in 1921 with the Peace of Riga, Pilecki passed his high-school graduation exams ( matura) in Wilno and passed the exams for an non-commissioned officer position in the Polish Army. He also studied at the Stefan Batory University in Wilno and rebuilt his family estate, ruined during the war. He then took officer training courses. He was assigned to a cavalry regiment in 1926 as ensign, or the second lieutenant of the reserves. While in the reserves, he actively supported local paramilitary training activities. In the interbellum, he worked on his family's farm in the village of Sukurcze and was known as a social work activist and an amateur painter. On 7 April 1931, he married Maria Pilecka (1906 – 6 February 2002), née Ostrowska. They had two children, born in Wilno: Andrzej (16 January 1932) and Zofia (14 March 1933). In 1938, he received the Silver Cross of Merit for his involvement in the community and 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 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 partially destroyed. 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. During that conflict (known in Poland as the September Campaign), 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's division was disbanded by 22 September, parts of it surrendering to their enemies. Pilecki returned to 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. TAP provided military expertise and leadership to the Armed Confederation (Konfederacja Zbrojna, KZ, the military arm of Konfederacja Narodu the Confederation of the Nation, KN). Both KZ and KN were clandestine incarnations of the pre-war National Radical Movement ( Ruch Narodowo Radykalny, also known as ONR – " Falanga" – a large extreme-right splinter group of the National Radical Camp). The leader of both KN and KZ was Bolesław Piasecki.

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, AK). Within AK, TAP elements became the core of the Wachlarz unit.


"The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland", note of Republic of Poland addressed to the League of Nations, 1942

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 the Germans' running of 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 innocent civilians (among them, Władysław Bartoszewski). After two days 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.

At Auschwitz, while working in various kommandos and surviving pneumonia, Pilecki organized an underground Union of Military Organizations ( Związek Organizacji Wojskowej, 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 were also broadcasting details on the number of arrivals and deaths in the camp, and the inmates’ state and their 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 ( Witold's Report) 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 personally convincing Home Army leaders 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, he made contact with the Home Army units. On 25 August 1943, Pilecki reached Warsaw and joined the Home Army's intelligence department. The Home Army, after losing several operatives in reconnoitering the vicinity of the camp, including the Cichociemny Stefan Jasieński, decided that it lacked sufficient strength to capture the camp without Allied help. Pilecki's detailed report (Raport Witolda Witold's Report) was sent to London, where the scale of Nazi atrocities at Auschwitz ("During the first 3 years, at Auschwitz there perished 2 million people; in the next 2 years—3 million") was thought to be grossly exaggerated. The British authorities refused the Home Army air support for an operation to help the inmates escape.

The Home Army in turn decided that it did not have enough force to storm the camp by itself. In 1944, the Russian 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 the camp. Until he became involved in the Warsaw Uprising, Pilecki remained in charge of coordinated 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 secret organization within the Home Army with the goal of preparing resistance against a possible Soviet occupation.

Warsaw Uprising

When the Warsaw Uprising broke out on 1 August 1944, Pilecki volunteered for the Kedyw's Chrobry II group and fought in "Mazur" platoon, 1st company "Warszawianka" of National Armed Forces. At first, he fought in the northern city centre 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. On the capitulation of the uprising, Pilecki hid some weapons in a private apartment and went into captivity. He spent the rest of the war in German prisoner-of-war camps at Łambinowice and Murnau.

Communist Poland

Photos of Pilecki from Mokotów prison (1947)

On 9 July 1945, Pilecki was liberated from the POW camp, and soon afterwards he joined the 2nd Polish Corps, which was stationed in Italy, where he wrote a monograph on Auschwitz. As the relations between the Polish government in exile and the Polish Committee of National Liberation worsened, in September 1945, Pilecki accepted orders from General Władysław Anders, commander of the 2nd Polish Corps (main unit of the Polish Armed Forces in the West) to return to Poland under a false identity and gather intelligence to be sent to the government in exile.

Pilecki returned to Poland in October 1945, where he proceeded to organize his intelligence network. In early 1946, the Polish government-in-exile decided that the postwar political situation afforded no hope of Poland's liberation and ordered all partisans still in the forests ( cursed soldiers) either to return to their normal civilian lives or to escape to the West. In July 1946, Pilecki was informed that his cover was blown and ordered to leave; he declined. In April 1947, he began collecting evidence on Soviet atrocities and on the prosecution of Poles (mostly members of the Home Army and the 2nd Polish Corps) and their executions or imprisonment in Soviet gulags.

Arrest and execution

Pilecki in the court (1948)
Trial of Pilecki (1948)

On 8 May 1947, he was arrested by the Ministry of Public Security. Prior to trial, he was repeatedly tortured. The investigation on 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 famous 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 him was presented by a future Polish prime minister, Józef Cyrankiewicz, himself an Auschwitz survivor. Pilecki was accused of illegal crossing of the borders, use of forged documents, not enlisting with the military, carrying illegal arms, espionage for General Władysław Anders (head of the military of the Polish Government-in-Exile), espionage for "foreign imperialism" (thought to be British intelligence) and preparing an assassination on several officials from the Ministry of Public Security of Poland. Pilecki denied the assassination charges, as well as espionage (although he admitted to passing information to the II Polish Corps of whom 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 Warsaw Mokotów Prison on ulica Rakowiecka street, by Staff Sergeant Piotr Śmietański. Śmietański was nicknamed by prisoners the "Butcher of the Mokotow Prison". Pilecki's place of burial has never been found but is thought to be somewhere within Powązki Cemetery. A symbolic gravestone was erected in his memory at Ostrowa Mazowiecka Cemetery after the fall of Communism in Poland. In 2012, Powazki was partially excavated in an effort to find Pilecki's remains.

Pilecki's conviction was part of a prosecution of 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. Cyrankiewicz escaped similar proceedings, having died; Łapiński died in 2004, before the trial was concluded.

Witold Pilecki and all others sentenced in the staged trial were rehabilitated on 1 October 1990. In 1995, he received posthumously the Order of Polonia Restituta and in 2006 he received the Order of the White Eagle, the highest Polish decoration.

Polish Army career summary

  • Second Lieutenant (podporucznik) from 1925
  • First Lieutenant (porucznik) from 11 November 1941 (promoted while at Auschwitz)
  • Captain (cavalry rotmistrz) from 11 November 1943.

Awards, decorations and citations

  • Knight of the Order of the White Eagle (posthumously, 2006)
  • 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
  • Auschwitz Cross
  • Warsaw Uprising Cross
  • Order of the Star of Perseverance (posthumously)
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