The spy inside Auschwitz: How a volunteer went inside the death camp to fight Nazis
New book looks at Witold Pilecki's courageous decision to save his country, the world
As Nazis swarmed into his building in Warsaw, Witold Pilecki knew they were rounding people up to be sent to Auschwitz, the concentration camp in Poland. But Pilecki didn't run — he wanted to be sent to the camp.
"Pilecki's already dressed as the rumble of German trucks approach,'" said author and journalist Jack Fairweather.
"There are shouts, gunshots from the streets outside. The building caretaker runs up the steps and bangs on the door and says: 'Get out, get out while you still can,'" Fairweather told The Current's Laura Lynch.
"Pileck says: 'Thank you for the information. I'm fine.'"
Fairweather said that moments later, the Germans burst through the door and arrested Pilecki. He was sent to Auschwitz, where he left the world he knew, and "stepped into a whole new dimension of suffering and pain."
But for Pilecki, it was all part of a plan to undermine the occupying German forces.
The former farmer and army reservist was a member of the underground resistance in Poland. In 1940, as more and more Poles disappeared into the newly established concentration camp, Pilecki and the rest of the underground realized they needed to know what was going on inside.
It was decided that Pilecki would be that man — their spy inside Auschwitz. He said goodbye to his family and put himself in the path of a Nazi roundup.
Fairweather has written about Pilecki's remarkable story of courage in his new book The Volunteer: One Man, An Underground Army, and the Secret Mission to Destroy Auschwitz.
Smuggling information and killing SS officers
In those early days, Auschwitz had not yet become a death camp, and was primarily used for Polish citizens and political prisoners. That meant prisoners were occasionally released, and Pilecki was able to use them to smuggle information back out.
Fairweather said the first message Pilecki sent made it all the way to Royal Air Force commanders in London.
"Please, for the love of God, bomb this camp," the message read.
"Even if it means we will be killed in the operation, because what is happening here is so terrible, it needs to end."
The request for bombs was never met — the Allies later said a strike that deep in enemy territory was too dangerous — and Pilecki and his fellow resistance fighters continued their campaign within the walls of Auschwitz.
One of their more audacious efforts was finding ways to kill the SS officers in the camp.
"Of course, they couldn't just shoot an SS officer in the head, or strangle one in his sleep, without leading to reprisals against the other prisoners," Fairweather said.
But Pilecki was a "problem solver," he added.
In early 1942, there was a typhus epidemic in the camp spread by lice.
"They would take vials of infected lice … and sprinkle them on to the coats of SS men."
Fairweather said one of their targets was a "very nasty SS doctor," who was one of the "prime perpetrators of the experiments against prisoners."
"The SS man found his place in hell through a dose of typhus-infected lice."
Escape from Auschwitz
In April 1943, Pilecki committed one final act of courage in the camp — an attempt to escape it.
As the horror had increased in the camp, he had planned escapes for several of his men, including one who dressed as an SS guard and simply drove out the front gate.
But every success made it harder, and Pilecki "had to come up with something equally audacious."
He secured a work transfer to a bakery, where he used dough to make moulds and copies of the keys. After he and some fellow resistance fighters made it through the door, they "had to sprint 200 yards with the guards shooting at them, and then had this hundred mile journey across Nazi-occupied Poland to reach a safe house," Fairweather said.
The success of his escape, however, did not bring Pilecki any peace, with Fairweather believing he likely suffered from what we would now call PTSD.
He fought for the resistance to immediately return and attack the camp, but found insufficient support among the resistance.
When the war ended and Poland came under Soviet rule, he refocused his energy on documenting "communist crimes against the people."
This political activity led to his arrest in 1947.
"He was brutally interrogated and tortured over a six-month period, every couple of days," Fairweather said.
In early 1948, he was found guilty of treason against Poland, and sentenced to death.
Fairweather said that "for all of that suffering, there is this amazing moment at the end of the trial, when they turned to Pilecki and say: 'Have you got anything you want to say?'"
"He says: 'I am' — to paraphrase — 'not sorry for what I've done. I take great pride and happiness in knowing that the fight was worth it.'"
Pilecki's story was suppressed by the Soviet regime; his writings locked away in an archive. But Fairweather said that has changed since the fall of the Iron Curtain, and he is now a national figure in Poland.
"This is a real sense of pride and recognition of what Pilecki did," he told Lynch.
Fairweather hopes his book can help to spread Pilecki's story to the English-speaking world, and have him recognized as "a great international war hero, who we should all be celebrating and be inspired by."
Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.