His number in Auschwitz was 4859. The two thirteens—comprised by the addition of the inner and outer digits—he considered lucky even though his companions perceived them as an omen of impending death. Luck certainly helped him survive the two-and-a-half-year ordeal in one of the Reich’s most infamous concentration camps. But equally important was his willpower, courage and ingenuity.
At the outbreak of the Second World War in September of 1939, when German and Soviet forces steamrolled into Poland, Witold Pilecki was a 38-year old reserve second lieutenant in the cavalry. As his homeland was partitioned once again between the two neighbours, he quickly joined the growing military resistance organization, which would eventually evolve to become commonly known as the Home Army (Armia Krajowa, AK). Within a year, this father of two volunteered for an unusual mission that would test the physical and psychological limits of even the toughest of men. In September of 1940, he intentionally walked into a roundup in order to be sent to Auschwitz—a camp about which the Polish underground had heard but knew little. Rather than relying on rumour, they wanted to get accurate and reliable reports by one of their own. Within days, Pilecki “bade farewell to everything [he] had hitherto known on this earth and entered something seemingly no longer of it.”
A record of his hardships in what he describes as the “great mortuary of the half-living,” a stay that lasted for nearly a 1000 days, has now been superbly translated and published in The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery. This is the third report that Pilecki wrote in the summer of 1945, while in Italy. Two shorter accounts were written earlier: one immediately after his escape from the camp in June of 1943, and the other in autumn of the same year. But it is this final testimony that offers the most comprehensive tale of his experiences.
One of the most evocative themes is the chronicle of the camp’s evolution from 1940 to 1943. Anyone walking through the gates of Auschwitz quickly realized that the aim of the SS was not only to break all the inmates psychologically, but to end their existence in violent and cruel ways. By the war’s end, the death camp claimed 1.5 million lives. In the early period, the killing was done using the most brutal methods. Those shot at the “wall of tears” seemed to be the lucky ones for others died in much slower and more painful ways, such as through exhausting physical exercise, the “circle of death.” As Pilecki relates, the first victims of these punishments were Polish political prisoners. But by 1941, there were changes introduced in the camp, and with the launching of Operation Barbarossa, Soviet POWs became the main prey of the “huge mill” that turned “living people into ashes.” Eventually, the Poles and the Soviets would have to make room for an even more radical goal embodied in the Final Solution. “There was a change in the murder methods,” Pilecki sarcastically notes as trains of Jews from across Europe arrived, “to more civilized ones…by which thousands were killed daily by gas and phenol.”
The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery: Captain Witold Pilecki – By Witold Pilecki
Translated by Jarek Garlinski, Introduction: Norman Davies, FBA
Aquila Polonica Publishing, April 30, 2012, 460 pages
Author: Michał Kasprzak
Source: http://cosmopolitanreview.com/witold-pilecki-review/ , March 1, 2013
POLISH CLUB ONLINE, 2013.03.04