The Polish Catholic Who Sneaked into Auschwitz to Warn an Indifferent World

July 15, 2019 | Caroline Moorehead
About the author:

A member of the Polish resistance to the Nazis, Witold Pilecki became aware that something terrible was occurring at Auschwitz, and so smuggled himself in and out of the camp, bringing back detailed descriptions of its murderous purpose. Reviewing The Volunteer, Jack Fairweather’s recent biography of Pilecki, Caroline Moorehead writes:

Between September 1941, [when he first got to Auschwitz], and April 1943, when he escaped in order to convey himself the news of what was happening, Pilecki, who as a Polish prisoner was employed in a variety of laboring jobs, sent out report after report via couriers, other brave men who often died for their efforts. Full of statistics, they detailed the number of deaths, as well as facts about the arrival of Jewish families, the trains, the typhus, the starvation, the crematorium, and the gas chambers, though it took Pilecki a long time to comprehend that Auschwitz was in fact the epicenter for the Nazi program of extermination.

These reports, received by the Warsaw underground and gotten out to London and Washington, were for the most part dismissed as rumors. Whether bombing the camp (something Pilecki urged, on the grounds that it might, at the very least, give a number of prisoners a chance to escape) would in fact have changed anything is hard to say, and the Allies were in any case hard-pressed militarily. But as Fairweather shows, there was no desire to believe [reports], particularly as the horrific killings were often watered down in the telling.

“Poles,” observed one man at the [British] foreign office, “are being very irritating over this.” An American official spoke of the documentation as being “too Semitic.”

Pilecki spent the remainder of the war fighting the Germans—a fact that made him suspect in the eyes of the postwar Communist regime in Poland, which murdered him in 1948.

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