Auschwitz – Poles in the Camps
– Rittmeister Witold Pilecki

The Germans established upwards of 2,000 different camps in occupied Poland during World War II. There is no doubt, however, that the symbol of them all is Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest death factory in all of occupied Europe.

The first mass transport of Poles sent to Auschwitz from Tarnow on June 14, 1940. Among them were members of the underground, political and social activists arrested as part of Acktion AB, people arrested during attempts to illegally cross the border (in order to join the Polish Army in France) clergymen and a small group of Jews. Photo: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oswiecim
The first mass transport of Poles sent to Auschwitz from Tarnow on June 14, 1940. Among them were members of the underground, political and social activists arrested as part of Acktion AB, people arrested during attempts to illegally cross the border (in order to join the Polish Army in France) clergymen and a small group of Jews. Photo: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oswiecim

In Nazi Germany, concentration camps had served as a tool of repression from 1933. Immediately with the outbreak of war, Polish citizens were sent to existing camps such as Dachau and Sachsenhausen, or to newly established ones. Germany initiated the construction of Stuffhof on September 2, 1939 specifically to accommodate Polish prisoners. Although inmates were initially sent to these camps for detention, the conditions that existed in the camps meant it was in reality a death sentence. Such was the case for 183 professors of Krakow universities who were arrested in November 1939. As time went on people could be sent to the camps for a number of offenses including taking part in the resistance movement, as a victim of collective punishment for attacks against Germans, for avoiding work, for aiding Jews and POWs, tardiness, not supplying the occupiers with their demanded quota, dealing on the black market or simply for being a Pole or Jew. The greater the reign of terror progressed, the more resistance mounted, and the more acute German manpower shortages became, the more intricate the web of camps became, and names such as Auschwitz (established in April 1940) or Majdanek (1941) became synonymous with terror.

The main gate of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp with the visible “Arbeit macht frei” sign, “Work will set you free.” Photo: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oswiecim
The main gate of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp with the visible “Arbeit macht frei” sign, “Work will set you free.” Photo: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oswiecim

From the very beginning, death notices which would arrive in the mail served as proof of what was occurring in the camps, however these did not tell the full story. Finding out what truly was occurring became the goal of Rittmeister Witold Piecki’s (1901-1948) unique mission. A soldier of the Home Army, he decided in 1940 to be sent to Auschwitz so that as a prisoner, he could gather information about the camp. He arrived in Auschwitz in Fall 1940. He not only wrote and smuggled detailed accounts to Warsaw (from where they reached the Polish government in exile and Western Allies Great Britain & USA) of atrocities taking place in the camps, but he also organized a underground conspiracy in the camp, which was intended to help the prisoners gather and transmit information to the outside and prepare the inmates for resistance.

In April 1943 after almost three years of imprisonment in Auschwitz, Pilecki escaped. He remained in the underground, subsequently fighting in the Warsaw Uprising. After his escape from Auschwitz Pilecki became a legendary figure in the underground and anticommunist resistance. He paid for his involvement with his life. In 1947 he was arrested and sentenced to death. His wartime accolades had no meaning then.