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On this day, 80 years ago, Captain Witold Pilecki escapes Auschwitz

On April 26, 1943 Capt. Witold Pilecki escaped the German concentration camp in Auschwitz. “His escape was part of an extraordinary mission he carried out as an officer of the Polish Underground State,” said Professor Witold Stankowski, historian, in an interview with the Polish Press Agency.

Witold Pilecki. The Auschwitz Volunteer

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Captain Witold Pilecki entered the German concentration camp Auschwitz completely voluntarily as a representative of the Polish Underground State, specifically the Secret Polish Army.

He let himself be captured in late September 1940, with a mission to investigate the camp’s realities and establish a conspiracy network there. In the camp, where he arrived after being caught in a roundup with false documents. He created the Secret Military Organization (ZOW) from scratch, based on the system of five inmates, and commanded it.

Almost at the beginning of his imprisonment, he sent his first partial report to the outside world, describing the camp and the inhuman living and working conditions.

The Germans knew that someone from the camp was sending information outside, and they wanted to prevent anyone from learning about the tragedy behind the barbed wire. In early 1943, Pilecki anticipated that they might discover his activities. He feared being killed or transferred to another concentration camp. He decided that he and two conspirators – Jan Redzej and Edward Ciesielski – would organize an escape from Auschwitz.

26/27 April 1943 | Three Poles escaped #Auschwitz: Edward Ciesielski (12969), Witold Pilecki (4859) & Jan Redzej (5430). #Pilecki was one of the co-founders of military resistance inside the camp. After the escape, he wrote an elaborate report about German crimes in Auschwitz.

— Auschwitz Memorial (@AuschwitzMuseum) April 26, 2023
This mission was unprecedented: voluntarily entering the camp, creating efficient conspiracy structures, and then escaping and providing the world with a personal testimony of the immense German crimes committed in the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex. This mission was fraught with many dangers. For two years and seven months, Pilecki risked his life every day, and yet he did not hesitate to take another risk – the escape, which had to succeed.

rtm. Witold Pilecki 1901-1948 colorized

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The ‘Great Escape’

The escape was carefully planned for the night of April 26 to 27 1943. April 26 was Easter Monday, which provided an opportunity for slightly reduced vigilance of the guards. Pilecki and his colleagues managed to join a group of bakers working the night shift.

The captain later recalled that when they marched through the infamous camp gate with the inscription “Arbeit macht frei” at around 6 p.m. that evening, he hoped that it would indeed be the last time he crossed it and that he would not have to return here. After about two hours, they noticed that the vigilance of the SS guards had diminished. It was the right moment.

When they found themselves outside, they headed north, with the forks of the Soła and Vistula rivers ahead of them. They were still on the territory annexed to the Third Reich, where numerous patrols of the police and the Wehrmacht were circulating. Their destination was Bochnia, which was located in the General Government territory.

In September 1940, Cpt. Witold #Pilecki of the Secret Polish Army decided to infiltrate a new German camp KL #Auschwitz.

For 947 days, Pilecki collected intel, built resistance and narrowly escaped death, until he decided to leave.

So, 27 April 1943, he escaped. Just like that.

— Institute of National Remembrance (@ipngovpl_eng) April 27, 2023

They managed to escape before a German patrol, which was shooting at them, could reach them. Pilecki was shot in the arm.

Three escapees found a boat on the Vistula riverbank and crossed the river. On May 2nd, they reached Bochnia. Captain Pilecki found himself free after 947 days and nights of the camp inferno.

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What was the mission?

The next stage of his mission was to draft a report on the Auschwitz camp. He was recovering from May to August 1943 and at the same time, he had to revisit memories. It was a necessary and quite extraordinary experience for him to recreate his entire stay behind the barbed wire.

He compiled the famous report, intending to alert the Polish government in London as well as the governments of the United States and Great Britain about the scale of German crimes in Auschwitz.

It was a very difficult task that heavily burdened his psyche. In the camp, he had come close to death and often witnessed conspirators, with their heads held high, looking the executioners in the eye as they marched towards the Death Wall or other execution sites.

Pilecki contacted representatives of the Home Army (Armia Krajowa, AK) in the Kraków District. Initially, they did not believe what he told them about the camp. They were sceptical even about the fact that he had managed to escape.

Pilecki personally prepared the report to fulfill his mission. However, he wanted to do much more for the prisoners and conspirators who remained in the camp. He tried to persuade the High Command of the Home Army to accept a plan for an armed attack on the Auschwitz concentration camp with the support of the camp’s internal resistance structures (ZOW).

He considered synchronizing the attack from the outside with inciting an armed uprising.

On August 23, 1943, Pilecki found himself in Warsaw, where he resumed his duties within the structures of the Home Army.

The significance of the escape

Without the report, the authorities of the Polish Underground State might never have known the truth about Auschwitz. Captain. Pilecki demonstrated an excellent memory, and the report he prepared became a document of special significance for all of humanity. It was translated into foreign languages so that it could reach global public opinion.

However, the world took a long time to believe the testimony of the Polish officer. Other prisoners and conspirators, eyewitnesses, had no such doubts.

Professor Witold Stankowski once spoke with Kazimierz Piechowski, who on June 20, 1942, along with Eugeniusz Bendera, Stanisław Jaster, and Józef Lempart, captured SS uniforms and escaped from the Auschwitz camp in the commandant’s car.

Piechowski emphasized with pride that he “was a soldier under Captain Pilecki,” his subordinate, and was part of the so-called “conspiratorial five.” We can describe Pilecki’s escape as extraordinary, just like his entire mission.

He was a man of exceptional courage. He knew that at any moment he could fall into the hands of the Germans and face death before bearing witness to the world. However, he was aware that he was carrying out an extraordinary mission.

The escape of Captain Witold Pilecki was one of the most amazing out of nearly a thousand escapes undertaken by prisoners of Auschwitz.

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