Witold Pilecki

Witold Pilecki (13 May 1901 – 25 May 1948; Polish pronunciation: [ˈvitɔlt piˈlɛt͡skʲi]; codenames Roman Jezierski, Tomasz Serafiński, Druh, Witold) was a Polish cavalry officer, intelligence agent, and resistance leader. Early in World War II he co-founded the Secret Polish Army resistance movement.

Witold Pilecki
Witold Pilecki in color.jpg
Pilecki in a colorized pre-1939 photograph
Born(1901-05-13)13 May 1901
Olonets, Olonetsky Uyezd, Olonets Governorate, Russian Empire
Died25 May 1948(1948-05-25) (aged 47)
Mokotów Prison, Warsaw, Poland
Unknown. Possibly in Powązki Military Cemetery
AllegianceSecond Polish Republic; Polish Government in Exile
Years of service1918–1947
RankCaptain, Cavalry master
Commands heldCommander of the 1st Lidsky Squadron (1932–1937)
Battles/warsPolish–Soviet War

Polish-Lithuanian War

World War II

Alma materUniversity of Poznań, Faculty of Agriculture (1922) Stefan Batory University, Faculty of Fine Arts (1922–1924)
Maria Ostrowska
(m. 1931)

In 1940 Pilecki volunteered[1][2][3][4] to allow himself to be captured by the occupying Germans in order to infiltrate the Auschwitz concentration camp.[5] At Auschwitz he organized a resistance movement that eventually included hundreds of inmates, and he secretly drew up reports detailing German atrocities at the camp, which were smuggled out to Home Army headquarters and shared with the Western Allies.[3]

Later, having escaped from Auschwitz, Pilecki fought in the Warsaw Uprising of August–October 1944. Following its suppression, he was interned in a German prisoner-of-war camp.[6][2] After the communist takeover of Poland he remained loyal to the London-based Polish Government-in-Exile. In 1945 he returned to Poland to report to the Exile Government on the situation in Poland.[2] Before returning, Pilecki wrote Witold's Report on the Auschwitz concentration camp, anticipating that he might be killed by Poland's new communist authorities.[2][7][8][5]

In 1947 he was arrested by the secret police on charges of working for "foreign imperialism"[3] and, after being subjected to torture[2] and a show trial, was executed in 1948. His story remained mostly unknown for several decades; one of the first accounts of Pilecki's mission to Auschwitz was given by Polish historian Józef Garliński, himself a former Auschwitz inmate who emigrated to Britain after the war, in Fighting Auschwitz: The Resistance Movement in the Concentration Camp (1975).[9][8]

Poland's Chief Rabbi, Michael Schudrich, writes in the foreword to a 2012 English translation of Pilecki's report: "When God created the human being, God had in mind that we should all be like Captain Witold Pilecki, of blessed memory."[10] Historian Norman Davies writes in the introduction to the same translation: "If there was an Allied hero who deserved to be remembered and celebrated, this was a person with few peers."[11]


Early life

Pilecki (first right) as a scout, Oryol, Russia, 1917

Witold Pilecki was born on 13 May 1901 in the town of Olonets, Karelia, in the Russian Empire. His ancestors had been deported to Russia for participating in the January 1863–64 Uprising. Witold was one of five children of forest inspector Julian Pilecki and Ludwika Osiecimska.

In 1910 Witold moved with his mother and siblings to Wilno, while his father remained in Olonets. In Wilno, Pilecki attended a local school and joined the underground Polish Scouting and Guiding Association (ZHP).[12][7]

In 1916 Pilecki was sent by his mother to a school in the Russian city of Oryol, where he attended a gymnasium (secondary school) and founded a local chapter of the ZHP.[12]

Polish–Soviet War

In 1918, following the outbreak of the Russian Revolution and the defeat of the Central Powers in World War I, Pilecki returned to Wilno (at that time part of the newly independent Polish Second Republic) and joined the ZHP section of the Lithuanian and Belarusian Self-Defense Militia, a paramilitary formation aligned with the White movement under General Władysław Wejtko.[7][12] The militia disarmed the retreating German troops and took up positions to defend the city from a looming attack by the Soviet Red Army. However, Wilno fell to Bolshevik forces on 5 January 1919, and Pilecki and his unit resorted to partisan warfare behind Soviet lines. He and his comrades then retreated to Białystok where Pilecki enlisted as a szeregowy (private) in Poland's newly established volunteer army. He took part in the Polish-Soviet War of 1919–1921, serving under Captain Jerzy Dąbrowski.[12] He fought in the Kiev Offensive (1920) and as part of a cavalry unit defending the city of Grodno. On 5 August 1920, Pilecki joined the 211th Uhlan Regiment and fought in the crucial Battle of Warsaw and in the Rudniki Forest (Puszcza Rudnicka). Pilecki later took part in the liberation of Wilno and briefly served in the ongoing Polish-Lithuanian War as a member of the October 1920 Żeligowski rebellion.[12]

Interwar years

When the war with the Soviets ended, he completed his school examinations while continuing his military service, completing courses required for a non-commissioned officer rank at the Cavalry Reserve Officers' Training School in Grudziądz. He briefly enrolled with the Faculty of Fine Arts at Stefan Batory University but was forced to abandon his studies in 1924 due to both financial issues and the declining health of his father.[12] In July 1925 Pilecki was assigned to the 26th Lancer Regiment with the rank of Chorąży (ensign). Pilecki would be promoted to Podporucznik (second lieutenant, with seniority from 1923) the following year.[7][12] Also in 1926, in September, Pilecki became the owner of his family's ancestral estate, Sukurcze, in the Lida district of the Nowogródek Voivodeship. In 1931, he married Maria Ostrowska. They had two children, born in Wilno: Andrzej (16 January 1932) and Zofia (14 March 1933). Pilecki was active in the local community, he was the chairman of a dairy and founded a farmer's association. He also organized the Krakus Military Horsemen Training school in 1932 and was appointed to command the 1st Lida Military Training Squadron, which was placed under the Polish 19th Infantry Division in 1937. In 1938, Pilecki received the Silver Cross of Merit for his activism.[7][12]

World War II

Polish September Campaign

Pilecki was mobilized as a cavalry platoon commander on 26 August 1939. He was assigned to the 19th Infantry Division under General Józef Kwaciszewski, part of the Polish Army Prusy and his unit took part in heavy fighting against the advancing Germans during the invasion of Poland. The 19th Division was almost completely destroyed following a clash with the German forces on the night of 5 to 6 September at the battle of Piotrków Trybunalski.[12] Its remains were incorporated into the 41st Infantry Division, which was withdrawn to the southeast toward Lwów (now L'viv in Ukraine) and the Romanian bridgehead. In the 41st Division, Pilecki served as divisional second-in-command of its cavalry detachment, under Major Jan Włodarkiewicz.[12] He and his men destroyed seven German tanks, shot down one aircraft, and destroyed two more on the ground.[13][14] On 17 September, the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland, which worsened the already desperate situation of the Polish forces. On 22 September, the 41st Division suffered a major defeat and capitulated.[12] Włodarkiewicz and Pilecki were among the many soldiers who did not follow the order of Commander-in-Chief General Edward Śmigły-Rydz to retreat through Romania to France, instead opting to stay underground in Poland.[7]


On 9 November 1939 in Warsaw, Major Włodarkiewicz, Second Lieutenant Pilecki, Second Lieutenant Jerzy Maringe, Jerzy Skoczyński, and brothers Jan and Stanisław Dangel founded the Secret Polish Army (Tajna Armia Polska, TAP), one of the first underground organizations in Poland. TAP was based on Christian ideological values.[7] From 25 November 1939 until May 1940, Pilecki was TAP's inspector and chief of staff; from August 1940, he headed its 1st branch (organization and mobilization).[7]

Though some TAP members were arrested by the Germans, through August 1940 the arrests resulted mainly from accidental unmaskings. However, in September 1940 arrests were made due to the organization's infiltration by an informer, Borys Pilnik. Toward the end of August 1940, after the arrest of two TAP leaders (Dr. Dering and Lieutenant Colonel Surmacki), Włodarkiewicz called a meeting in which it was proposed[by whom?] that a TAP member infiltrate Auschwitz. Pilecki was urged by his superior[who?] to accept this task.[7]


Pilecki was one of 2,000 men arrested on 19 September 1940. He used the identity documents of Tomasz Serafiński, who had been mistakenly assumed to be dead.


Two back-stories exist purporting to explain how Pilecki actually found himself in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

In one version, he deliberately volunteered to allow himself to be captured by the occupying Germans in one of their Warsaw street round-ups, in order to infiltrate the camp.[5]

In the second version, he was caught in the apartment of Eleonora Ostrowska, at ulica Wojska Polskiego (Polish Army Street), and, along with 1,705 other prisoners, between 21 and 22 September 1940, reached Auschwitz where, under Serafiński's name, he was assigned prisoner number 4859. In autumn 1941 he was promoted by his superiors[who?] to lieutenant.[7]

Underground Auschwitz
Witold Pilecki as KL-Auschwitz prisoner, KL Number 4859, 1940

While working at Auschwitz, Pilecki organized an underground Military Organization (ZOW). Its tasks were to better inmate morale, provide news from outside, distribute extra food and clothing to its members, set up intelligence networks, and train detachments to take over the camp in the event of a relief attack. ZOW was organized as secret cells, each of five members.[7]

While at Auschwitz, Pilecki secretly drew up reports and sent them to Home Army headquarters. The first dispatch, delivered in October 1940, described the camp and the ongoing extermination of inmates via starvation and brutal punishments; it was used as the basis of a Home Army report on "The Terror and Lawlessness of the Occupiers". Further dispatches of Pilecki's were likewise smuggled out by individuals who managed to escape from Auschwitz. The reports' purpose may have been to get the Home Army command's permission for ZOW to stage an uprising to liberate the camp; however, no such response came from the Home Army.[7]


On the night of 26–27 April 1943 Pilecki was assigned to a night shift at a camp bakery outside the fence, and he and two comrades managed to force open a metal door. They left the SS guards in the woodshed, barricaded from outside. Before escaping they cut an alarm wire. They headed east, and after several hours crossed into the General Government.[7]

Outside Auschwitz

In June 1943, in Nowy Wiśnicz, Pilecki drafted an initial report on the situation in Auschwitz. It was buried at the farm where he was staying and was only revealed after his death. In August 1943, back in Warsaw, Pilecki started preparing Witold's Report (Raport W), focused on the Auschwitz underground. It covered three main topics: ZOW and its members; Pilecki's experiences; and to a lesser extent, the extermination of prisoners, including Jews. Pilecki's intent in writing it was to persuade the Home Army to liberate the camp's prisoners. However, the Home Army command rejected this proposal, since the camp's resistance lacked basic fighting equipment. Even if the initial attack were successful, the resistance lacked sufficient transport capabilities, supplies, and shelter that would be required for rescued inmates.[7]

Shortly after rejoining the resistance, Pilecki became a member of the Kedyw sabotage unit, using the pseudonym "Roman Jezierski". Later he joined a secret anti-communist organization, NIE. On 19 February 1944 he was promoted to cavalry captain (rotmistrz). Until becoming involved in the Warsaw Uprising, Pilecki continued coordinating ZOW and Home Army activities and providing what limited support he could to ZOW.[12]

Warsaw Uprising

When the Warsaw Uprising broke out on 1 August 1944, Pilecki volunteered for service with Kedyw's Chrobry II Battalion. Initially he served as a common soldier in the northern city center, without revealing his rank to his superiors.[12] After many officers were killed in the early days of the uprising, Pilecki revealed his true identity and accepted command of the 1st "Warszawianka" Company deployed in Warsaw's Śródmieście (downtown) district.[12] After the fall of the uprising, he was captured and taken prisoner by the Germans. He survived until liberation in 1945 at Oflag VII-A, in Murnau, Bavaria.[7][12]

After the war

Pilecki, Mokotów Prison, Warsaw, 1947
Pilecki in court, 1948

In July 1945 Pilecki left Murnau and was reassigned to the military intelligence division of the Polish II Corps under General Władysław Anders in Ancona, Italy.

By December 1945 he was sent back to Warsaw with the mission of gathering intelligence for II Corps.[7] As the NIE organization had been disbanded, Pilecki recruited former ZOW and TAP members and continued sending information to the Polish Government-in-Exile.[12] In July 1946 he was informed that his identity had been uncovered by the Ministry of Public Security. General Anders ordered him to leave Poland, but Pilecki refused. In early 1947 his superiors rescinded the order.[12]

Arrested on 8 May 1947 by the communist authorities, Pilecki was tortured and, despite pleas for pardon written to Prime Minister Józef Cyrankiewicz (also an Auschwitz survivor) and President Bolesław Bierut, was executed on 25 May 1948.[7][12] Pilecki's burial place has never been found, though it is thought to be in Warsaw's Powązki Cemetery.[12]


Monument to Pilecki, Wieluń – one of several monuments to Pilecki in Poland
Monument to Witold Pilecki in Warsaw

Pilecki's life has been a subject of several monographs. The first in English was Józef Garliński's (1975), followed by M.R.D. Foot's Six Faces of Courage (1978).[8] In 2012 Pilecki's diary was translated into English by Garliński and published under the title The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery.[15] More recently Pilecki was the subject of Adam J. Koch's 2018 book A Captain’s Portrait: Witold Pilecki – Martyr for Truth[16] and Jack Fairweather's 2019 book The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero Who Infiltrated Auschwitz.[8][17][18]

From the 1990s, following the fall of communism and Pilecki's rehabilitation, he has been a subject of popular discourse.[7] A number of institutions, monuments, and streets in Poland have been named after him.[8] In 1995 he was awarded the Order of Polonia Restituta, and in 2006 the highest Polish decoration, the Order of the White Eagle.[12] On 6 September 2013 he was promoted, by the Minister of National Defence, to colonel.[19]

After the fall of communism, a cenotaph to him was erected at Ostrów Mazowiecka Cemetery, and in 2016 a museum, Dom Rodziny Pileckich, was established in that town (though, as of 2020, it had not yet been fully opened to the public).[20][21][22] In 2012 Powązki Cemetery was partly excavated in an effort to find his remains.[23]

The 2006 film Śmierć rotmistrza Pileckiego ("The Death of Cavalry Captain Pilecki"), directed by Ryszard Bugajski, presents Pilecki as a flawlessly ethical man facing unfounded accusations. The narrative structure is reminiscent of a saint martyrology, with belief in God replaced by belief in Country.[24]

A feature film, Pilecki, by Marcin Kwaśny portrays Pilecki as a saint of the Polish independence movement. The sacralization is achieved by recounting verified historical facts, accompanied by dramatized scenes. The film shows Pilecki performing deeds impossible for an ordinary man, while keeping faith with his country even under the direst torture.[24]


  1. ^ John Besemeres, "The Worst of Both Worlds: Captain Witold Pilecki between Hitler and Stalin", in A Difficult Neighbourhood: Essays on Russia and East-Central Europe since World War II, Australian National University Press, 2016, p. 66.
  2. ^ a b c d e Snyder, Timothy (22 June 2012). "Were We All People?". The New York Times. Retrieved 4 May 2020.
  3. ^ a b c Patricelli, Marco (2010). Il volontario. Laterza. pp. 53–268. ISBN 978-8842091882.
  4. ^ Szumilo, Mirosalw (2018). "Living with the Stigma of a 'Traitor of the Nation': The Plight of the Families of Victims of Stalinist Terror in Poland", in Histories (Un)Spoken: Strategies of Survival and Social-Professional Integration in Political Prisoners' Families in Communist Central and Eastern Europe in the '50s and '60s, edited by C. Budeanca and D Bathory. LIT Verlag. pp. 48–62..
  5. ^ a b c Paliwoda, D. (2013). "Captain Witold Pilecki". Military Review. 93 (6): 88–96 – via ProQuest.
  6. ^ Davies, Norman (2004). Rising '44: "The Battle for Warsaw". Pan Books. ISBN 0-333-90568-7.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Cuber-Strutyńska, Ewa (2017). "Witold Pilecki. Confronting the legend of the "volunteer to Auschwitz"". Holocaust Studies and Materials. 4: 281–301.
  8. ^ a b c d e Fleming, Michael (2019). "The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero Who Infiltrated Auschwitz: by Jack Fairweather (London: WH Allen, 2019), 505 pages". Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs. 13 (2): 289–294. doi:10.1080/23739770.2019.1673981. S2CID 210468082.
  9. ^ Garliński 1975.
  10. ^ Schudrich, Michael (2014). Foreword to The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery. Aquila Polonica.
  11. ^ Davies, Norman (2014). Introduction to The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery. Aquila Polonica.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t Świerczek, Lidia. Pilecki's life. Institute of National Remembrance.
  13. ^ Beadle, Jeremy and Harrison, Ian (2008) Firsts, lasts & only: military. Anova Books. ISBN 1-905798-06-7. p. 129.
  14. ^ Wysocki, Wiesław Jan (1994) Rotmistrz Pilecki. "Gryf". ISBN 83-85521-23-2. p. 32.
  15. ^ Reid, James E. (2013). "The Auschwitz Volunteer". The Sarmatian Review. XXXIII (1): 1736–1737. ISSN 1059-5872.
  16. ^ Roszkowski, Wojciech (2019). "Adam J. Koch, A Captain's Portrait: Witold Pilecki – Martyr for Truth, Freedom Publishing Books, Bayswater Vic. 2018". Studia Polityczne. 47 (4): 158–159. doi:10.35757/STP.2019.47.4.09.
  17. ^ Suchcitz, Maria (2019). "A volunteer's journey to hell and back". New Eastern Europe. 39 (6): 159–163. ISSN 2083-7372.
  18. ^ Cyra, Adam (September 2020). "Review. Jack Fairweather "The Volunteer: The True Story of Witold Pilecki's Secret Mission". Memoria. 36.
  19. ^ "MON awansował Witolda Pileckiego" (in Polish). RMF FM/PAP. 6 September 2013. Retrieved 10 October 2013.
  20. ^ "Muzeum Dom Rodziny Pileckich - Misja". muzeumpileckich.pl (in Polish). Retrieved 7 March 2021.
  21. ^ "Ostrów Mazowiecka: pierwsze w Polsce muzeum rotmistrza Pileckiego". serwisy.gazetaprawna.pl (in Polish). 19 October 2020. Retrieved 7 March 2021.
  22. ^ "Pierwsze posiedzenie Rady Muzeum – Dom Rodziny Pileckich z udziałem wicepremiera prof. Piotra Glińskiego". Ministerstwo Kultury, Dziedzictwa Narodowego i Sportu. January 2020.
  23. ^ Puhl, Jan. (9 August 2012) Poland Searches for Remains of World War II Hero Witold Pilecki. Spiegel.de. Retrieved on 19 September 2015.
  24. ^ a b Marczak, Mariola (2018). "Persuasive and Communicative Potential of Hagiographic Narrative Structures in Screen Representations of the Polish Underground Soldiers Struggling for Independence after World War II". Studia Religiologica. 51 (2): 115–128. doi:10.4467/20844077SR.18.008.9506.

Bibliography and further reading

External links