Auschwitz prisoner No. 4859

Photo of the Day

Witold Pilecki got into Auschwitz before almost anyone in the outside world knew what was really going on there.

Witold Pilecki got into Auschwitz before almost anyone in the outside world knew what was really going on there.

Witold Pilecki

Unsung Hero of World War II

Meet the Man Who Sneaked Into Auschwitz

One of the great heroes of the 20th century was Auschwitz prisoner No. 4859, who volunteered to be there.

In 1940, the Polish Underground wanted to know what was happening inside the recently opened Auschwitz concentration camp. Polish army officer Witold Pilecki volunteered to be arrested by the Germans and reported from inside the camp. His intelligence reports, smuggled out in 1941, were among the first eyewitness accounts of Auschwitz atrocities: the extermination of Soviet POWs, its function as a camp for Polish political prisoners, and the ?final solution? for Jews. Pilecki received brutal treatment until he escaped; soon after, he wrote a brief report. Poland’s chief rabbi states, ?If heeded, Pilecki’s early warnings might have changed the course of history.? Pilecki’s story was suppressed for half a century after his 1948 arrest by the Polish Communist regime as a ?Western spy.?

There are very few places that can accurately be described as hell on Earth. One of these is the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II, where as many as 1.5 million people died during the five years the camp was in operation.

The Polish resistance had been hearing horrific first- or second-hand accounts about the conditions inside Auschwitz. These early accounts came primarily from released prisoners, but also from casual observers like railway employees and residents of the nearby village of Oswiecim. The resistance decided they needed someone on the inside.

It is into this environment that?Witold Pilecki, a 39-year old veteran of the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1921 who fought against the initial Nazi invasion and a member of the Polish resistance, volunteered himself in 1940. Pilecki’s mission was to allow himself to be arrested and, once inside Auschwitz, to collect intelligence for the Polish resistance in the country and the government-in-exile in London, and to organize a resistance from inside the camp.

Read more »

×