June reading:

The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery by Witold Pilecki

Pilecki in 1922

Captain Witold Pilecki spent much of his life fighting against the tyranny of the Nazi regime and then the Stalinist communist government. He was an officer in the Polish underground Home Army and made it his life’s work to infiltrate these regimes to shine a light on the atrocities being committed.

To that end, Pilecki volunteered to enter into a concentration camp as a prisoner. In 1940, he was arrested by the SS and subsequently spent 2 1/2 years in Auschwitz before he escaped. He then wrote a report on his time there, this book, which became the first evidence of the mass murders that were taking place under Hitler’s regime. This is a grim recollection during his early days there:

’I had noticed that fewer people returned from work every day, and I knew that they had been “finished off” at one task or another; but now I was to discover the hard way what a day “in the camp” looked like…’

Pilecki suffered greatly during his time there; starvation was his most difficult plight, and then illness, which terrified him greatly. The sick were the first to be sent to the gas chambers. Auschwitz Birkenau, where the gas chambers and crematoriums were, was less than a mile away.

Maps from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Pilecki recalls this from August of 1942:

’The SS men quickly surrounded the block. I have to admit that watching that scene for a moment my blood froze and then boiled …

What I was shortly to see, was also distressing.

The sick were pulled out and shoved into vehicles. Those who were unconscious and those who were now well, those convalescing having been ill a month earlier but who were still in quarantine, they were all packed into the vehicles and taken off to the gas chambers in several waves …

I saw an SS man throwing two small inmates into the vehicles. A little fellow, who was eight years old, asked the SS man to spare him and knelt on the ground. The SS man kicked him in the stomach and threw him into the vehicle like a puppy.

They were all finished off the same day in the gas chambers at Rajsko.

Then for two days the crematoria worked away, with new batches of inmates continually being brought in from the camp.’

After Pilecki escaped, he continued his work for the underground Polish army. But when the nazi regime to the west was overthrown, Soviet communism swept in from the east. Pilecki was arrested in 1948 by the Polish communist regime and executed. He was 47.

It can be argued that Stalin’s gulags were even more brutal than Hitler’s concentration camps. Historians agree on roughly 20 million killed in the gulags, though writer Solzhenitsyn places it closer to 60 million. 17 million died in the concentration camps, though this number gets conflated because around 80 million people total died during World War II.

Have you never heard of Witold Pilecki? It is no wonder, the communists in Poland expunged all memory of him. When the Soviet Empire fell in 1989 his story was revealed. Today, he is revered as one of Poland’s greatest heroes.

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