Witold Pilecki was born in an aristocratic family (coat of arms of Leliwa) in Olonets in Karelia on 13 May 1901. During his youth he was active in the Scout movement. In the years 1918-1921 he served in the Polish Army. He fought in the Polish-Soviet War and was twice awarded with the Cross of Valour. In the newly independent Poland he managed the Sukurcze estate near Lida (today in Belarus) which was recovered by the Pilecki family.
At the initiative of Marshal Edward Śmigły-Rydz, Pilecki began to cooperate with the Polish counterintelligence, known as the “second department”. He fought in the Polish defensive war in September 1939, after which he co-organized one of the frst anti German resistance groups: the Secret Polish Army, which joined the Home Army. On 19 September 1940 he voluntarily went to the Auschwitz death camp on behalf of the Secret Polish Army. The goal of his mission was to gather intelligence on the ground and establish a conspiracy self-help and armed resistance movement among the prisoners (Military Organization Union), which was supposed to liberate the camp with help from outside.
During his mission he was the first person to inform the world of the ongoing German genocide. Afer two years and seven months of imprisonment, he managed to escape from the camp in order to continue the implementation of his plan to liberate the prisoners. Due to his volunteer mission in Auschwitz he was recognized in the West as one of the bravest men in German-occupied Europe. During the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, he led the defence of a fortifed area that became known as Witold’s Redoubt (Starynkiewicz Square) and which was never seized by the Germans. Afer being liberated from the German Oﬂag in Murnau, Pilecki convinced General Władysław Anders that he should return to the Soviet-occupied Poland and establish an underground intelligence-gathering group subordinated to the Polish Armed Forces in the West.
Thanks to his activity, the world learned about the extent of the country’s subjugation to Stalin. At the critical moment Pilecki declined the possibility to escape to the West, saying: “Somebody has to stay here regardless of the consequences”. He was arrested in May 1947 by the Stalinist security services and subjected to brutal interrogation. He was sentenced to death on trumped up charges and executed at the prison’s torture chambers at Rakowiecka street in Warsaw on 25 May 1948. A former fellow prisoner at Auschwitz Józef Cyrankiewicz, who was the Prime Minister at the time, didn’t stand up for Pilecki. Pilecki’s statement that when compared with Communist repressions “Auschwitz was merely child’s play” allow us to compare the two totalitarianism of the 20th century.
Meanwhile, his request to his wife to buy and read to their children the book “Imitation of Christ” by Thomas à Kempis constitutes the Rittmeister’s lasting message and legacy. The place of burial of the Polish hero hasn’t been identifed to this day (it was probably the “hole of death” at the Powązki Cemetery in Warsaw, known as the Meadow – Łączka). Those responsible for his death – the Communist authorities, brutal investigators, prosecutors, judges – have never been punished. In 2006, Pilecki was posthumously awarded with the Order of the White Eagle, and in 2013 promoted to the rank of Colonel.