Witold Pilecki: A Brave Pole Who Did His Best for Liberty
Excerpted from Richard Cohen and Richard Langworth: “Witold Pilecki: A Deserving Addition to “The Righteous Among the Nations,” for the Hillsdale College Churchill Project. Mr. Cohen is a real estate lawyer based in London and head of the Essex Branch of the Jewish Historical Society of England. For the full text and illustrations please click here.
War aim or by-product?
Jack Fairweather, The Volunteer: One Man, an Underground Army, and the Secret Mission to Destroy Auschwitz. (The story of Witold Pilecki.) New York: HarperCollins, 2019, $28.99, Amazon $20.49, Kindle $13.99.
By 1 August 1946 the world knew the full truth of the Holocaust. Churchill said: “I had no idea, when the war came to an end, of the horrible massacres which had occurred.” Though he had reports from 1942 to 1944, his statement was broadly true. He did not realize the full magnitude and number of death camps until they were all liberated. Even then, it took time to reconstruct much evidence destroyed by the Nazis. Throughout the war, many civil servants and ministries insisted that saving the Jews was not a war aim. but a by-product of victory.
“Show us the proof”
In the event, to save Jews, it was necessary to show proof of Nazi genocide. The evidential mountain was harder to scale given attitude of officialdom. Churchill knew and resented the broad anti-Semitism in his and Allied governments. The Jews, some officials said, exaggerated their mistreatment and were “prone to wailing.”
Similar arguments surfaced against Jewish immigration to the West at the Evian and Bermuda refugee conferences (1938, 1943). They added weight to Hitler’s assertions that nobody in the world wanted Jews among them. In Britain the Mandate of Palestine added another complication. Large numbers of Jewish refugees there, it was said, risked provoking the Arab population.
A problem with History as an intellectual discipline is that it is too easy after the fact. During the Second World War, nobody knew for a long time who would prevail. By the time they did, it was too late for hundreds of thousands. During the war, industrial genocide on the scale actually being practised was unknown to human beings, unimaginable to many. They learned too late.
Witold Pilecki: “Were we all…people?”
…was an ordinary person who did extraordinary things. In September 1940, he walked into a Nazi roundup of Poles with the object of being sent to Auschwitz. In 1940-41, Auschwitz mainly contained Poles. By 1942, however, Jews were the main component, and a grim change occurred. Poles had been persecuted; Jews were murdered. Pilecki reported the changing events, the construction of the gas chambers and crematoria. Eloquently, he contrasted the placid scene in the world beyond the fences:
When marching along the grey road towards the tannery in a column raising clouds of dust, one saw the beautiful red light of the dawn shining on the white flowers in the orchards and on the trees by the roadside, or on the return journey we would encounter young couples out walking, breathing in the beauty of springtime, or women peacefully pushing their children in prams. Then the thought uncomfortably bouncing around one’s brain would arise…. swirling around, stubbornly seeking some solution to the insoluble question: Were we all…people?”
After three years Pilecki escaped. He lived to survive the Nazis, only to fall to Poland’s next abusers, the Communists. He fought in the Warsaw Uprising in August-October 1944, and remained loyal to the government-in-exile after the Communist takeover. In 1947, he was arrested by the secret police and executed after a show trial. Fairweather’s Pilecki account is not altogether new. It was first told in Fighting Auschwitz (1975) by the Polish historian Józef Garliński, himself a former Auschwitz inmate.
Passing word to London
Pilecki reported to Underground leader Stefan Rowecki in October. Already Poles were asking that, “for the love of God,” Auschwitz should be leveled. It might be a suicide mission and cause panic, Pilecki opined, but some prisoners might escape. Rowecki send reports to Wladyslaw Sikorski, premier of the exiled government in London. Pilecki reported installation of the first gas chamber in mid-1942.
Sikorski had a problem. Many British hosts thought of Poles as “unruly foreigners with hard-to-pronounce names. ‘Sozzle-something,’ Churchill is reported to have called the senior Polish commander Kazimierz Sosnkowski.” The British knew of German concentration camps being used to corral enemy soldiers. They were reluctant to accept Polish reports of atrocities.
Then there was the mechanics of an attack. Britain was struggling to keep its bombers airborne, let alone hit targets as far east as Poland. Too often, “bombing” consisted of opening the bomb bays after having flown for “about the right amount of time”! Sometimes the enemy had no idea what they were aiming at.
Portal, Prime Minister and Pope
Fairweather says Churchill’s schedule was too full to hear them, which contradicts the evidence (see Addendum below). Pilecki’s appeals reached the Chief of Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal. His response was curt. Bombing Auschwitz was a diversion, he said, given the need to concentrate on German industrial plants. The “weight of bombs” at this distance with the limited force available [was] very unlikely to cause enough damage to enable prisoners to escape.”
In November The New York Times published the first reports of exterminations at Auschwitz in western media. Rabbi Stephen Wise of the American Jewish Congress brought a report mentioning Auschwitz to Roosevelt. FDR said he was aware, but did nothing. “Roosevelt didn’t reveal his concerns about stoking anti-Semitism at home by focusing on Jewish suffering.” Fairweather makes a powerful case that Anglo-American governments were chary about provoking more anti-Semitism.
Fairweather reports that the Foreign Office “repeatedly told the Poles, reprisals are such are ruled out…. The Poles are being very irritating over this.” He does not report that Churchill himself discussed bombing reprisals as early as December 1942. (See addendum.)
In fairness, Fairweather notes that Pilecki never saw the Holocaust “as the defining act of World War II.” His essence was “his Polishness or his sense of national struggle.”
We asked Esther, Lady Gilbert, a Holocaust historian like her late husband Sir Martin, for her view of The Volunteer. Its story, she believes, is “of the Polish experience, horrible as that was. But if by ‘Holocaust’ we specifically mean the intention to wipe out every last Jew and Jewish community, it is not a Holocaust story. The Polish Underground split between the Armia Krajowa, the Home Army, and the Armia Ludowa, the Polish Communists. If better organised and working together, he might have made more impact.”
One good effect of Pilecki’s reports, Lady Gilbert continues, was the Allied War Declaration of December 1942. It was plain, and stark: “German authorities, not content with denying [Jews] the most elementary human rights, are now carrying into effect Hitler’s oft-repeated intention to exterminate the Jewish people in Europe.”
The Auschwitz Protocols
Pilecki escaped from Auschwitz in April 1943. Reports that Auschwitz was exterminating masses of Jews came with eye-witness escapees’ reports (the Auschwitz Protocols) between December 1943 and April 1944. These prompted Churchill’s famous command: “Get everything out of the air force you can, and invoke me if necessary.” As in 1941, the plenary authorities considered, and again said no, mainly for the same reasons. The full account is in Sir Martin Gilbert’s definitive book, Auschwitz and the Allies.
Fairweather says bombing the camp would have “alerted the world” to what was going on. Perhaps not. The Allied Declaration had alerted the world, with little reaction. The Germans were adept at covering up. Even when presented with Auschwitz Protocols, Allied officials found reasons not to send bombers. Some distrusted Polish underground sources. Military priorities motivated others. Well into 1943, just holding their own was a challenge. Then there was the question of Jewish objections to bombing the inmates—a widely shared view.
Fairweather says the decision not to bomb was “unconscionable.” In hindsight, it certainly seems so. At the time? Thoughtful people may differ over that. History stumbles along the trail of the past, Churchill said, trying to “kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days.”
A place among the Righteous
Fairweather believes Pilecki and his compatriots do not receive the credit they deserve. Getting himself shipped to Auschwitz was a breath-taking act of bravery. History will value Pilecki’s eloquent story of the victims of Nazi, and later Communist, crimes against humanity.
We searched for the name of Witold Pilecki on the website “Righteous Among the Nations,” part of the Yad Vashem Memorial site in Jerusalem. Lady Gilbert explains the reasons in her comment below.
Addendum by Richard Langworth
In 1940, Fairweather has Churchill “on the roof of his secure accommodation” watching the Blitz. Rooftops in the Blitz were not secure. Staffers talked the PM down for his own safety. Churchill did not sit there contentedly watching the fires.
More serious is the assertion that the Poles couldn’t get Churchill’s attention because his schedule was too busy. A cursory reading of The Churchill Documents would show he made time for much less serious things than this. He had a capacity for detail that put many to shame. And the record shows that he made time for the Poles.
Eight days after the December 1942 Allied Declaration, Sikorski described the “mass expulsion of the Polish population, slaughter and mass executions” in five Polish districts. He did not mention Jews. The Chiefs of Staff Committee met on 31 December. There, Churchill asked Portal about bombing “certain targets in Poland” as a reprisal—as the Poles had asked. Portal replied January 3rd:
…the carrying out of air attacks as reprisals…would be an explicit admission that we were bombing civilians as such and might well invite brutal vengeance on our air crews. [The Polish request is] more strictly a political warfare matter and relates to the Jews. [Hitler] has so often stressed that this is a war by the Jews to exterminate Germany that it might well be, therefore, that a raid, avowedly conducted on account of the Jews, would be an asset to enemy propaganda.
* * *
Three days later Portal amplified his reasoning. Fairweather notes that the Polish 303 Squadron shot down more Germans in the Battle of Britain than any other unit. Portal’s words show that he too appreciated the Poles’ brave contribution. From Martin Gilbert, Auschwitz and the Allies, 222:
It would be “very unprofitable [Portal wrote] to divert our best bombers to Polish targets and to keep them waiting for long periods for the moonlight and good weather without which they could not locate such distant objectives.” In addition, “the small scale of attack” which Britain could produce at such a distance “would not be impressive as a reprisal.” It would be more effective, Portal wrote, after a successful air-raid over Germany, to emphasise “to the world” the part played in such a raid by the Polish Air Force.”
It seems so simple in retrospect: bomb Auschwitz, stop the killing. Our knowledge of the horror overwhelms contemporary factors. Portal added that a reprisal, however ineffective would overwhelm the RAF “with requests from all other Allies that we should also redress their grievances in the same way.” The result would be nothing but “token reprisals which would not only be completely ineffective as deterrents but would also destroy the last shred of the cloak of legality which at present covers our operations.” —RML
One thought on “Witold Pilecki: A Brave Pole Who Did His Best for Liberty”
Lady Gilbert writes:
Lovely article and book review. And how kind of you to quote me! If you will forgive me, I’d like to clarify a couple of things in the article.
First, the Auschwitz Protocols were compiled by Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler who escaped from Auschwitz in April 1944, and by Czeslaw Mordowicz and Arnost Rosin who escaped in May. The report was substantiated by the “Polish Major” whom Sir Martin Gilbert named as Jerzy Tabeau, a Polish doctor who had been in Auschwitz. Their combined report reached the Allies only in June. It was with that report that the news reached the West that the “unknown destination somewhere in the East” was Auschwitz and the Jews being brought there were in the main killed. It was the news of Auschwitz, which arrived only in June 1944 that prompted Churchill to write, on 7 July: “Get everything out of the Air Force you can, and invoke me if necessary.” It was not, sadly, as early as December 1943.
Secondly, Yad Vashem is a museum and archive that memorialises Jews killed in the Holocaust. The only non-Jews honoured in Yad Vashem, the Righteous Among the Nations, are those who risked their lives to save Jews and the process to have someone recognised as such is very rigourous. It was only recently that Yad Vashem decided to confer the honour on diplomats who, though not risking their lives, were able to save Jews, mainly before the war with visas so they could leave, and in Budapest during the war with diplomatic protection. In many cases these actions went against their governments’ orders and their diplomatic careers suffered as a result. Yad Vashem is a Jewish institution to commemorate and document Jewish life and death during the Second World War.
The brave actions of Witold Pilecki are separate from what became known as the Holocaust. He was a resistance fighter against the German occupiers and his work was through the Polish resistance. Had he been more successful, had the Polish resistance been able to take advantage of his communications, many lives could have been saved—Poles and European Jews among them. He is, and should be recognised as, a Polish national hero, and as a resistance fighter against a barbaric regime.
Unfortunately, Auschwitz, Birkenau and Buna-Monowitz, and their many sub-camps, were places of savagery and death for many Europeans, Jews among them. Had the war continued more Poles, Russians and Slavs would have been in the German’s sights. As Elie Wiesel said: “Not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims.” Pilecki’s focus was as a Polish national in a war that began on Polish soil. It is for his country to honour him.