Witold Pilecki: A Brave Pole Who Did His Best for Liberty

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”

PileckiIn 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.)

Pilecki’s “Polishness”

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

  1. 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.

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