Earlier this week I paid a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the German concentration camp in Poland that killed an estimated 1.1 million people, mainly Jews, from 1940 to 1945.
There is nothing I can write here that comes close to the many harrowing first-hand accounts by those who somehow survived the hell on earth death camp.
Nevertheless, it’s important to remember the atrocities that took place during the Holocaust to ensure it never happens again.
In fact, you’ll find the quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” in various parts of the Auschwitz tour.
Even as a kid I knew about Auschwitz through watching films, reading articles and passing mentions but even in adult life I never knew the full extent of what went on there.
On the lead up to my visit, I read, watched and listened to anything Auschwitz-related to learn as much as I could.
I read survivor stories about how, upon arriving at the camp, men in good health were selected to form one line and women, children and the disabled told to form another. The second line, the weaker group, were immediately sent to their deaths in the gas chambers.
Twin children were spared at this selection process only to be used as experiments by SS doctors in the most horrific manner at a later date.
SS officers took pleasure in killing prisoners either for fun or for something harmless like tripping over while they were working. Newborn babies were often killed as soon as they were born.
Auschwitz was the worst of humanity. Humans did inexplicable things to other humans in the most systematic way that perhaps beforehand we didn’t think possible.
In between the horrors, there were also examples of the best of humanity. People willing to not only risk everything or endure extreme suffering but pay the ultimate sacrifice to help others.
One such person I came across was Witold Pilecki, a captain in the Polish army and member of the underground resistance against the nazis.
Pilecki, as it turned out, was a man above men.
A courageous and tough-as-old-boots soldier who endured the horrors of war, the horrors of Auschwitz and then later Soviet torture with a will and grit often stereotypically associated with the Polish.
Despite this, his compassion and sense of humanity remained intact right up to the end. In letters he wrote to his daughter while imprisoned by the Soviets, he would tell her to “love nature” and to watch out for every ladybug, to not step on it but place it on a leaf because everything has been created for a reason.
Pilecki was, as far as we know, the only person who volunteered to go into Auschwitz. He is also one of few to ever escape it.
He purposely joined a protest march in Warsaw in 1940 where he knew he would be arrested by the German army and sent to Auschwitz. Rumours of the camp began to circulate and people he knew had been sent there so he wanted to see what was going on there and report back to the Polish army in secret.
Like all Auschwitz prisoners, Pilecki lost the right to his name and became prisoner 4859.
Writing in 1945 Pilecki said of arriving at the camp, “Around 10pm the train stopped somewhere and went no further. We could hear shouting and yelling, the cars being opened up and the baying of dogs. I consider this place in my story that I bade farewell to everything I had hitherto known on this earth and entered something seemingly no longer of it.
“Our concepts of law and order and of what was normal, all those ideas to which we had become accustomed on this Earth, were given a brutal kicking. Everything came to an end.”
His mission in Auschwitz was to set up intelligence networks, provide morale to the prisoners, distribute extra food and clothing and to relay what was happening in Auschwitz to the allied forces and the exiled Polish government in London.
He did all of this while almost dying twice from typhoid and then pneumonia.
One of the first five thousand prisoners in Auschwitz, he witnessed it evolve from a concentration camp to become a machine of mass extermination of jews.
He sent reports out of Auschwitz (in the laundry) but the Allied forces assumed they were exaggerated or false due to the extremity of the subject matter.
For two and a half years, Pilecki stayed in Auschwitz gathering information in the hope that the camp would be liberated by the Allied forces.
This never happened and it would take the advancing Russian army to liberate it in 1945 when the Germans had all but been defeated.
In 1943, after almost three years in Auschwitz, he decided to make his escape. One of only 140+ people to ever to do so.
He then rejoined the underground Polish army and fought in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising where he was captured and sent to a German POW camp. Initially, during the Uprising, he didn’t disclose his captain rank and fought as a regular soldier until a number of senior officers were killed.
After the war was over he was based in Italy. It was here he wrote a book about his experiences at Auschwitz which has since been translated into English. Soon after, he returned to Poland to begin intelligence operations on the Soviet occupation.
In Poland he was captured by the communists, given a show trial where he was painted as a traitor and then ultimately executed.
The interrogation methods used by the communists were brutal (ripping his fingernails out was one tactic) but he revealed nothing. Pilecki supposedly said Auschwitz was easier to endure than the brutality of the communists.
To illustrate the kind of man Pilecki was, two years after his death at the hands of the communists, his son was approached by a former guard at the prison he was kept before he stood trial.
“I was in prison with your father. I want to help you because your father was a saint,” he told Pilecki’s son.
“I had different tasks, including bringing food to your father. Sometimes he wouldn’t touch the food, I wasn’t sure if he was praying or thinking. So I would take the food away. Under his influence, I changed my life. I do not harm anyone anymore.”
Pilecki’s story was suppressed for decades after his death and only brought to light after the fall of the USSR in 1990.
He is now rightfully considered a national hero of Poland and one of the great heroes of WWII.
Pilecki was a man who fought until the end.