Polish fighters guarding entrance of their battalion headquarters, Warsaw, circa 24 August 1944.
Polish resistance fighter with K pattern flamethrower, Warsaw, 22 August 1944.
“The giant and the spittly dwarf of the reaction”. Postwar communist propaganda poster showing soldier of the AL stepping over the underground fighter of AK.
Witold Pilecki (13 May 1901 – 25 May 1948; codenames Roman Jezierski, Tomasz Serafiński, Druh, Witold) was a soldier of the Second Polish Republic, the founder of the Secret Polish Army (Tajna Armia Polska) resistance group and a member of the Home Army (Armia Krajowa). As the author of Witold’s Report, the first intelligence report on Auschwitz concentration camp, Pilecki enabled the Polish government-in-exile to convince the Allies that the Holocaust was taking place.
During World War II, he volunteered for a Polish resistance operation to get imprisoned at Auschwitz in order to gather intelligence and escape. While in the camp, Pilecki organized a resistance movement and as early as 1941, informed the Western Allies of Nazi Germany’s Auschwitz atrocities. He escaped from the camp in 1943 and took part in the Warsaw Uprising. He remained loyal to the London-based Polish government-in-exile and was executed in 1948 by the Stalinist secret police Urząd Bezpieczeństwa on charges of working for “foreign imperialism”, thought to be a euphemism for MI6. Until 1989, information on his exploits and fate was suppressed by the Polish communist regime.
In 1940, Pilecki presented to his superiors a plan to enter Germany’s Auschwitz concentration camp at Oświęcim (the Polish name of the locality), gather intelligence on the camp from the inside, and organize inmate resistance. Until then, little had been known about the Germans’ running of the camp and it was thought to be an internment camp or large prison rather than a death camp. His superiors approved the plan and provided him with a false identity card in the name of “Tomasz Serafiński.” On 19 September 1940, he deliberately went out during a Warsaw street roundup (‘łapanka’) and was caught by the Germans, along with some 2,000 innocent civilians. After two days of torture in Wehrmacht barracks, Pilecki was sent to Auschwitz where he was assigned inmate number 4859.
At Auschwitz, while working in various kommandos and surviving pneumonia, Pilecki organized an underground Union of Military Organizations (Związek Organizacji Wojskowej, ZOW). Many smaller underground organizations at Auschwitz eventually merged with ZOW. ZOW’s tasks were to improve inmate morale, provide news from outside, distribute extra food and clothing to members, set up intelligence networks, and train detachments to take over the camp in the event of a relief attack by the Home Army, arms airdrops, or an airborne landing by the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade, based in Britain.
ZOW provided the Polish underground with invaluable information about the camp. From October 1940, ZOW sent reports to Warsaw, and beginning in March 1941, Pilecki’s reports were being forwarded via the Polish resistance to the British government in London. These reports were a principal source of intelligence on Auschwitz for the Western Allies. Pilecki hoped that either the Allies would drop arms or troops into the camp or that the Home Army would organize an assault on it from outside. Such plans, however, were all judged impossible to carry out. Meanwhile, the Gestapo redoubled its efforts to ferret out ZOW members, succeeding in killing many of them. Pilecki decided to break out of the camp, with the hope of personally convincing Home Army leaders that a rescue attempt was a valid option. When he was assigned to a night shift at a camp bakery outside the fence, he and two comrades overpowered a guard, cut the phone line and escaped on the night of 26/27 April 1943, taking with them documents stolen from the Germans.
A Polish soldier of medical service watching a Polish propaganda poster “Wara!” (“Get out!”) - September 1939.
Soldiers of the 1st company of Sambor command of Drohobycz Armia Krajowa inspectorate armed with German-made arms and dressed in captured German field uniforms. The soldier on the lower left appears to be holding a Soviet-made PPSh-41, or some derivative of that weapon.
Home Army (Armia Krajowa), Warsaw Uprising, 1944