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    Prewar photo of Witold Pilecki, source: Internet

    Born: May 13, 1901, Ołoniec (Karelia, Russia)

    Died: May 25, 1948, prison at Rakowiecka St., Warsaw, Poland

    Buried: no confirmed burial place; symbolic grave – Powązki Military Cemetery in Warsaw

    Military rank: captain (1943), colonel (posthumously, 2013)

    Wife: Marianna nee Ostrowska (1906-2002)

    Children: Andrzej Pilecki (born 1932), Zofia Optułowicz nee Pilecka (born 1933)

    Medals: Polish – Cross of Valor (twice), Order of the White Eagle (posthumously, 2006), Commander’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta (posthumously, 1995), Commemorative Medal for the War of 1918-1921, Silver Cross of Merit, Auschwitz Cross (posthumously), Warsaw Uprising Cross (posthumously)

    Fates before joining Anders Army: He came from a noble family involved in the fight for Polish independence (his grandfather Józef was exiled to Siberia for his participation in the 1863 January Uprising and the property was partially confiscated). He grew up in Vilnius, where he joined the scouting movement. Here during World War I, he became involved in Polish self-defense units. Participant of the Polish-Bolshevik war of 1920 – for his bravery, he was twice decorated with the Cross of Valor. After returning to Vilnius, he graduated from high school, and then a course at the Cavalry Officer Cadet Reserve School in Grudziądz. He started art studies at the Stefan Batory University in Vilnius, but due to the difficult financial situation of the family, he was forced to stop them and take care of the family property in Sukurcze (Lida province, Nowogródek voivodship). Here he met his future wife Maria nee Ostrowski. They married in 1931 and had two children.

    During the September campaign in 1939, as a cavalry reserve officer in the rank of second lieutenant, Witold Pilecki was mobilized and fought as a platoon commander of the 19th Infantry Division. His unit was finally smashed in southern Poland on September 22, 1939. He managed to avoid arrest. He got to German-occupied Warsaw and immediately became involved in underground activities in the newly created organization of the Secret Polish Army (Tajna Armia Polski). Its purpose was to collect intelligence information about concentration camps created by the Germans in Poland. In September 1940, he got himself by purpose to be arrested by the Germans during a street round-up in Warsaw’s Żoliborz. Claiming to be an escaped Polish soldier named Tomasz Serafiński, he was taken to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. He was registered there as a prisoner with the number 4859 on September 22, 1940. Despite the tragic conditions in the camp, Witold Pilecki collected intelligence messages and passed them on through prisoners released from the camp, created a camp resistance movement, which was to be the aim of the uprising. Due to the increasing risk of exposure in the camp, Witold Pilecki decided to escape with two other prisoners from Auschwitz on April 27, 1943. The escape was successful.

    Witold Pilecki – prisoner no. 4859 of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, source: www.auschwitz.org

    In the years 1943-1944 he continued his underground activity in the 2nd Department of the Home Army Headquarters. He wrote a report on his stay in Auschwitz, the so-called Witold’s reports, which were transferred to the Polish authorities in London. On November 11, 1943 he was promoted to the rank of rotmistrz (captain in cavalry). From the spring of 1944, he was involved in the creation of a new underground organization “NIE” (“NO”), which was to fight the possible subsequent Soviet occupation in Poland. He took part in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 in the units of the “Chrobry II” grouping.

    Soldiers of the 2nd Corps in Rome – from the left: Marian Bohusz-Szyszko, Maria Szelągowska, Witold Pilecki, September 1945, source: Internet

    After the fall of the Warsaw Uprising in October 1944, he was captured by the Germans as a prisoner of war – stalag Lamsdorf, oflag VIIA Murnau. He was liberated from German captivity by American troops on April 29, 1945.

    Military history at Anders Army: After being liberated from the camp in Murnau, Witold Pilecki managed to get to Italy and from July 1944 he served in Intelligence service (Oddział II) of the Polish 2nd Corps. Here he also wrote a second, comprehensive report about his stay in Auschwitz concentration camp.

    A trial before the Military District Court in Warsaw, Witold Pilecki first from the left, March 1948, source: Internet

    Post-War: On December 8, 1945, he returned to Poland to continue his activity in the organization “NIE”. In the fall of 1945, he organized an intelligence network and began collecting information about the situation in Poland, the fate of the Home Army and 2nd Corps soldiers imprisoned by the NKVD and deported deep into the USSR. The information created with his associates was passed on to couriers to the West. Despite orders from June 1946 on the necessity of his departure from Poland, he remained with his family in the country. From that year, he was investigated by the Ministry of Public Security. He was arrested by the security service on May 5, 1947 and accused of conducting intelligence activities for the 2nd Corps of General Anders in Poland. Held in pre-trial detention at Rakowiecka prison was horribly tortured by communists. During the trial on March 2-15, 1948, before the Military District Court in Warsaw, he was sentenced to death. The sentence was carried out on May 25, 1947 in the prison at Rakowiecka St. His body has not yet been found.

    Witold Pilecki is a legendary figure in Poland – many schools, scout teams and military units bear his name. His service to document German crimes is a work on a global scale.

    author: Aneta Hoffmann, Warsaw, Poland

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