Poland Hopes to Identify Remains of Auschwitz Hero
It could hardly have been a riskier mission: infiltrate Auschwitz to chronicle Nazi atrocities. Witold Pilecki survived nearly three years as an inmate in the death camp, managing to smuggle out word of executions before making a daring escape. But the Polish resistance hero was crushed by the post-war communist regime — tried on trumped-up charges and executed.
Six decades on, Poland hopes Pilecki’s remains will be identified among the entangled skeletons and shattered skulls of resistance fighters being excavated from a mass grave on the edge of Warsaw’s Powazki Military Cemetery. The exhumations are part of a movement in the resurgent, democratic nation to officially recognize its war-time heroes and 20th century tragedies.
“He was unique in the world,” said Zofia Pilecka-Optulowicz, paying tribute to her father’s 1940 decision to walk straight into a Nazi street roundup with the aim of getting inside the extermination camp. “I would like to have a place where I can light a candle for him.”
More than 100 skeletons, mostly of men, have been dug up this summer. On one recent day, forensic workers and archaeologists wearing blue plastic gloves and masks were carefully scraping away at the soil and piecing together bones as if working on a jigsaw puzzle. The front of one skull had been blown away by bullets; another had apparently been bludgeoned; a skeleton showed evidence of multiple gunshot wounds.
Near the pit where the bodies were dumped under cover of night stand the well-tended tombstones of the very judges and prosecutors who sent these World War II heroes to their deaths under orders from Moscow, which was fearful that the Polish patriots might use their seasoned underground skills to turn the nation against its new pro-Soviet rulers.
“The perpetrators have not been punished and the bodies of the victims have not been found,” said Krzysztof Szwagrzyk, a historian in charge of the dig. “Those times will be coming back to us until we find the bodies and bury them with due honors.
“We are doing them justice.”