The Man Who Volunteered for Auschwitz
There are very few places that can accurately be described as hell on Earth. One of these is the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II, where as many as 1.5 million people died during the five years the camp was in operation.
The Polish resistance had been hearing horrific first- or second-hand accounts about the conditions inside Auschwitz. These early accounts came primarily from released prisoners, but also from casual observers like railway employees and residents of the nearby village of Oswiecim. The resistance decided they needed someone on the inside.
It is into this environment that Witold Pilecki, a 39-year old veteran of the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1921 who fought against the initial Nazi invasion and a member of the Polish resistance, volunteered himself in 1940. Pilecki’s mission was to allow himself to be arrested and, once inside Auschwitz, to collect intelligence for the Polish resistance in the country and the government-in-exile in London, and to organize a resistance from inside the camp.
“I think he knew, he realized what he was getting himself into,” said Jacek Pawlowicz, a historian at Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance. “But even so, he was not prepared for the things he was actually able to witness.”
During the next three years, Pilecki was involved in one of the most dangerous intelligence-gathering and resistance operations of the war. He authored three reports about life inside the camp for the Polish resistance. During his incarceration, Pilecki witnessed from the inside Auschwitz’s transformation from a detention facility for political prisoners and Soviet soldiers into one of the Nazis’ deadliest killing machines.
An English translation of Pilecki’s third and most comprehensive report — a primary source for this article — was recently published as a book titled The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery . It is a fascinating first-hand account of virtually all aspects of life inside the camp. The original document is in the custody of the Polish Underground Movement Study Trust in London.