Unless you are from Poland or a World War II history buff, you may have never heard of Witold Pilecki. Oftentimes we revel in the escapades of military heroes for a while, only to allow their memory and legacy to fade slowly from our minds.
This may be the case with Pilecki, but members of Poland's Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) are trying to ensure that not only is his legacy preserved, but that his remains are as well.
IPN headquarters, Warsaw
Pilecki was born in Russia in 1901. In 1918, he joined a ZHP Scout unit of the Polish self-defense units during World War I and later went on to join the regular Polish Army and fought in the Polish-Soviet War. Although he received the Silver Cross of Merit for his community and social work in 1938, his legacy did not really begin to take shape until World War II.
He and his Polish Army unit took part in heavy fighting against the advancing Germans during the invasion of Poland. A few months later, Pilecki became the organizational commander of the newly created Secret Polish Army. In 1940 he presented his commanding officers with a plan to enter Germany's Auschwitz concentration camp in order to gather intelligence on the camp from the inside, and organize inmate resistance. When his plan was approved, he was provided a false identity card in the name of "Tomasz Serafiński”, and set out to be captured by German soldiers during a street roundup in Warsaw. He was captured and sent to Auschwitz. When he arrived at Auschwitz, he organized an underground Union of Military Organizations. The purpose of the organization was 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.
Pilecki’s network provided invaluable intelligence regarding the camp and was the main source of intelligence on Auschwitz for the Western Allies. When he was assigned to a night shift at a camp bakery outside the fence in late April 1943, he and two of his comrades overpowered a guard, cut the phone line and managed to escape, taking with them documents stolen from the Germans. Four months later he reached Warsaw and joined the Home Army's intelligence. The Home Army did not believe they had enough manpower to capture the camp without the help of allies. Pilecki’s information was forwarded to the British, who believed the reports were grossly exaggerated and refused assistance.
When his plan for liberating the Auschwitz camp was denied, Pilecki went on to fight during the Warsaw Uprising, where he was captured and spent the remainder of the war in German prisoner-of-war camps at Łambinowice and Murnau. When the war was over, he retuned to Poland and began to reorganize his intelligence organization. The exiled Polish government ordered him to leave Poland when they discovered that his cover had been blown, however Pilecki refused. He began collecting evidence showing the Soviet atrocities committed against members of the Home Army and the 2nd Polish Corps. He was arrested by the Soviets and repeatedly tortured prior to going on trial. During the trial he was accused of many crimes, including illegal crossing of the borders, use of forged documents, not enlisting with the military, carrying illegal arms, and espionage. He was found guilty and on May 25, 1948, and Pilecki was executed at the Warsaw Mokotów Prison.
The show trial of Capt. Witold Pilecki, sentenced to death and executed March 1948
It is party because of his legacy of heroic deeds, risking his own life in order to save others and work towards a better life for the citizens of his country, that archeologists with Poland's Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) have begun to excavate a pit in a remote corner of the Powazki Cemetery in Warsaw. IPN’s wish is to commemorate the suffering of the Polish people during the Nazi and Communist eras, and are searching for the remains of the victims of their country's last dictatorship, so the can finally receive and proper burial and headstone. With the help of Andrzej Pilecki, Witold Pilecki’s son, they will use DNA evidence to try and match skeletal remains uncovered to that of Witold. Hopefully they are successful and this amazing man can finally receive the hero’s burial that he so desperately deserves.