The Auschwitz Volunteer

There is always a difference between saying you will do something and actually doing it. A long time before, many years before, I had worked on myself to be able to fuse the two. Witold Pilecki

On September 19, 1940 in Warsaw, Poland a man walked into a Nazi roundup of Polish citizens. He knew exactly what he was doing. What he was doing was volunteering to be shipped to Auschwitz along with the others rounded up that day.

His name was Witold Pilecki and he is the only known individual to volunteer to be taken to Auschwitz. I was rather stunned when I first read about him; everyone is. In light of all that we know about Auschwitz and the other Nazi concentration camps, his act is no doubt one of the most courageous anyone has ever performed.

At the time Pilecki was a member of the Polish Underground in Nazi occupied Poland that had been split in half with the Russians occupying the eastern section and Germans the west.

In The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery, Pilecki describes what he and other prisoners went through at the camp. His report was written after he managed to escape and after many decades in which the Communist government in Poland censored the report.

It has finally been translated into English. The translator comments that he has tried to maintain the unrevised and unpolished character of his writing. The publisher notes: “As a result this report of his Auschwitz mission has a rare immediacy and particularly personal voice—it reads as if Pilecki were sitting in the room with us telling his story.”

At the outset Pilecki writes: “The game which I was now playing in Auschwitz was dangerous. This sentence does not really convey the reality; in fact I had gone far beyond what people in the real world would consider dangerous."

His mission had three objectives:

• To distribute food and build morale for the prisoners, along with news from outside

• To send out reports about what was going on in the camp

• To organize an armed uprising to take over the camp with the support of Polish or Allied arms and troops

Pilecki succeeded in sending out information about the conditions in the camp and in building morale among the prisoners, but in spite of what was well known after a few years, neither the Polish Underground, nor Allied forces did anything to intervene in what had become a death and torture camp.

Starvation, shootings, disease, prolonged exposure to the cold and heat, cutting with sharp instruments, overwork, gassing, phenol injections, all of these brutal atrocities were used by the Germans, first on the Polish prisoners, then on the Russians captured during the German invasion of Soviet Russia and finally on the Jews.

Pilecki writes that he had “bade farewell to everything I had hitherto known on this earth and entered something seemingly no longer of it” He reports that the Soviet prisoners were the first victims of the gassing by Zyklon B and that they were so tightly packed in the crematoria “that even in death they could not fall over.” And of the murdered Jews: “Over a thousand a day from the new transports were gassed. The corpses were burnt in the new crematoria.”

After being in Auschwitz a little over two and a half years, Pilecki, along with another prisoner escaped from the camp through an ingenious and difficult route through the camp bakery. Eventually he returned to Warsaw, participated in the Warsaw Uprising, but in 1947 was arrested by the Polish Communist secret police and executed as an “imperialist spy” the following year.

In the Forward to the book, Rabbi Michael Schudrick of Poland wrote: “May the life of Witold Pilecki inspire us all to do one more good deed, of any kind, each and every day of our lives.”