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Remarkable true story of heroic Pole who infiltrated Auschwitz

Witold Pilecki signed up with the Polish army after the Nazi invasion in 1939 before joining the resistance and purposely getting himself arrested in a Gestapo sweep

The remarkable true story of a heroic Polish farmer turned resistance fighter who infiltrated Auschwitz to expose the horrors of the Holocaust has been named Costa book of the year.

Witold Pilecki signed up with the Polish army after the Nazi invasion in 1939 before joining the resistance and purposely getting himself arrested in a Gestapo sweep in Warsaw and sent to Auschwitz a year later. 

Once inside, he wrote terse dispatches on slips of thin paper that were stitched into the clothes of inmates leaving the camp for forced labour, which allowed the first eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust to reach the outside world. 

By 1943, Pilecki decided it was time to escape, and during a work trip to a bakery outside the camp grounds he and two comrades overpowered a guard before fleeing to a nearby village, where a priest smuggled them back to the resistance.  

Tragically though, Pilecki quickly found that even his fellow resistance leaders doubted his first-hand accounts of beatings, torture and mass murder, which were considered too horrific to be true. 

After the war, Pilecki joined the anti-communist resistance, and in 1943 he was arrested by the secret police on trumped up charges. In a final crippling injustice for the Polish hero, he was executed with a single shot to the head. 

Now his incredible story has been told by Jack Fairweather, 41, who researched more than 3,000 sources over nine years to write The Volunteer, the winner of this year’s £30,000 prize at the Costa book awards. 

Pilecki managed to escape Auschwitz before joining the resistance against Poland's new communist regime after WWII. Pictured are mugshots of Pilecki following his arrest by the secret police in 1947

Pilecki managed to escape Auschwitz before joining the resistance against Poland’s new communist regime after WWII. Pictured are mugshots of Pilecki following his arrest by the secret police in 1947  

Channel 5 newsreader and former BBC presenter Sian Williams, who chaired the judging panel, said The Volunteer gives hope to those who want to speak out in a time when ‘hate speech is on the rise, hate crime is on the rise and anti-Semitism is on the rise’.

It is ‘as pacy as any thriller or work of fiction but it’s not fiction, it’s horrific fact’, she added.

Mr Fairweather’s book tells how Pilecki, a member of the Warsaw resistance, volunteered to be arrested and sent to Auschwitz before he knew it was an extermination camp.

When Germany invaded Poland in 1940, Pilecki — a gentleman farmer — did his patriotic duty and volunteered as a soldier.

The German forces routed the Poles in weeks, so Pilecki made his way to Warsaw, reduced to ruins by German bombing.

There, in a Baroque church, he knelt with others and ‘swore to serve God, the Polish nation, and each other’. The resistance movement had begun.

In early 1940, Auschwitz was established as a camp for Polish political prisoners.

The resistance needed eyes and ears in the camp, so Pilecki agreed to be captured by the Germans and sent there.

He was immediately aware he was in a hellish place when a man was beaten to death before his eyes. 

The SS were in charge, but the day-to-day running of the camp was in the hands of the kapos, inmates given power over their fellow prisoners.

The worst of these was ‘a giant chunk of meat and fat’ named Ernst Krankemann, whose party trick was to harness men to a giant roller used for road construction. 

Fairweather used more than 3,000 sources to write The Volunteer

Jack Fairweather

Jack Fairweather (right, at the awards ceremony) used more than 3,000 sources to write The Volunteer, which tells Witold Pilecki’s extraordinary story (left) 

He beat them as they pulled it; if any fell, they were flattened beneath the roller.

In 1941, after several hundred Soviet PoWs were beaten to death in a gravel pit by kapos with shovels, Pilecki realised that simply surviving long enough in Auschwitz to get word back to Warsaw would be difficult.

Then, as plans were made to turn Auschwitz into ‘the central hub of the Final Solution’, trainloads of people began to arrive.

Children and the elderly were gassed immediately; the young and healthy were worked to death in nearby labour camps. 

Pilecki worked sorting goods taken from the dead, at one point processing hair shorn from the corpses of Jewish women for use as mattress stuffing. He was close to despair.

He had sent many messages to the Polish resistance about the staggering crimes he was witnessing, but had they got through?

Pilecki is the only person known to have volunteered for Auschwitz. 

His terse dispatches to the outside world were slips of thin paper stitched inside clothes of inmates leaving the camp or left in nearby fields for others to collect. 

Pilecki was falsely accused by the communists of planning to assassinate dignitaries and put on trial (pictured)

Pilecki was falsely accused by the communists of planning to assassinate dignitaries and put on trial (pictured) 

They included only code names for inmates who were beaten to death, executed by gunfire or gassed. As sketchy as they were, they were the first eyewitness account of the Nazi death machine at Auschwitz. 

By 1943, Pilecki again began to think of breaking out, but of 173 escape attempts the previous year, only about a dozen had worked.

Then one day he and two others ran from a bakery outside the camp grounds to which they had been sent to work, taking with them cured tobacco to scatter on their trail to throw pursuit dogs off their scent and potassium cyanide tablets if all went wrong.

It didn’t. And they got away after overpowering a guard and dashing out through a door before fleeing to a nearby village, where they were sheltered by a priest before being smuggled back to the resistance. 

But after the escape, Pilecki found to his horror his dispatches from the hell of Auschwitz had been disbelieved by the resistance leaders. Some thought he was a German agent.

On May 25, 1948, the war hero (left) was executed in a Warsaw prison by a single shot to the back of the head

On May 25, 1948, the war hero (left) was executed in a Warsaw prison by a single shot to the back of the head

After escaping, Pilecki rejoined Poland’s Home Army resistance force and fought in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, the city’s ill-fated revolt against the Nazis. 

In 1947, he was arrested by the secret security of the communist regime, imposed on Poland after the war, and falsely accused of planning to assassinate dignitaries. 

His work for British intelligence also led to a charge of aiding ‘foreign imperialism’.

On May 25, 1948, he was executed in a Warsaw prison by a single shot to the back of the head.

Thankfully, after the return of capitalism Pilecki’s reputation was rehabilitated and he is now a national hero.

Mr Fairweather’s book, published by Penguin, beat four others on the shortlist, including Jonathan Coe’s Middle England and The Confessions Of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins.

The author said he hoped The Volunteer was a ‘message for our times’ adding that he had ‘recognised a voice’ in Witold Pilecki.

‘I saw in him something of a war reporter who felt disappointed and bitter that what he was saying wasn’t being heard,’ he said.

Sian Williams, whose own father-in-law was a Polish Jew who lost his family at Auschwitz, said: ‘The judges were unanimous in choosing The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather.

‘It is a story none of us have read before – this is an extraordinary and important book that people need to read.’

Israeli president Reuven Rivlin and Andrzej Duda, president of Poland, lay wreaths at a memorial to Pilecki in the Polish city of Oswiecim on Monday

Israeli president Reuven Rivlin and Andrzej Duda, president of Poland, lay wreaths at a memorial to Pilecki in the Polish city of Oswiecim on Monday 

Pilecki is now remembered at several memorials in Poland, including in Warsaw and the southern town of Oswiecim.  

The Volunteer’s win follows that of The Cut out Girl by Bart van Es last year, which told the story of a Jewish girl in hiding with the Dutch Resistance.

The Costa Book Awards is the only major UK book prize open solely to author’s resident in the UK and Ireland, and also recognises the most enjoyable books across five categories – First Novel, Novel, Biography, Poetry and Children’s Book – published in the last year.

Anna Dempsey, an American-born writer and teacher from south-east London, won the 2019 Costa Short Story Award and £3,500 for her story, The Dedicated Dancers of The Greater Oaks Retirement Community. 

Extraordinary newly colourised images of Auschwitz 75 years ago reveal full horror of the Nazis’ most notorious concentration camp where 1.1 million people died or were killed between 1940 and 1945

Claudia Joseph for the Daily Mail 

Wrapped up against the bitter cold, some bearing their few remaining possessions on their shoulders, men, women and children queue up in neat rows of five and wait… to find out whether they are going to live or die.

Behind them, mothers and their children — each wearing a yellow star to denote their religious status — continue to pour out of the train, often leaving their suitcases behind them, as they are herded into lines.

Those immediately selected for death will be guided towards the gas chambers. The rest are deemed suitable for work and will have their heads shaved before being marched off to the labour camp where they will endure the harshest conditions.

Taken in 1944 by a German photographer billeted to Auschwitz-Birkenau in southern occupied Poland, these extraordinary images are the only known record of scores of Jewish families who arrived at the Nazis’ most notorious extermination camp where 1.1 million people died or were killed between 1940 and 1945.

Herded like cattle: Newly arrived Jewish inmates are forced by SS officers into two queues — one destined for the gas chambers

Herded like cattle: Newly arrived Jewish inmates are forced by SS officers into two queues — one destined for the gas chambers

Witnesses to evil: Orthodox Jews realise that time is running out as they see their families being herded away

Witnesses to evil: Orthodox Jews realise that time is running out as they see their families being herded away

And now — for the Channel 4 documentary, Auschwitz Untold, which commemorates the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp — some 37 of the photographs have been recast in colour for the first time, bringing alive the horror of Holocaust for a new generation.

In the documentary, Holocaust survivor Judith Altmann, 95, who was arrested in 1944 and transported from her home in Czechoslovakia to Auschwitz, says: ‘I’ve seen it and I cannot erase it from my mind. We were wearing colours. We were not all in grey.’

That we are able to witness these photographs — let alone in full colour — is as remarkable as the harrowing stories they depict.

The album, which contains 193 photographs over 56 pages, was discovered by another survivor, Lilly Jacob, the 18-year-old daughter of a horse trader.

She came from the small town of Bilke in Hungary, and with her family had been sent to a ghetto in the Carpathian Mountains where she had slept on the floor of a brick factory.

Slaves of the Reich: A group of Jewish women selected for slave labour, with the discarded belongings of those sent straight to their deaths piled up in the background. They would be sent to other camps to work on armaments and rockets

Slaves of the Reich: A group of Jewish women selected for slave labour, with the discarded belongings of those sent straight to their deaths piled up in the background. They would be sent to other camps to work on armaments and rockets

Those immediately selected for death will be guided towards the gas chambers. The rest are deemed suitable for work and will have their heads shaved before being marched off to the labour camp where they will endure the harshest conditions

Those immediately selected for death will be guided towards the gas chambers. The rest are deemed suitable for work and will have their heads shaved before being marched off to the labour camp where they will endure the harshest conditions

In May 1944, Lilly and her family were put on a train to Auschwitz. Her parents and five brothers were immediately dispatched to the gas chambers.

Lilly was transferred to a series of Nazi labour camps before ending up in Mittelbau-Dora camp in Germany, where the inmates were forced to help manufacture V-2 rocket missiles.

There, Lilly contracted typhus just days before the American forces liberated the camp, and was hospitalised in a vacated SS barracks.

Freezing cold in her ragged prison garb, and with only thin blankets available to her, she went looking for more clothes in a cupboard in the barracks.

It was there, nestled under a pyjama jacket, that she discovered the album. Leafing through its pages, she discovered a photograph of two of her brothers — Israel, eight, and Zelig, 10.

Shaven-headed Lilly Jacob (centre). Lilly was transferred to a series of Nazi labour camps before ending up in Mittelbau-Dora camp in Germany, where the inmates were forced to help manufacture V-2 rocket missiles

Shaven-headed Lilly Jacob (centre). Lilly was transferred to a series of Nazi labour camps before ending up in Mittelbau-Dora camp in Germany, where the inmates were forced to help manufacture V-2 rocket missiles

Lilly Jacob with the photo album she discovered in Mittelbau-Dora camp. After the war, Lilly took the album back with her to Bilke, where she would turn up at the station to meet the train every day in the hope that some members of her family had survived. Not one of them ever returned

Lilly Jacob with the photo album she discovered in Mittelbau-Dora camp. After the war, Lilly took the album back with her to Bilke, where she would turn up at the station to meet the train every day in the hope that some members of her family had survived. Not one of them ever returned

Speaking 20 years later at the Frankfurt Trials, which were held between by 1963 and 1965 with the sole purpose of charging 22 Nazis who had served at Auschwitz, she said: ‘I recognised a picture of the rabbi who married my parents. And as I was leafing through, I recognised my grandparents, my cousin, even myself.’

After the war, Lilly took the album back with her to Bilke, where she would turn up at the station to meet the train every day in the hope that some members of her family had survived. Not one of them ever returned.

She married a local butcher and they moved to Miami, Florida to begin a new life — she worked as a waitress — far from the horrors she had experienced and the challenges of post-war Europe.

But word of the album in her possession soon spread among Auschwitz survivors, many of whom still didn’t know or refused to believe the fate of their family members.

In search of answers, they came from across the world to Lilly’s home to see the album in the hope that they might recognise a loved one.

On the rare occasion that someone did identify a family member, Lilly would give them the photograph.

Entrance to hell: German guards await the shuttered transport trains at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in occupied Poland. The camp’s crematoria can be seen in the far haze

Entrance to hell: German guards await the shuttered transport trains at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in occupied Poland. The camp’s crematoria can be seen in the far haze

Lilly's doomed brothers: Lilly Jacob found this photograph of her brothers Israel (left) and Zelig. They perished with her three other siblings and their parents

Lilly’s doomed brothers: Lilly Jacob found this photograph of her brothers Israel (left) and Zelig. They perished with her three other siblings and their parents

It was only in 1980 that renowned Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld, a Romanian Jew, tracked Lilly down and convinced her that the album should be safeguarded at Israel’s World Holocaust Remembrance Centre, Yad Vashem.

She agreed and flew to Jerusalem to donate it in person. En route, she visited Auschwitz, to honour those who had died there and to bury her ghosts.

‘I want to see for myself that my parents are not there, that my parents are really dead,’ she said at the time. ‘That’s the only way I can rid myself of that memory.’

Lilly Jacob died in 1999. Her photographs, now immortalised in colour, live on for all to see and bear witness to the evil rule of Nazi Germany.

  • Auschwitz Untold: In Colour aired on Sunday 26th and Monday 27th January at 9pm on More4, followed by a 90-minute special Wednesday 29th January at 10:30pm on Channel 4 

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk


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