How many readers have heard of Witold Pilecki, I wonder? Not many, I would guess. But then few people anywhere have even heard his name. Yet he has been described as “one of the greatest heroes of Poland, Europe and the entire free world in the twentieth century.”
I came across Pilecki’s story by chance while reading a review of a new book about him. He did something quite astonishing: he volunteered to enter Auschwitz and stayed there, suffering from the most terrible conditions, for two and a half years before escaping and telling the world about the Holocaust.
Inside the death camp he saw his role as raising the morale of the inmates, passing on news to them about the war, amassing detailed intelligence of the numbers being killed in the gas chambers, and getting this information to the world outside. He built a secret radio inside the camp to receive and pass on news to the underground Polish resistance group to which he belonged.
When he escaped in 1943, he wrote a 100-page report that was sent from Poland to all the Western allies, including Winston Churchill. It was the firmest evidence of the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. He led an unsuccessful assault on Auschwitz by partisans, many of whom were killed.
He realised that the only hope of saving the prisoners, most of them Jews, was with Western help. He urged the Allies to bomb the death camps, but this proposal was rejected as inhumane and logistically difficult because of the distances involved and the diversion of resources from the war.
His response was that the people were going to die anyway and destroying the camps would save them further suffering and avoid many thousands of others from meeting the same fate.
Pilecki then played a heroic role in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 – according to an account by the historian Norman Davies, “he almost singlehandedly held up the German panzers on one of Warsaw’s main thoroughfares for a fortnight.” Davies commented: “If there was an Allied hero who deserved to be remembered and celebrated, this was a person with few peers.” He continued to work with the resistance to the German occupation to the end of the war and then, when the Russians imposed a Communist system on Poland, he worked against them.
In 1947 he was captured and tortured by Stalin’s secret police and, after a show trial at which he remained defiant, he was executed the following year with a bullet in the neck at Mokatow prison in Warsaw. His remains have never been found.
His personal heroism went much further back, for he had fought as a Polish cavalry captain against the Russian Bolsheviks in 1920 and then against the Germans at the start of the Second World War before going underground with the resistance.
Pilecki was a devout Roman Catholic who saw it as his patriotic and religious duty to combat evil. When his death sentence was announced, he said: “I’ve been trying to live my life so that in the hour of my death I would feel joy rather than fear.”
The Chief Rabbi of Poland said of him: “When God created the human being, God had in mind that we should all be like Captain Witold Pilecki, of blessed memory. May the life of Witold Pilecki inspire us all to do one more good thing, of any kind, each and every day of our lives.”
The Communists suppressed all mention of Pilecki until the end of the Iron Curtain in 1989. Even then it has required research by many historians for the full story of his outstanding heroism to emerge. A Polish film and biographies in several languages have now appeared.
When I was young, the hero we had all heard about was Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Jews in German-occupied Hungary in World War 2. His death in a Moscow prison only became known many years later.
Then there was Oskar Schindler, the Sudetan German industrialist who saved the lives of 1,200 Jews by employing them in his factory at Kracow in German-occupied Poland. The world only learned of this episode when Thomas Keneally, the Australian novelist, published Schindler’s Ark in 1982,
But it was 11 years later, through Schindler’s List, Stephen Spielberg’s brilliant black-and-white film, starring Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes, that the German industrialist’s courage became universally known, 50 years after the historic events it portrayed.
It also took half a century before the heroic work of Nicholas Winton became known to the general public. A British-born Socialist of Jewish descent, Winton went to Prague in 1939 to set up what became known as Kindertransport, a secret network through Europe that allowed 669 Jewish children to escape from Czechoslovakia – and almost certain death in Nazi death camps - by being taken to England and settled there in family homes.
Some of these children went on to be famous, including Karel Reisz, the film-maker, Alf Dubs, the British Labour MP and Gerda Mayer, the poet. One of the secretaries at The Observer in my time there, a feisty lady called Greta Weill, was also one of those saved by the Kindertransport. Winton’s story only become known through research by a British television company, which showed a documentary about him in 1989. He was knighted in 1992 and lived to be 106.
One has to wonder how many other stories of heroism in the Second World War have still to be revealed. Some emerge in obituaries of soldiers, sailors and airmen, though there cannot be many left now. The last intake of the war, aged 18 in 1945, would be 92 and anyone who fought from the beginning in 1939 would be close to 100 years old.
The stories of Pilecki, Schindler and Winton did not emerge through official channels; nor did the heroes themselves seek personal publicity. Official channels tend to glorify victories and to play down defeats – or to portray a crushing defeat like Dunkirk as some sort of victory.
People these days might say: why bother with all this now? The answer is that those who died for their country deserve to be remembered by future generations for their sacrifice. The stories of special people like Witold Pilecki give inspiration and dignity to the human race at a time when man’s cruelty to his fellow men and women is so gruesome and depressing.