When people heard about Hitler’s concentration camps, where Jews were either forced into labor, gassed, experimented on, or brutally killed, it was understandable that people wanted to avoid them at all costs. Jews attempted to flee, and the Allies gave their all to liberate those who survived the extreme and brutal situations in the camps. No one wanted to be there, except maybe prisoner number 4859, who volunteered to be locked up in the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. Prisoner 4859 was a man named Witold Pilecki. Who’s this guy, and why did he want to be there?

A War Hero

Witold Pilecki was from the town of Olonets, Karelia, in the Russian Empire. He was born on May 13, 1901, as a descendant of a noble family of the Leliwa coat of arms. His family was originally from Lithuania but was deported to Russia after participating in the January 1863 to 1864 Uprising.

In 1918, the Russian Revolution ensued, and the Central Powers were defeated in World War I. At that time, Pilecki returned to Wilno and joined the ZHP section of the Lithuanian and Belarusian Self-Defense Militia that disarmed the retreating German soldiers and went into positions to defend the city from being captured by the Soviet Red Army. When Wilno fell to Bolshevik forces on January 5, 1919, Pilecki’s forces had no choice but to join the Partisans and fight the Germans like guerillas.

A housing block burns during the suppression of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. (National Archives and Records Administration, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

He was part of the Polish-Soviet War from 1919 to 1921 and the Battle of Warsaw. He also took part in the liberation of Wilno. After the war, he was promoted to the rank of corporal.

Prisoner No. 4859

Witold Pilecki,
Witold Pilecki, prisoner no. 4859. (official mug shot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

At the beginning of World War II, not much was known about the atrocities happening in the area near the town that German called Auschwitz. Initially, it was thought to be nothing more than a POW camp. And so Pilecki, who wanted to be part of the resistance, wanted to uncover what exactly it was. The best way to do it, of course, was to get in there. He proposed his plan: He would get himself arrested, brought to Auschwitz, and then once he’s in, he would gather intelligence reports that would be smuggled out. His superiors agreed to his plan and gave him the go signal in 1940.

On September 19, he brought with him a false identity card and joined a protest march against the Nazi forces in Warsaw. Sure enough, he was arrested by the Nazis, along with 2,000 other Polish protesters. He was detained in an old cavalry barracks for two days, where he was beaten black and blue with rubber truncheons before he was transferred to Auschwitz just as he had hoped. He was assigned the number 4859 and was treated no more than just a number. Now, he just had to gather as much information as possible and hopefully get out of there alive.

Smuggling Out the Atrocities

Inside, he was assigned to carry rocks in a wheelbarrow. Although it was backbreaking work, he still managed to gather intelligence on the camp and smuggle the information out through prisoners who managed to escape. The information would then be passed to the underground Polish army, who could not believe what he was saying. As Alex Storozynski, president and executive director of the Kosciuszko Foundation, said in an interview with NPR,

“The underground army was completely in disbelief about the horrors. About ovens, about gas chambers, about injections to murder people — people didn’t believe him. They thought he was exaggerating.”

Auschwitz-Birkenau (DieglopCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

While inside, he also formed an underground resistance movement named Związek Organizacji Wojskowej (ZOW) that aimed to boost the morale of the prisoners by smuggling in food, medicines, clothing, and the in and out smuggle of information. He also hoped an attack could be arranged so the prisoners could mass escape, but no orders were released by the Polish government now exiled in London.

He managed to stay alive in the Auschwitz camp for the next two and a half years, slowly working to feed his reports not only to the Polish government but also to London. The Polish government told both the British and American governments to do something to rescue the people, but they didn’t do anything, at least at that time yet.

After three years, Pilecki wrote, “further stay here might be too dangerous and difficult for me.” Along with a few other prisoners, he managed to escape through a poorly secured back door in a bakery. After his escape, Pilecki did not stop and instead continued to fight underground. After the war, the Soviets occupied and tasked him to gather intelligence about an independence-minded communist party forming in Poland. The Polish communists captured and accused him of espionage for the Soviets, and Witold Pilecki was shot dead.