Notes From The Only Man Who Entered Auschwitz Voluntarily

A Polish army officer got himself deported to Auschwitz to document war crimes in the concentration camp. Now for the first time, Germans can read this vivid account.

Witold Pilecki was imprisoned in Auschwitz for 945 days
Witold Pilecki was imprisoned in Auschwitz for 945 days
Sven Felix Kellerhoff

BERLIN — Death by hanging may not seem so bad when the alternative is to be beaten to death or stabbed in the stomach.

Of course, a place where death by hanging would be considered an improvement is hell on earth — a place no one would go of their own free will. Or almost no one, because Witold Pilecki went to Auschwitz voluntarily and was imprisoned there for 945 days.

Now, 70 years after his escape in April 1943, his written account of daily life in the largest Nazi concentration camp is scheduled to be published in German. It is a shocking document in spite of — or perhaps because of — its broken, often erratic style.

There is no lack of material about Auschwitz, but the account of Pilecki, who died in 1948, brings the horror to life in a way that perhaps no other book has.

The new translation comes from an English version of the original Polish journal, written in the summer of 1945, at a time when there were few other published accounts of what happened in the death camp.

A patriot and Catholic

Pilecki was a Polish farmer and officer, an ardent patriot and religious Catholic. An independent Poland was the most important value in his life next to his family. In 1939, as the tension between Poland’s authoritarian government and Nazi Germany increased, Pileski was called to serve as the captain of a Polish army cavalry unit.

The Polish army’s defeat by the German and Soviet tanks couldn’t entirely stop the fearless Polish cavalry. Pilecki continued to plan attacks against the invaders until the Polish government in exile asked him to organize underground resistance instead of engaging in open fighting. From then on he was was a resistance fighter.

When a new concentration camp was built on the edge of the small village of Oswiecim in a Polish area annexed by Germany — a place that would hold 10,000 prisoners — Pilecki found out about it quickly. At first, most of the prisoners were Poles.

The cavalry captain had an idea: He would inform Poland and Hitler’s Western enemies about the conditions in these camps. At the same time, he hoped to build a resistance organization among the prisoners.

After insisting, Pilecki finally received authorization from the Polish resistance movement to carry out his crazy plan and provoke his own deportation to Auschwitz. He prepared for the mission. In one of the safe houses he found identification papers in the name of Tomasz Serafinski, who more or less looked like him. That’s how he planned to protect his family in case his plan went wrong.

With those papers in his bag, Pilecki intentionally went to a Nazi street raid in Warsaw on Sept. 19, 1940. He knew that the occupiers used these raids to find “supplies” for their new camp.

Arrival in Auschwitz

Two days later Pilecki was taken southwest by train with several hundred other prisoners. “At around 10 p.m. the train stopped somewhere and didn’t travel further,” he wrote. “We could hear roars and screams. The wagon was opened, dogs barked.”

A couple of minutes later, he would learn that a life — or even 11 lives — was worth nothing at Auschwitz. One of the new prisoners was told to walk toward a post before being shot with an automatic weapon. Then 10 more were taken out of the group and killed as “collective punishment” for an escape attempt. The dogs were then set on the bloody corpses.

Pilecki had arrived in Auschwitz. He was promptly shaved, given striped prison clothing and had two teeth knocked out with a club. “I spit the two teeth out,” he wrote. “It bled a little ... You could expect that.”

Pilecki’s book offers a detailed account of life in the camp, where he created a sophisticated social structure among the Polish prisoners, who helped one another and worked toward opportunities for resistance — although even survival was an act of resistance.

After Pilecki’s death in 1948, an anonymous commenter said that, “Among the Poles in the concentration camp, there were many who believed that Poland’s freedom would have to come from him, and they did everything in their power to make sure he made it through alive.”

Lucky escape

For more than two and a half years in the concentration camp, Pilecki registered crimes and their perpetrators. Then he decided to attempt an escape. On April 26, 1943, he managed, along with two comrades, to get away from the camp bakery.

He went back underground and made it back to Warsaw, where he was critical in defending an important road for two weeks during the 1944 Polish uprising. He was taken prisoner of war and held under difficult conditions that were nonetheless not comparable to his experience at Auschwitz. He was released in 1945, and wrote his account of life and survival in the concentration camps before returning home to work toward an independent Poland once again.

Pilecki was openly anti-Communist, and in 1947 the new Stalinist regime in Warsaw had him arrested and tortured because he was collecting evidence of Soviet crimes against Polish soldiers. He refused to cooperate, and so he was sentenced to death in a show trial.

It’s unfortunate that the new German translation doesn’t contain more than a few thin pages about his death at the hands of Poland’s communist government. But at least his notes from his undercover mission at Auschwitz are finally available to a German audience.

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A Mother In Spain Denied Child Custody Because She Lives In Rural Area

A court in Spain usurps custody of the one-year-old boy living with his mother in the "deep" part of the Galicia region, forced to instead live with his father in the southern city of Marbella, which the judge says is "cosmopolitan" with good schools and medical care. Women's rights groups have taken up the mother's case.

A child in Galician countryside

Laure Gautherin

A Spanish court has ordered the withdrawal of a mother's custody of her one-year-old boy because she is living in the countryside in northwestern Spain, where the judge says the child won't have "opportunities for the proper development of his personality."

The case, reported Monday in La Voz de Galicia, has sparked outrage from a women's rights association but has also set off reactions from politicians of different stripes across the province of Galicia, defending the values of rural life.

Judge María Belén Ureña Carazo, of the family court of Marbella, a city on the southern coast of 141,000 people, has ordered the toddler to stay with father who lives in the city rather than with his mother because she was living in "deep Galicia" where the child would lack opportunities to "grow up in a happy environment."

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - October 25, 2021

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - Monday 25 October, 2021

La Voz de Galicia

Better in a "cosmopolitan" city?

The judge said Marbella, where the father lives, was a "cosmopolitan city" with "a good hospital" as well as "all kinds of schools" and thus provided a better environment for the child to thrive.

The mother has submitted a formal complaint to the General Council of the Judiciary that the family court magistrate had acted with "absolute contempt," her lawyer told La Voz de Galicia.

The mother quickly accumulated support from local politicians and civic organizations. The Clara Campoamor association described the judge's arguments as offensive, intolerable and typical of "an ignorant person who has not traveled much."

The Xunta de Galicia, the regional government, has addressed the case, saying that any place in Galicia meets the conditions to educate a minor. The Socialist party politician Pablo Arangüena tweeted that "it would not hurt part of the judiciary to spend a summer in Galicia."

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