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.”
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.