I want to tell you about this guy, because I had never heard of him before this morning. I read a very brief account of his life, as I sat in my office, wondering, and feeling weepy.
His name was Witold Pilecki. He was Polish. In fact, he was born on this date, May 13, but in the year 1901, in Olonets, which was part of the Russian Empire.
He was a handsome man, with a strong jaw, an elegant nose, and piercing blue eyes. Witold. In 1940, he was 39 years old. He was married to a woman named Maria, and he was probably enjoying his good life in the beautiful landscapes of Poland.
But there was this other guy from Germany. We all know him. Adolph. Hitler. A ruler with a delusional mind. He lied on a daily basis to the people who looked up to him as a leader. Not everyone supported him. He had a strong “base” though. And he worked very hard to pitch hatred between his “base” and anyone who disagreed with his lies. He believed he was superior. He thought his race was superior. And he decided to preserve his race by keeping all others out. If it sounds familiar to you, beware. It sounds familiar to me too.
Back to Witold Pilecki. In Poland. On September 1, 1939, at 4:45 in the morning, some 1.5 million German troops invaded Poland. They charged in from all sides along Poland’s 1,750-mile border that was controlled by Germans on the other side. Those Germans bombed Polish airfields. They also had warships and U-boats that attacked the Polish Navy, right there in the Baltic Sea. And that Nazi leader Adolf Hitler? He thought the conquest of Poland would bring Lebensraum, or “living space,” for the German people. Adolph decided that the “racially superior” Germans would colonize the territory and the native Slavs would be enslaved.
England and France were pissed off about all of this, and for good reason. They could see that the Polish people were getting slaughtered. So. On September 3, they declared war on Germany, initiating World War II.
And there in Poland. Witold Pilecki was a Polish cavalry officer and intelligence agent. Here’s what he did. Pilecki founded one of the first Polish resistance movements against the Nazi occupation. Incredibly, in 1940, he volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz. And while the was there, he gathered some of the first information about the Holocaust. And then he began passing it onto the Western Allies so they would know too.
I am not sure how someone who’s body and mind has been in a prison camp for three years does this, but in 1943 he made a daring escape. From there, he rejoined the Polish Home Army, and took part in the Warsaw Uprising.
Once victory was declared by the Western Allies, things remained difficult in Poland. After the war he remained loyal to the London-based Polish government-in-exile.
But back to Witold Pilecki. What makes a person this incredible? When he volunteered for Auschwitz, he essentially forfeited his life for his country, for his cause. Amazing, selfless, brave, virtuous Witold. I am not cut from this cloth. I can’t even figure out what to do about the injustices in today’s world, let alone, something as monumental as Pilecki’s trek.
Pilecki was arrested by agents of the Ministry of Public Security on 8 May 1947. I am not sure where he was when this happened. But what a thing. After his arrest, he was repeatedly tortured. Then, in 1948 he stood “trial” which wasn’t any kind of a trial at all. It was merely a story board for his accusers.
In 1948 he was executed by the communist authorities in Poland.
I am very thankful, grateful, to the people in the world who give their lives to that which is righteous, and good. Those who do for others — who work in principled favor. Who give and do not ask in return.
“Sometimes when you sacrifice something precious, you’re not really losing it. You’re just passing it on to someone else.”
― Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven
“There are memories that time does not erase… Forever does not make loss forgettable, only bearable.”
― Cassandra Clare, City of Heavenly Fire
“Life is funny. Things change, people change, but you will always be you, so stay true to yourself and never sacrifice who you are for anyone.”
― Zayn Malik