One benefit of avoiding the news is more time is available for reading and listening to other things. My friend Stu pointed me to Dan Snow’s podcast, where there are more than a thousand episodes for me to catch up on. Lovely. I’m also listening to Stephen Fry read P. G. Wodehouse, a delicious treat. Now, where was I? Ah yes. Witold.
I’ll wager most of you haven’t heard of Cavalry Captain Witold Pilecki. He was executed a few days after his forty-seventh birthday in 1948.
In 1939, Poland was invaded by both Germany and the Soviet Union. Witold and his countrymen fought bravely, but however romantic it may seem, dashing cavalrymen on horseback are no match for armoured blitzkrieg. It was over in 35 days. As his Division crumbled, Witold opted not to retreat to France as ordered but to go to ground in occupied Poland.
One thing led to another, until in 1940, Witold agreed to allow himself to be captured and interred at Auschwitz. Yes, you read that right.
The camp was just getting going, the full extent of its eventual horror envisioned by no one. Over two and a bit years, Witold built a network within the camp in an attempt to bolster morale, spread news and train for the hoped-for liberation. As Auschwitz grew ever more evil, he kept a constant flow of reports going to the Polish Resistance, who shared them with the Allies. He pleaded for Auschwitz to be obliterated from the air or liberated from the ground. Jack Fairweather, author of “The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero Who Infiltrated Auschwitz”, states that Witold came to believe that the only way he could get something done was by delivering his report in person. In 1943, having been instrumental in planning several escapes for other inmates, he got to work on his own. He reached the resistance and made his report. All to no avail.
Then, in 1944, he fought the Germans again in the Warsaw Uprising - and was taken prisoner. He spent the last few months of the war in a POW camp in Bavaria.
At this point, I think a chestful of medals and a stiff drink would have been entirely appropriate. Not for Witold, though. He joined Polish military intelligence in Italy before being ordered to return to Soviet-occupied Poland and report back.
In 1947, he was arrested by the Communist authorities and tortured. As you might imagine from your knowledge of him so far, Witold revealed nothing. In 1948, he was put on trial and found to be an enemy of the state. On the 25th of May, he was executed in a Warsaw Prison.
The story of his life and death was not convenient to the communist rulers of Poland and was therefore suppressed, only coming to light in the 1990s after the fall of communism.
As my Irish friends would say: “He was some man for one man.”
The last word should probably go to the Chief Rabbi of Poland, who wrote in 2012:
“When God created the human being, God had in mind that we should all be like Captain Witold Pilecki, of blessed memory.”