Excerpt from ‘The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery’ by Captain Witold Pilecki


Summer 1945

So, I am to write down the driest of facts, which is what my friends want me to do.

They have told me: “The more you stick to the bare facts without any kind of commentary, the more valuable it all will be.”

Well, here I go…but we were not made out of wood, let alone stone, though it sometimes seemed as if even a stone would have broken out in a sweat.

Therefore, now and again I shall insert a thought amongst these facts to indicate what one was feeling.

I do not know whether this must by definition devalue the description.

One was not made out of stone, though I often envied it; one still had a heart beating, sometimes in one’s mouth, and certainly, running around one’s brain was the odd thought which I sometimes with difficulty grasped…

I think that inserting a sentence or two from time to time about this is needed in order to present a true picture.

September 1940

The 19th of September 1940—the second street round-up in Warsaw.

There are a few people still alive who saw me go alone at 6:00 a.m. to the corner of Aleja Wojska and Felińskiego Street and join the “fives” of captured men drawn up by the SS.

Excerpted from “The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery” by Captain Witold Pilecki Copyright (c) 2012 Aquila Polonica (U.S.) Ltd.

On Plac Wilsona we were then loaded onto lorries and taken to the Light Horse Guards Barracks.

After having our particulars taken down in the temporary office there, being relieved of sharp objects and threatened with being shot if so much as a razor was later found on us, we were led out into the riding school arena where we remained throughout the 19th and the 20th.

During those two days some of us made the acquaintance of a rubber truncheon on the head. However, this was more or less within acceptable bounds for those accustomed to guardians of the peace using such methods to keep order.

Meanwhile, some families were buying their loved ones’ freedom, paying the SS huge sums of money.

At night, we all slept side by side on the ground. The arena was lit by a huge spotlight set up right next to the entrance. SS men with automatic weapons were stationed on all four sides. There were about one thousand eight hundred or so of us. What really annoyed me the most was the passivity of this group of Poles. All those

picked up were already showing signs of crowd psychology, the result being that our whole crowd behaved like a herd of passive sheep.

A simple thought kept nagging me: stir up everyone and get this mass of people moving.

I suggested to my comrade, Sławek Szpakowski (who I know was living in Warsaw up to the Uprising),1 a joint operation during the night: take over the crowd, attack the sentry posts while I, on my way to the lavatory, would “bump” into the spotlight and smash it.

However, I had a different reason for being there. This would have been a much less important objective. While he—thought the idea was total madness. On the morning of the 21st we were put onto trucks and, escorted by motorcycles with

automatic weapons, were taken off to the western railroad station and loaded onto freight cars. The railroad cars must have been used before for carrying lime, for the floors were

covered in it.

1 Pilecki is referring to the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, not the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. Translator’s note.

Excerpted from “The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery” by Captain Witold Pilecki Copyright (c) 2012 Aquila Polonica (U.S.) Ltd.

The cars were shut. We travelled for a whole day. We were given nothing to eat or drink. In any case, no one wanted to eat. The previous day we had been issued some bread, which we did not yet know how to eat or to treasure. We were just very thirsty. The lime, when disturbed, turned into a powder. It filled the air, irritating our nostrils and throats. We got nothing to drink.

We could see through the cracks between the boards covering the windows that we were being taken in the direction of Częstochowa.

Around 10:00 p.m. (22:00 hours) the train stopped somewhere and went no further. We could hear shouting and yelling, the cars being opened up and the baying of dogs.

I consider this place in my story to be the moment when I bade farewell to everything I had hitherto known on this earth and entered something seemingly no longer of it.

This is not an attempt on my part to use unusual words or terms. Quite the contrary, I believe that I do not need to attempt to use any irrelevant or pretty little word.

This is how it was.

We were struck over the head not only by SS rifle butts, but also by something far greater.

Our concepts of law and order and of what was normal, all those ideas to which we had become accustomed on this earth, were given a brutal kicking.

Everything came to an end.

The idea was to hit us as hard as possible. To break us psychologically as speedily as possible.

A hubbub and the sound of yelling voices gradually drew near. Eventually, the doors of our freight car were wrenched open. Lights shone in, blinding us.

“Heraus!rrraus!rrraus!…,” the SS belabored us with epithets and rifle butts to our shoulders, backs and heads. The idea was to get out as quickly as possible.

I leapt out, managing somehow to avoid being hit, and joined the “fives” in the center of the column.

A larger group of SS was hitting, kicking and screaming: “Zu fünfen! [Form up in fives!]”

Dogs urged on by the crazed soldiery rushed at those on the outside of the column.

Excerpted from “The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery” by Captain Witold Pilecki Copyright (c) 2012 Aquila Polonica (U.S.) Ltd.

Blinded by the lights, shoved, beaten, kicked and rushed by the dogs, we had suddenly found ourselves in conditions which I doubt any of us had ever experienced. The weaker ones were so overwhelmed that they simply fell into a stupor.

We were urged on towards a larger cluster of lights.

On the way, one of us was told to run to a post at the side of the road; he was followed by a burst of automatic weapons fire and mown down. Ten men were then dragged out of the ranks at random and shot with pistols as “collective responsibility” for the “escape,” which the SS themselves had staged.

All eleven of them were then dragged along by leg straps. The dogs were teased with the bloody corpses and set on them.

All this to the accompaniment of laughter and joking.

We approached a gate in a wire fence over which could be seen the sign “Arbeit macht Frei” [“Work Liberates You”].

It was only later that we learned to understand it properly.

Excerpted from “The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery” by Captain Witold Pilecki Copyright (c) 2012 Aquila Polonica (U.S.) Ltd.