August 23, 2019

Auschwitz’s volunteer prisoner

The long-lost story of Capt. Witold Pilecki and his heroic actions during World War II is finally coming to light. Pilecki, a Polish army officer, volunteered to enter Auschwitz as a prisoner to gather information about life inside the concentration camp. He wrote the first intelligence report on Auschwitz with the hope of shocking the world into action, but, sadly, his efforts did little to sway the U.S. and Britain to liberate the camp, and, until 1989, details of his courageous exploits and fate were suppressed by the Polish communist regime.

To honor his efforts, Hillel at UCLA is hosting a multimedia performance March 1 of Pilecki’s reports. Marek Probosz, a visiting assistant professor at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, will enact select passages, and photo projections will help bring the story to life.

“When you put all the 007 stories together, Pilecki was still the best 007,” Probosz said, referring to fictional British Secret Service agent James Bond’s code number. “A shining example of heroism that transcends religion, race and time.”

Pilecki’s most comprehensive report on Auschwitz, written in 1945 and kept secret for nearly 50 years, was published in English for the first time in 2012 as “The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery.” 

“It’s one of the most amazing stories to come out of World War II,” said Terry Tegnazian, co-founder of Aquila Polonica, the book’s publisher. “His experience that he’s written down gives the details and a view of what went on in Auschwitz even in the years before it became a death camp for the Jews. In ’40 and ’41, it was primarily a camp for Polish political prisoners and anybody the Germans thought capable of resisting them.”

In September of 1940, Pilecki walked into a German Nazi street roundup in Warsaw to get himself arrested and sent to Auschwitz. The 39-year-old officer had volunteered for a secret mission for the Polish Underground to smuggle out intelligence about the new German concentration camp, and to organize inmate resistance with the goal of helping the Allies liberate the camp from the inside. 

“The game which I was now playing in Auschwitz was dangerous,” Pilecki wrote. “This sentence does not really convey the reality; in fact, I had gone far beyond what people in the real world would consider dangerous.”

That is perhaps the understatement of the century. Pilecki documented the brutality of the Nazi officers, who created games out of torturing and killing prisoners in scenes of savage perversion. Hospitals were packed with three bodies per bed and were overrun with typhus-infected lice. Doctors performed sterilization experiments on male and female inmates. Inmates were gassed by the thousands and buried in mass graves.

While we’re generally familiar with the horrors of Auschwitz, it’s the details and characters that drive home the constant terror of life in the camp. The scenes unfold mercilessly in the factory of death, and Pilecki narrates the industrialized slaughter with clear and concise language. 

The document was written as a strictly factual intelligence report rather than a memoir. The author focused on describing the events around him, not their emotional impact. As Pilecki writes in the introduction to his report, “[My friends] 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.”

His clandestine intelligence reports from the camp, beginning in March 1941, were forwarded via the Polish resistance to the British government in London. They were among the first pieces of eyewitness evidence of what was going on at Auschwitz. But the British authorities thought his tales of Nazi atrocities at Auschwitz (2 million people killed in the first three years, 3 million in the next two years) were grossly exaggerated, and refused to provide air support to help the inmates escape.

In the foreword to “The Auschwitz Volunteer,” Rabbi Michael Schudrich, Poland’s current chief rabbi, wrote, “If heeded, Pilecki’s early warnings might have changed the course of history.”

After nearly three years of starvation, disease and brutality, Pilecki accomplished his mission before escaping in April 1943. After he was assigned to a night shift at a camp bakery outside the fence, he and two comrades overpowered a guard and escaped, taking with them documents stolen from the officers. In 1944, Pilecki fought in the Warsaw Uprising to liberate Warsaw from Nazi Germany.

In a sad and tragic twist, Pilecki was captured by the postwar Polish communist regime, tortured, given a show trial, executed as a traitor and Western spy in 1948 and erased from Polish history until the collapse of communism in 1989. His final words before his execution were “Long live free Poland.”

Pilecki’s story has become better known in the past decade, in part because of the 2006 Polish film “The Death of Captain Pilecki,” starring Probosz. The film was made in just 10 days on a shoestring budget but has received critical acclaim and numerous awards. The actor-filmmaker has since accompanied screenings of the film and spoken about Pilecki’s life at movie theaters, universities and Holocaust museums worldwide. 

“I’ve travelled with this movie around the world for the last 10 years,” Probosz said. “It never stops. There’s such a need for true heroes, not propaganda, not the fictional Batman or superhero, but the real people who were altruists, who were idealists, who really put their life at stake and were ready to sacrifice their own life, believing that that makes sense, that there’s a mission to it, that in the future someone benefits from that sacrifice.”

Probosz also has a personal connection to the Holocaust. His grandfather, Polish poet laureate Jerzy Probosz, was murdered as a prisoner in the Dachau concentration camp in Germany in 1942. He was a self-taught intellectual, playwright, essayist and political activist. “I see through his words how idealistic he was, and what kind of a man of vision he was,” Probosz said. “So even though I never met my grandfather, I feel a very strong, intimate connection with him.”

Growing up with the awareness of his grandfather’s legacy also helped Probosz embody Pilecki on film and stage. Now, as an actor and educator, Probosz tries to pass his subject’s values on to others. “He did better me as a human being,” Probosz said of Pilecki. “I’ll go to my grave with him and his ideals.”

You can hear Marek Probosz read from Witold Pilecki’s reports in “The Auschwitz Volunteer” at Hillel at UCLA, 574 Hilgard Ave. in Los Angeles, March 1 from 4-6 p.m. More information is at