Like many of the heroes of the Warsaw Uprising, nearly no one in the Anglosphere has ever heard of Witold Pilecki, a deeply Catholic member of the Polish resistance. However, his heroism is inspiring far beyond his actions during the largest single act of Polish resistance to the Nazi regime.
When we speak of resistance against the Nazis by occupied nations, we speak almost exclusively of the French and sometimes of the Dutch. Rarely mentioned are the Poles, despite the fact that they had a functioning government in exile coordinating with an underground government on the ground with its own military arm, the Polish Home Army.
As part of his duties in the Polish Home Army, Pilecki volunteered for service as a prisoner in Auschwitz so that he could gather intelligence. This made him one of the first people to report on Nazi atrocities during World War II.
Unfortunately, like many others, he picked the wrong side of the coin in Eastern Europe, backing the liberal-democratic government of Poland against the Communist government backed in Moscow. This meant that much of his heroism was unknown until the 1990s, after the fall of Communism and the release of documents that had been suppressed by the Communists for decades.
The Early Life of Witold Pilecki
Pilecki was born in Olonet in Karelia, in what was then the Russian Empire. The town is currently a part of the modern-day Russian Federation. Geography aside, Pilecki’s family were members of the Polish landed gentry before it was dismantled by the Tsar and committed Polish nationalists. In fact, his grandfather had been a supporter of the January Uprising, which was defeated and crushed by the Tsar in June of 1864. Because of this, he had his titles revoked and his land confiscated.
After this he was exiled to Siberia for seven years. Upon release, the entire family was forcibly resettled in Karelia.
When the Russian Revolution broke out, Pilecki moved on to Vilnius, where he joined the Self-Defence of Lithuania and Belarus, a paramilitary group formed in the newly reconstituted Poland. Despite the name, the force was largely composed of Poles, who have an intertwined history with Lithuanians and Belarussians. He participated in disarming German troops and using their weapons against the advancing Red Army.
Once the city fell to the Bolsheviks in January 1919, Pilecki and his remaining men resorted to guerrilla tactics behind enemy lines. They then retreated into Białystok, where Pilecki enlisted as a private in the new Polish Army. It was here that he continued the fight against the Red Terror during the Polish-Soviet War of 1919 through 1921. He took part in the Kiev Offensive as well as the decisive Battle of Warsaw, which largely halted the further spread of Communism into Eastern Europe for a generation. He was also a veteran of the Polish–Lithuanian War around the same time.
At the end of the Polish-Soviet War he was moved into the reserves, where he completed his secondary education as well as received officer training after the war was over. In September 1926, he became a man in a sense – receiving the title to his family’s ancestral estate, Sukurcze. The property had been badly damaged during the First World War, but he spent his time repairing and modernizing it.
During this period he built a reputation as a leader of his community, an amateur painter and a social worker. In 1938, this earned him the Silver Cross of Merit.