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The Bravest Man Who Ever Died

by Chris Kulczycki Tue Dec 13th, 2005 at 10:43:59 PM EST

Last week I wrote about Jan Karski, who tried to warn the world of the Holocaust. This article is about a man who showed that courage and dedication have no limits, a man who purposely had himself arrested and imprisoned in Auschwitz to help those already there and also to warn the world of the Holocaust. His name was Witold Pilecki and he has been called the bravest man in World War II.

Konstanty Piekarski, who survived both Auschwitz and Buchenwald, wrote this about Pilecki:

Perhaps the noblest example of heroism I observed occurred in September of 1940, when a captain in the Polish Intelligence, Witold Pilecki, allowed himself to be captured by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz in order to establish there a resistance unit among Polish army officers. It was an almost impossible task considering the extraordinary cruelty of the German kapos and the vigilant security of the Gestapo. But Pilecki was no ordinary man. His courage and determination gave myself and others the will to overcome tremendous obstacles - the constant threat of torture, execution or starvation - despite our limited means.

But that was only the beginning of Pilecki's bravery. There is more below.

 Witold Pilecki was born in Karelia, Russia, where Tsarist Russian authorities had forcibly resettled his family. He was born into a family of patriots; his grandfather, Józef Pilecki, had been exiled to Siberia for his part in the January Uprising (1863-65) against Tsarist Russia. Pilecki's family moved to Wilno in 1910 where he joined the Polish Scouting and Guiding Association or ZHP. It was a Boy Scout-like group that later became a Polish military force. He soon founded a chapter of the ZHP in Orel, Russia.

With the outbreak of World War I, the seventeen-year-old Pilecki joined the Polish self-defense units. Next he fought in the Polish-Soviet War (1919-20). Pilecki later joined the regular Polish Army and fought in the defense of Grodno (in present-day Belarus). In  1020 he joined the 211th Uhlan Regiment and fought in the Battle of Warsaw, where the near-defeated Poles stunned Europe by decisively trouncing a stronger Bolshevic force and perhaps guaranteeing Poland's future freedom. He also fought at Rudniki Forest and the liberation of Wilno.

With Poland free and having been twice awarded the Polish Cross of Valor, Pilecki returned to his family farm to finish school. He attempted studying fine arts at the Stefan Batory University for a while. Finally, he finished Military school of Cavalry Reserve in Grudziądz.  Eventually he settled, married and had two children. He was demobilized by the army, but remained a cavalry officer. Lasting peace, however, is rarely Poland's fate.

Just prior to the German blitzkrieg on September 1, 1939, Pilecki was mobilized as a cavalry-platoon commander. He fought against the far better equipped advancing Germans. Pilecki's platoon withdrew toward Lwów and joined the 41st Infantry Division. Pilecki and his men destroyed 7 German tanks and shot down two aircraft. On September 17, after the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland his division was disbanded and he returned to Warsaw with his commander, Major Jan Włodarkiewicz.

Soon thereafter Pilecki and Włodarkiewicz formed the Secret Polish Army (Tajna Armia Polska, TAP). Pilecki became its organizational commander and expanded TAP to cover not only Warsaw but most of the major cities of central Poland. TAP had approximately 8,000 men. Later TAP was incorporated into the larger Home Army (Armia Krajowaoror or  AK).

When Pilecki learned of the existence of Auschwitz, he presented a plan to his commanding officers. Pilecki proposed to be arrested and sent to the concentration camp where he could send out reports of what was happening, and organize a resistance movement within the camp. He would also try to of organizing a mass break-out. Pilecki's colonel eventually agreed.

A little about Auschwitz from polish.org.au:

Located 60 kilometres south west of the city of Kraków, Auschwitz was established on what was then occupied, by the Germans, Polish territory. Auschwitz is the Germanised name of Polish town of Oświęcim.

Auschwitz was not just a camp where people were simply put to death. They were subjected to most inhumane tortures and degradation. SS doctors performed the most hideous experiments on the prisoners, without the use of anaesthetics. Under the supervision of the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele they carried out genetic experiments on twins, and gynaecologist Prof. Dr. Carl Clauberg experimented on sterilization of Jewish women by injection. This was intended to limit reproduction rates of the Slavic population, after the extermination of the Jews. Prisoners who were slow to recover from such experiments were put to death by an injection of phenol.

Another form of torture was the so called "roll calls". Prisoners could be herded at any time of day or night, regardless of the weather, where they were kept standing for hours - often in freezing cold. Those who could not stand were shot by SS guards. Starvation to death was also a form of punishment.

Initially the prisoners were executed by being shot. The so called "wall of death" where this was carried out has been preserved to this day. Later with the increasing influx of the Jews, a more "efficient" form of execution was invented by the Nazis. In September of 1941 a first experiment was conducted with a hydrogen cyanide gas called "Zyclon B" (Cyclone B) manufactured by the well known German chemical firm IG Farben. The first experiment was carried out on 250 Polish and 600 Russian Prisoners of War. It was such a success, that Himmler decided to use it on a large scale to exterminate the Jews.

When the original Auschwitz camp became too small for Nazi extermination plans, a much larger extermination centre was built 3 kilometres from Auschwitz at Birkenau (Germanized from Brzezinka). It was also known as Auschwitz II.

Before the bodies were cremated their heads were shaved for the manufacture of cloth. Gold tooth fillings, crowns and bridge work were knocked out and melted into bars to help the German "War Effort".

A Gestapo roundup in the Żoliborz district of Warsaw, where Pilecki was arrested.

On September 19, 1940 allowed himself to be captured by the Germans. His aim was to go to AuschwitzHe arrived at Auschwitz the night of September 21-22, 1940, in the "second" Warsaw transport. His cover name was Tomasz Serafinski. And he was registered as number 4859. In Auschwitz he was assigned the work of building more huts to hold the increased numbers of prisoners.  He immediately began to investigate the situation in the camp and to establish cells of the underground there.

Marching to work (I believe this is the main gate to Auschwitz).

This is from artacus.schoolnet.co.uk:

Pilecki soon discovered the brutality of the Schutz Staffeinel (SS) guards. When one man managed to escape on 28th October 1940, all the prisoners were forced to stand at attention on the parade-ground from noon till nine in the evening. Anyone who moved was shot and over 200 prisoners died of exposure. Pilecki was able to send reports back to the Tajna Armia Polska explaining how the Germans were treating their prisoners. This information was then sent to the foreign office in London.

In 1942 Pilecki discovered that new windowless concrete huts were being built with nozzles in their ceilings. Soon afterwards he heard that that prisoners were being herded into these huts and that the nozzles were being used to feed cyanide gas into the building. Afterwards the bodies were taken to the building next door where they were cremated.

Pilecki got this information to the Tajna Armia Polska who passed it onto the British foreign office. This information was then passed on to the governments of other Allied countries. However, most people who saw the reports refused to believe them and dismissed the stories as attempts by the Poles to manipulate the military strategy of the Allies.

In the autumn of 1942, Jozef Cyrankiewicz, a member of the Polish Communist Party, was sent to Auschwitz. Pilecki and Cyrankiewicz worked closely together in organizing a mass breakout. By the end of 1942 they had a group of 500 ready to try and overthrow their guards.

Four of the inmates escaped on their own on 29th December, 1942. One of these men, a dentist called Kuczbara, was caught and interrogated by the Gestapo. Kuczbara was one of the leaders of Pilecki's group and so when he heard the news he realized that it would be only a matter of time before the SS realized that he had been organizing these escape attempts.

Pilecki had already arranged his escape route and after feigning typhus, he escaped from the hospital on 24th April, 1943. After hiding in the local forest, Pilecki reached his unit of the Tajna Armia Polska on 2nd May.

Children at Auschwitz

A few more details on his time in Auschwitz from polishresistance-ak.org :

In a report he wrote after the war the aims of his mission were summarised as follows:

`The setting up of a military organisation within the camp for the purposes of:

keeping up the morale among fellow inmates and supplying them with news from the outside

providing extra food and distributing clothing among organization members

preparing our own detachments to take over the camp in the eventuality of the dropping of arms or of a live force [i.e. paratroops]'

Pilecki's secret organization, which he called the `Union of Military Organization' [ZOW], was composed of cells of five prisoners who were unknown to one another with one man designated to be their commander. These cells were to be found mainly in the camp hospital and camp work allocation office.

Once the first cells were established, contact with Warsaw became essential It so happened that at the time, by exceptionally fortuitous circumstances, a prisoner was released from the camp who was able to take Pilecki's first report. Later reports were smuggled out by civilian workers employed in the camp. Another means was through prisoners who had decided to escape. -snip-

In the autumn of 1942 the SS uncovered part of the Polish underground network, arrests followed and around 50 prisoners were executed.

From the very start Pilecki's principal aim was to take over Auschwitz concentration camp and free all the prisoners. He envisaged achieving this by having Home Army detachments attacking from the outside while cadre members of his Union of Military Organization, numbering around a thousand prisoners, would start a revolt from within. All his reports primarily concerned this matter. However, the Home Army High Command was less optimistic and did not believe such an operation to be viable while the Eastern Front was still far away.

Pilecki therefore felt it necessary to present his plans personally. This meant that he would have to escape from the camp, which he succeeded in doing with two other prisoners on 27th April 1943. Before the breakout Pilecki passed on his position within the camp organization to fellow inmate Henryk Bartoszewicz. However, neither his subsequent report nor the fact that he presented it in person altered the high command's opinion.


Here are some excerpts from Pilecki's Diary (as translated by Felis in Its A Matter Of Opinion:

(Pilecki's diary (1) translated from Polish)
They made us run straight ahead towards the thicker concentration of lights. Further towards the destination (the SS troopers) ordered one of us to run to the pole on the side of the road and immediately a series from a submachine gun was sent after him. Dead.

Ten other inmates were pulled out at random from the marching column and shot with pistols while still running to demonstrate to us the idea of "collective reprisal" if an escape was attempted by any one of us (in this case it was all arranged by the SS troopers).

They pulled all eleven corpses by ropes attached to just one leg. Dogs baited the blood soaked corpses. All of it was done with laughter and jeering.

We were closing to the gate, an opening in the line of fences made of wire.
There was a sign at the top: "Arbeit macht frei" (Through Work To Freedom).
Only later we could fully appreciate its real meaning.

Pilecki survived his first days in Auschwitz and later established the first cell of his secret organization.

(Pilecki's diary (2) translated from Polish)

From the darkness, from above the camp's kitchen, Seidler the butcher spoke to us: " Do not even dream that any one of you will get out of here alive... your daily food ratio is intended to keep you alive for 6 weeks; whoever lives longer it's because he steals and those who steal will be placed in SK, where nobody lives for too long."

Wladyslaw Baworowski- the camp's interpreter translated it to us into Polish.
It was meant to break our psychological resistance.

SK (Straf-Kompanie - Penal Company).

This unit was designated for all Jews, priests and Poles whose "offences" were proven. Ernst Krankemann, the Block Commander, had a duty of finishing off as many prisoners of the unit as he possibly could to make room for new, daily "arrivals".
This duty suited Krankemann's character very well.

If someone accidentally moved just a little bit too much from the row of prisoners, Krankemann stabbed him with his knife, which he always carried in his right sleeve.

If someone, afraid of making this mistake, positioned himself slightly too far behind, he would be stabbed by the butcher in the kidney.

The sight of a falling human being, kicking his legs or moaning aggravated Krankemann.
He would jump straight away on the victim's rib cage, kicked his kidneys and genitals, and finished him off as quickly as possible.

Photo from Auschwitz

And some more from a Wikipedia article that differs in a few details:

From October 1940 ZOW sent reports to Warsaw, and from March 1941 Pilecki's reports were being forwarded via the Polish resistance to the British government in London. These reports were a principal source of intelligence on Auschwitz for the Western Allies. Pilecki hoped that either the Allies would drop arms or troops into the camp, or the Home Army would organize an assault on it from outside. By 1943, however, he realized that no such plans existed. Meanwhile the Gestapo redoubled its efforts to ferret out ZOW members. Pilecki decided to break out of the camp, with the hope of personally convincing Home Army leaders that a rescue attempt was a valid option. When he was assigned to a night shift at a camp bakery outside the fence, he and two comrades overpowered a guard, cut the phone line and escaped on the night of April 26-April 27, 1943, taking along documents stolen from the Germans. In the event of capture, they were prepared to swallow cyanide to prevent the Germans learning the extent of their knowledge. After several days, with the help of local civilians, they made good their escape from the area and contacted Home Army units. Pilecki submitted another detailed report on

On August 25, 1943, Pilecki reached Warsaw and joined the Home Army as a member of its intelligence department. The Home Army, after losing several operatives in reconnoitering the vicinity of the camp, including the Cichociemny commando Stefan Jasieński, decided that it lacked sufficient strength to capture the camp without Allied help. Pilecki's detailed report (Raport Witolda--"Witold's Report") was sent to London. The British authorities refused the Home Army air support for an operation to help the inmates escape. An air raid was considered too risky, and Home Army reports on Nazi atrocities at Auschwitz were deemed to be gross exaggerations (Pilecki wrote: "During the first 3 years, at Auschwitz there perished 2 million people; in the next 2 years--3 million").

As with Karski's reports, Pilecki's where ignored.  Though most men would have been demoralized, Pilecki, never stopped fighting. He was promoted to rotmistrz (cavalry captain) and joined a secret group preparing to fight the coming Soviet invasion.

On August 1, 1944 the ragtag Home Army rose up in a valiant attempt to to liberate Warsaw from German occupation and Nazi rule. Naturally Pilecki joined the fight. The Polish troops resisted the Germans for 63 days. But aid and airdrops promised by the allies never came. The Soviet army, just across the river, did nothing, preferring to watch the AK be destroyed. 18,000 Polish soldiers and over 250,000 civilians were killed. 85% of Warsaw was destroyed.

The Warsaw Uprising.

Again from Wikipedia:

When the Warsaw Uprising broke out on August 1, 1944, Pilecki volunteered to the Kedyw's Chrobry II group. At first he fought in the northern city center without revealing his actual rank, as a simple private. Later he disclosed his true identity and accepted command of the 2nd company fighting in the Towarowa and Pańska Streets area. His forces held a fortified area called the "Great Bastion of Warsaw". It was one of the most outlying partisan redoubts and caused considerable difficulties for German supply lines. The bastion held for two weeks in the face of constant attacks by German infantry and armor. On the capitulation of the Uprising, Pilecki hid some weapons in a private apartment and went into captivity. He spent the rest of the war at German prisoner-of-war camps at Łambinowice and Murnau.

With World War II over, Pilecki continued to fight for his country. He lived in England and, for a few months in Italy, where he wrote a memoir and joined an exiled Polish Army Unit, the 2nd Polish Corps.

In September 1945 Pilecki returned to Poland to gather intelligence. He proceeded to organize an intelligence network. In the spring of 1946, however, the Polish Government in Exile decided that the postwar political situation afforded no hope of Poland's liberation and ordered all partisans cease operations. Pilacki began collecting evidence on Soviet atrocities and executions.

Soon Pilecki was arrested as member of the anti-communist resistance movement. He was interrogated and tortured for many months. His fingernails were pulled out and his collarbones broken and he could hardly walk. He was tried by a Communist court in 1948, sentenced to death. Prime Minister Cyrankiewicz, a former Auschwitz inmate and co-founder of the leftist resistance movement there, who knew Pilecki refuted the claim made in court that Pilecki had been a founder of the resistance movement in Auschwitz, and also refused to support the request for clemency.

Pilecki at his trial.

Witold Pilecki was executed in Mokotów prison in Warsaw. His family was not permitted to bury his corpse. His place of burial has never been found. He is thought to have been buried in a rubbish dump near Warsaw's Powązki Cemetery.

"The communist regime put Pilecki on the list of most censured individuals. For half a century, perhaps the greatest hero of the Second World War completely disappeared from books, newspapers and school curricula."

Pilecki wrote this poem before his death.

That is why I write this petition,
That all the punishments, punish only me,
For though I should lose my life
I prefer it so - than to live, and bear a wound in my heart.

Witold Pilecki was a man who knew the value of freedom.

Flag of the Home Army

There is not a much written about Pilecki in English, and my Polish is very rusty so I won't guarantee that I've gotten every detail exactly right, but I am confident the major facts are correct. If anyone cares to try reading any of the many web articles about Pilecki written in Polish, there is a good free translation site at www.poltran.com.  

"Rotmistrz Pilecki" by Wieslaw Jan Wysocki is a biography of Pilecki written in Polish; I've not read it. Pilecki is said to have written an autobiography while living in Italy.

Thanks for reading such a long piece. I hope you enjoyed it.

I wonder if American soldiers in Iraq feel they are fighting for something as valuable as their homeland and freedom.

Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.
Czeslaw Milosz

by Chris Kulczycki on Tue Dec 13th, 2005 at 10:50:05 PM EST
Cross posted on

dKOS, should you care to recommend.

Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.
Czeslaw Milosz

by Chris Kulczycki on Wed Dec 14th, 2005 at 06:56:50 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thank you for posting this amazing story. I already knew bits of it but you knitted it together well. Pilecki was an extraordinary man, clearly.

I believe there are just a couple of points to add and expand to this.

Auschwitz town was in part of pre-war Poland directly annexed to the Reich and the pre-war population of the town (ethnic Poles and Jews and others) was mostly deported  to the rump occupation zone known as the GG, the Government-General (the very name Poland was eradicated by the Nazis). The area was largely resettled by German-speakers moved to the Rich from eastern Europe who formed an armed militia in the countryside. The frontier between the Reich and the GG was the tightest-policed in Nazi Europe. This made AK operations in the vicinity especially difficult.

Because it was a very important rail junction with excellent connections to most of Europe and also out of range of bombers based in Britain (and indeed later the USSR) the Nazis relocated a large number of industries to the locality. These each had associated forced labour camps so there were up to 50 `camps' in the Auschwitz complex depending on where you draw the line on definition of a camp.

Auschwitz did not come into range of Allied bomber aircraft even in theory until December 1943 when Foggia airfield in central Italy was captured.

The first camp to be built, 1n 1939, and an out-and-out concentration Camp, became known as Auschwitz-1. This is the camp with the famous `Arbeit macht Frei' sign over the gates. (Other camps in other locations had the same slogan so you cannot assume that a drawing with that camp entry sign is Auschwitz). Work parties were indeed I believe sent out from this camp to other centres.

The second camp to be built I believe was Auschwitz-2 also known as Buna. This was a huge chemical factory with associated labour barracks. It was here that Primo Levi served his time in `Auschwitz'.

The camp site with the four gas chambers and associated crematoria was some miles west of these two and known as Auschwitz Birkenau. This is the camp with the horrifying towers and the railway lines running in, and the industrial-scale kiiling of people within an hour of arrival. To the best of my knowledge it did not have a slogan over the gates. Early experiments in gassing in other Auschwitz camps were I believe discontinued and inmates of these other camp routinely selected for death were taken to Birkenau.

Auschwitz-1 was a centre for killings of the Polish social elite right from the start of the occupation. Polish Jews were killed here and so were many other Polish peoples. I believe the resistance group was based in Auschwitz-1 and I believe  the plan for a revolt also centred on this.

Auschwitz Birkenau was established and became fully operational as a major killing centre sometime in 1942. So Piecki's first ZOW reports could not have detailed conditions in the major killing centre as they were written before it was fully operational.

Most of the three million plus Jews of Poland who were murdered did not in fact die here, but in a number of other camps such as Madjanek and Sobribor which were specialist murder sites with no `forced labour' components, and which were located in the `Governorship-General'. . We know very little about these camps basically because there were virtually no survivors. The murder of the Jews of Poland by the Nazi occupiers was called `Operation Rheinhard' and was essentially completed by late 1943 when the specialist camps were closed down leaving Auschwitz Birkenau as the main specialist murder centre for all of Nazi held Europe, including most of the remaining Jews in Poland..

I think it is important to bear this bit of history and geography in mind as many people think `Auschwitz' was one camp on one site and this leads to bitter and poisonous conflicts over commemoration, especially over memorials located at Auschwitz-1 to peoples other than Jews.  It is Auschwitz Birkenau with conditions even more horrifying than the other camps in the locality, which should be the focus for commemorating the special horror of the Jewish experience.  

Current students of the camps do now  think  that Pliecki's estimates for the numbers of deaths in Auschwitz were much higher than available evidence now shows. Probably about a million Jewish people died in Auschwitz , for example, (and that is about one-third of the number killed in Operation Rheinhardt). Perhaps a million others including Soviet prisoners of war also died in this complex of camps. It is important to take this on board as holocaust deniers seize on the early many-multi-million Auschwitz estimates to pour scorn on the `six million Jews died' total.  We need to be scrupulous in our handling of data.

Just for the record my father was one of the liberators of Belsen camp in Western Germany. A horrific place in its own right. As an engineer officer he had the job of burying the dead and estimating the totals and gave evidence at the war crimes tribunals. This subject haunts me.

by saugatojas on Wed Dec 14th, 2005 at 07:44:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
thank you for remembering Pilecki.  It's both uplifting and a little sad to remember the giants who preceded us.  So much was asked of them, so little of us.  And sometimes I think we deliver on those expectations.  It's important to keep these memories alive.  Very important for Americans to read of them.
by Causa on Wed Dec 14th, 2005 at 01:08:36 AM EST
Thanks again for this.  

You mention Cyrankiewicz a couple times in the piece, a person who I find an interesting case of someone who made it through horrific circumstances with true heroism. But after it was over, was a broken man of a special sort.  As a leading figure in the anti-communist Socialist underground during the war, Cyrankiewicz had to either flee or at least pay lip service attesting to his true loyalty to Poland's new Stalinist masters if he wanted to escape Pilecki's fate.  But he went much further, rising to power, prestige, and a very comfortable life on the tortured corpses of his old friends and fellow resistance fighters, people whose painful deaths he loudly cheered.

The contrast had always puzzled me until I read a long article on him a few years ago. In it was an account of a conversation Cyrankiewicz had in 1945 where he told a friend that he had gone through hell and that he deserved a good life after that.  Cyrankiewicz was known for his sybaritic lifestyle in Communist Poland, I wonder if his conscience ever bothered him, if he bore a 'wound in his heart'.

by MarekNYC on Wed Dec 14th, 2005 at 01:54:13 AM EST
One of the very few Hungarian films I think would deserve to be known globally is Tanú (Witness) - a dark satire made some 35 years ago, first indexed, then put out in limited release, yet achievig lasting fame.

Its main character is a simple man, a dike guard, who is caught up in the propaganda campaigns of the early Stalinist (pre-1956) communist regime. After several grotesque episodes, he is chosen to be a witness in a show trial of a disgraced communist - but he fails to play his role when he sees the previou false witness, the never punished ex-fascist who happened to be the one who during WWII broke all his teeth during an interrogation...

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Dec 14th, 2005 at 06:04:47 AM EST
[ Parent ]
On imdb, it has an amazing user rating of 9.1. And the synopsis sounds interesting. Do you know if there is a German version?
by Saturday (geckes(at)gmx.net) on Wed Dec 14th, 2005 at 04:02:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
On  imdb, it has an amazing user rating of 9.1.

Only? I am mortified!... :-) Seriously, it deserves every 10 it got.

And the synopsis sounds interesting.

The best is not the story, but that almost everything they say in the film is a quotable grotesqueness all in itself. Several lines became integrated into the Hungarian language.

Do you know if there is a German version?

The film's problem on the international stage was that it was indexed for ten years - when it came out (both in some theatres at home and some film festivals), it was 'old' and thus didn't got the attention a new film would have. (But I am told those who saw it wrote ravish critiques.) So sorry I am not much of a help here - I am not sure it was ever shown in Germany outside a film festival. But maybe some arthouse film library does have it.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Dec 14th, 2005 at 05:16:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
9.1 is outstanding! Look at the IMDB Top 250. 9.1 is the rating The Godfather got. Which will probably remain in 1st place for the next century...
by Saturday (geckes(at)gmx.net) on Thu Dec 15th, 2005 at 03:53:50 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I was wondering, I presume you at least used to be Krzysztof (Krzys, Krzysiek) as a child. Are you always 'Chris' these days?
by MarekNYC on Wed Dec 14th, 2005 at 01:58:35 AM EST
It was Krzysztof, but a teenager with an accent in the US wanted an American name. And now it would be compicated to change back ;<)

Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.
Czeslaw Milosz
by Chris Kulczycki on Wed Dec 14th, 2005 at 06:55:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
This is great.

Is this going to become a regular series on Polish WWII heroes, and is there a work/hobby reason behind these diaries?

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman

by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Dec 14th, 2005 at 02:45:02 AM EST
There might be one or two more. I read about Polish history from time to time and find these men interesting.

Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.
Czeslaw Milosz
by Chris Kulczycki on Wed Dec 14th, 2005 at 07:02:32 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It was an almost impossible task considering the extraordinary cruelty of the German kapos and the vigilant security of the Gestapo.

Nitpick: the kapos weren't the German guards, they were the inmates used as sadistic help-guards in a cruel and deliberate twist (i.e., letting the Jews/Communists/etc. be terrorised by their own), a position many took just to survive. (The term itself is an abbrevation of the Nazi newspeak Kameradenpolizei - comrade police.)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Dec 14th, 2005 at 05:42:48 AM EST
Great diary!

Yet, another nitpick, concerning the same sentence: Auschwitz-Birkenau was not under Gestapo rule. It was the SS. The Gestapo mainly helped with arrests and deportations of Jews, but did not control the Concentration Camps.

by Saturday (geckes(at)gmx.net) on Wed Dec 14th, 2005 at 03:55:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The writer of that quote was a survivor., So this may be a bad translation.

Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.
Czeslaw Milosz
by Chris Kulczycki on Wed Dec 14th, 2005 at 04:35:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Maybe the kapo is bad translation, but with Gestapo, he may have meant the communication (and material import) of the Auschwitz resistance cell with the outside.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Dec 14th, 2005 at 05:20:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
BTW, have you ever considered writing about Réal Politik? What the big powers did to Europe (and the rest of the world) after WWI?

In that Poland has been on the receiving end of tremendous upheaval and change (boundaries, language, government, politics) in the last couple of centuries, I would really love to see you write on that topic.  The words "Uniquely Qualified" come to mind.

Admittedly, the Balkans are a bigger piece of the story.

(My ancestors were the guys with the big spikey helmets ... Can you say "Pickle Holder?"  Gee, I knew you could.)

Great work.

Happy little moron, lucky little man. I wish I was a moron, my God, perhaps I am! -- Spike Milligan

by polecat on Wed Dec 14th, 2005 at 11:28:03 AM EST
Thanks Chris. A story worth being told.
Especially considering the latest hate speech from Ahmadinejad  .
by Bernard (bernard) on Wed Dec 14th, 2005 at 04:13:26 PM EST
Który skrzywdziłeś

Który skrzywdziłeś człowieka prostego
Śmiechem nad krzywdą jego wybuchając,
Gromadę błaznów koło siebie mając
Na pomieszanie dobrego i złego,

Choćby przed tobą wszyscy się kłonili
Cnotę i mądrość tobie przypisując,
Złote medale na twoją cześć kując,
Radzi że jeszcze dzień jeden przeżyli,

Nie bądź bezpieczny. Poeta pamięta.
Możesz go zabić - narodzi się nowy.
Spisane będą czyny i rozmowy.

Lepszy dla ciebie byłby świat zimowy
I sznur i gałąź pod ciężarem zgięta.

You who wronged

You who wronged a simple man,
Laughing loudly at his pain,
Your crowd of jesters gathered 'round
To confuse good with evil,

Even if all bow down before you
Praising your virtue and wisdom,
Forging shiny medals in your name,
Grateful at surviving one more day,

Do not feel secure. The poet remembers
You may kill him - but another will be born.
Words and actions recorded.

Better for you the winter day
A rope and a branch bending from the burden.

My quick and awkward translation - there are better out there.

The attitude of those who embraced Stalinism after WWII is perhaps best expressed in a famous poem written just after the war by Tadeusz Rozewicz, called "The Surivivor"


Mam dwadzieścia cztery lata
prowadzony na rzeź.

To są nazwy puste i jednoznaczne:
człowiek i zwierzę
miłość i nienawiść
wróg i przyjaciel
ciemność i światło.

Człowieka tak się zabija jak zwierzę
furgony porąbanych ludzi
którzy nie zostaną zbawieni.

Pojęcia są tylko wyrazami:
cnota i występek
prawda i kłamstwo
piękno i brzydota
męstwo i tchórzostwo.

Jednako waży cnota i występek
człowieka który był jeden
występny i cnotliwy.

Szukam nauczyciela i mistrza
niech przywróci mi wzrok słuch i mowę
niech jeszcze raz nazwie rzeczy i pojęcia
niech oddzieli światło od ciemności.

Mam dwadzieścia cztery lata
prowadzony na rzeź.

The Survivor

I am twenty four years old
I survived
while being led to the slaughter.

These are empty and identical words:
man and beast
love and hate
enemy and friend
darkness and light.

A man is killed just like an animal
I saw:
wagonloads of hacked up people
who were not saved. [religious meaning]

Ideas are mere words:
virtue and vice
truth and lies
beauty and ugliness
bravery and cowardice.

Virtue and crime weigh the same
I saw:
a man who was both
criminal and virtuous.

I seek a teacher and master
let him return to me sight, hearing, speech
let him once again name things and idea
let him divide the darkness from the light.

I am twenty four years old
I survived
while being led to the slaughter.

Also my translation, I think, but I'm not sure that there are English language collections of Rozewicz out there.

by MarekNYC on Wed Dec 14th, 2005 at 05:23:56 PM EST
Also by Rozewicz about the generation whose tragedy it was to grow up during the war.

Zostawcie nas

Zapomnijcie o nas
o naszym pokoleniu
żyjcie jak ludzie
zapomnijcie o nas

my zazdrościliśmy
roślinom i kamieniom
zazdrościliśmy psom

chciałbym być szczurem
mówiłem wtedy do niej

chciałabym nie być
chciałabym zasnąć
i zbudzić się po wojnie
mówiła z zamkniętmi oczami

zapomnijcie o nas
nie pytajcie o naszą młodość
zostawcie nas

Leave us

Forget about us
about our generation
live like ordinary people
forget about us

we envied
plants and stones
we envied dogs

I wish I were a rat
I told her then

I wish I didn't exist
I'd like to fall asleep
and wake up after the war
she said with eyes closed

forget about us
do not ask of our youth
leave us

by MarekNYC on Wed Dec 14th, 2005 at 05:39:10 PM EST
Thanks Marek, this is wonderful. I'll look for a book og Rozewicz's work.

Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.
Czeslaw Milosz
by Chris Kulczycki on Wed Dec 14th, 2005 at 08:22:48 PM EST
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