“Why isn’t Pilecki better known? There is a simple answer: his story was intentionally suppressed by the postwar communist regime in Poland […]” — Michael Shudrich, Chief Rabbi of Poland
With The Auschwitz Volunteer having now opened on Broadway, it is to be hoped that a long-overlooked Catholic hero from Poland might receive some more of the attention that is his due. The performance dramatizes the wartime journal of Witold Pilecki, the Polish secret agent who infiltrated the infamous camp so he could spend nearly three years there. Passing himself off as just another prisoner, Pilecki documented war crimes, gathered intelligence, and organized other prisoners into an underground network of mutual aid and support.
For the benefit of those unfamiliar with Pilecki’s story, it may be worth relating one of the climactic episodes of it: Having finally realized that his plan to liberate the camp would never receive the green light from the Allies, Pilecki escaped with two other inmates in September 1943. Exhausted from evading their pursuers, the escapees arrived at the small town of Alwernia, where they hid in the bushes near the church. The least bedraggled of them ventures out to seek help from the parish priest, a patriotic Pole who at first fears a Gestapo trap.
On seeing us, he wrung his hands. He finally believed the whole story. He started coming to see us in the bushes every half hour, bringing milk, coffee, rolls, bread, sugar, butter and other delicacies […] He could not bring us into his house, for there were too many people about in the square. We were actually very comfortable there among the young spruces and bushes. The priest gave us some ointment to rub into our joints. We now wrote our first letters home, which the priest then posted for us. In the evening, when it was quite dark, the priest gave us a good guide. There are still good people on this earth, we said to one another.
Pilecki rejoined his friends in the Polish Home Army and would soon distinguish himself for valor in the famous Warsaw Uprising. When the war ended, Poland fell under Soviet hegemony, however, and it was not long before the secret police discovered that Pilecki was working as fervently against Poland’s new Communist overlords as he had against the Nazis. He was put on trial as a traitor, all evidence of his service in Auschwitz was supressed, and he was given three death sentences. Then he was shot.
As the Polish rabbi Michael Shudrich has observed, until recently political interests served to sweep Pilecki’s legacy under the rug. Yet with Stalin’s regime having gone the way of Hitler’s, more and more studies have been made of the extraordinary man once known as Prisoner 4859. One especially compelling question has revolved around the source of Pilecki’s amazing strength, whereby he functioned even under the terrible regimen of a concentration camp. “His Catholic faith, spirit of friendly good-fellowship, and patriotism buoy him,” writes Daniel Paliwoda in Military Review, and in his essay “Between Hitler and Stalin” John Besemeres agrees, identifying Pilecki’s persistent, underlying motivation as a “simple personal and military code of God, Honour, Fatherland (Bóg, Honor, Ojczyzna).”
Thus the significance of Pilecki’s story is obvious, for in this day and age his faith and devoted service to his Polish countrymen make him counter-cultural, in the most positive sense of the word. Perhaps young men in danger of becoming either emasculated or bestial or both will find help by reflecting upon this real-life superhero, who offers them an example worth following.
(The Auschwitz Volunteer is performed by Marek Probosz, narrated by Terry Tegnazian, and directed Marek Probosz.)
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