article was possible and appears thanks to the generosity of
the de Brzezie Lanckoronski Foundation
14th June 1940 the Germans entered Paris and that
very same day the gates to a German extermination camp were
opened at Auschwitz. The first transport of 728 prisoners was
made up exclusively of Polish prisoners, predominantly young men
who had been caught trying to get to France, where a new Polish
Army was being formed.
on transports were arriving not only from Poland but from many
other countries, so that ultimately the inmates of Auschwitz
represented as many as 30 nations. The number of those who were
registered and received their individual prisoner numbers
exceeded 500 thousand, but many more transports of Jews went
straight to the gas chamber unregistered. Over the years 1942,
1943 and 1944 their number reached 1.5 million.
September 1940 Lt Witold Pilecki arrived at the camp in a
transport of prisoners from Warsaw. He was a member of the ‘Secret
Polish Army’ (which later became part of the Polish Home Army
– AK) who had deliberately allowed himself to be taken in a
street roundup and thus be sent to Auschwitz, where he planned
to set up an underground organisation. He arrived at the camp
with false papers and was known there as Tomasz Serafinski.
a report he wrote after the war the aims of his mission were
summarised as follows:
setting up of a military organisation within the camp for the
secret organization, which he called the ‘Union of Military
Organization’, 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.
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.
other Poles were forming their own organizations that had
similar aims to Pilecki’s. It was therefore necessary for
these to unite, and so on Christmas Eve 1941, when the SS quite
extraordinarily left the inmates unattended in their quarters
but nonetheless still under great danger, a meeting was held in
Block No. 25. The several Polish underground groups represented
there included the socialists, nationalists and moderates. The
meeting was a success: there were no betrayals and mutual
understanding and cooperation were achieved.
Kazimierz Rawicz, known in the camp as Jan Hilkner, became the
overall commander of these groups. When in mid 1942 he was
transferred to another concentration camp, his place was taken
by Group-Captain Juliusz Gilewicz.
from the Poles, other national groups began to set up their own
resistance organizations. In January 1942 Pilecki established
contact with Jan Stranski, the leader of the Czech group. That
same year he also established contact with the Russians and
later also with the French and Austrians.
socialist Józef Cyrankiewicz was brought to the camp in
September 1942. Although still relatively young at 31, he had
far reaching ambitions. He joined the underground PPS and thus
also became a member of Pilecki’s organization. Cyrankiewicz
met Pilecki personally on a number of occasions.
the autumn of 1942 the SS uncovered part of the Polish
underground network, arrests followed and around 50 prisoners
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.
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
in May 1943 the communists set up their own network in
Auschwitz. The initiative of uniting all the small groups came
from the Austrian [communists], who included barely a hundred
prisoners, but usually ones holding good posts in the camp. They
established contact with the French and the Polish socialists,
who were now led by Cyrankiewicz.
a new organization was formed: the Kampfgruppe Auschwitz,
which was headed by an Austrian [communist], but also included
in the command structure the extremely ambitious Cyrankiewicz. A
very important point in this group’s ideological declaration
related to the situation on the Eastern Front and stated that:
‘Friendship with the Soviet Union is the guarantee of victory
Kampfgruppe, however, lacked any real power without
broader support from the Poles, who included the vast majority
of the main camp’s inmates. Therefore it was essential to
reach an understanding with Pilecki’s organisation. Talks
ended successfully in the spring of 1944 with the founding of
the Camp Military Council, headed by Henryk Bartoszewicz and
Bernard Świerszczyna from Pilecki’s organization and Józef
Cyrankiewicz and Herman Langbein from the Kampfgruppe.
The plan was to take over the camp and the agreement was
therefore put at the disposal of the Home Army Silesia District
was also a strong group of Russian prisoners who maintained
contact with the Union of Military Organization and were
prepared to fight, but remained independent.
only circumstance under which the Home Army High Command would
agree to an open revolt in Auschwitz was if the SS began
murdering all the prisoners, but that eventuality never
occurred. And it was only Pilecki’s organization which
maintained contact with the Home Army partisans in the area
around the camp.
SS began evacuating Auschwitz on 17th January 1945.
They drove most of the prisoners west on foot, while leaving
behind several thousand prisoners who were deemed too sick to
go. When on 27th January Red Army detachments took
over its compound, the 1,680-day history of Auschwitz
concentration camp ended.
many vicissitudes Witold Pilecki found himself in post-war
Poland on a mission for the Polish Second Corps stationed in
Italy. In 1948 he was arrested by the Polish People’s Republic
authorities and charged with being ‘a paid agent of Gen.
Anders’s intelligence network’. He was subsequently tried,
sentenced to death and executed. Meantime Józef Cyrankiewicz,
who had returned to Poland [after his liberation from Mauthausen
concentration camp], put the PPS under the control of Bolesław
Bierut, Stalin’s appointed leader of Poland, and went on to
become Poland’s prime minister, a job he was to hold for 20
years. In those years Cyrankiewicz let it be known in Poland
that it was he who founded the resistance movement in Auschwitz.