Trial of great Polish hero commenced 71 years ago

March 3 marks the 71st anniversary of the trial of Witold Pilecki, one of the greatest Polish heroes, a Polish Army officer, a WWII underground resistance leader, a volunteer to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

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A cavalry officer during the Interwar period, Pilecki joined the underground resistance movement following the Nazi occupation of Poland in 1939.

Pilecki's reports

In 1940, Pilecki volunteered to be sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp in order to gather intelligence and organise resistance. At that time, the camp was considered to be merely a large prison or an internment camp, with its true character not yet disclosed.

During his imprisonment, the clandestine network organised by Pilecki provided the Polish underground with invaluable information about the camp which was then forwarded to the British government in London. These accounts, which came to be known as “Pilecki’s 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 that the Home Army would organize an assault on it from outside.

However, with conditions in the camp deteriorating and the killing of the inmates intensifying, Pilecki managed to escape from the camp in order to force the Polish underground into action. He spent 2.5 years in Auschwitz. After his escape, he became one of the Home Army leaders.

In 1944, Pilecki participated in the Warsaw Uprising, after which he was placed in a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. He was eventually liberated by the US Army in April 1945.

After the war, he moved to Poland where he was assigned with intelligence activities by the Polish government in London.

'Auschwitz was a child's play'

Witold Pilecki was arrested in May 1947. Because of his loyalty to the Polish government-in-exile, instead of the new Communist-imposed Polish authorities, he was charged with espionage. He was tortured repeatedly throughout the investigation. He is reported to have told his wife during her visit in prison that “compared to this, Auschwitz was a child’s play.”

The show trial began on March 3, 1948. Lasting just a few days, it led to Pilecki being sentenced to death for anti-communist activities on March 15.

The sentence was carried out on May 25 by a shot in the back of the head. His place of burial has never been found.

Pilecki and all the others sentenced in the show trial were rehabilitated in 1990. He received the highest Polish decoration, the Order of the White Eagle in 2006.

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