Monday marks 78th anniversary of Witold Pilecki’s escape from Auschwitz

On the night of April 26-27, 1943, 78 years ago, the cavalry captain Witold Pilecki escaped from the German concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau accompanied by two inmates. They escaped through the bakery, taking advantage of the inattention of the SS members guarding them

Pilecki became a prisoner of Auschwitz voluntarily in 1940 to organise a resistance movement there and conduct intelligence activities. He spent 947 days in the camp, during which he collected information about, among other things, the extermination of Jews. He was the author of the world's first Holocaust reports revealing German crimes.

The date of his escape was set for the night of April 26-27, 1943, Easter that year. "We decided to use the holidays because among the SS men, capos and all camp authorities, under the influence of vodka, there was a kind of relaxation and less vigilance," Pilecki wrote in his report.

On Easter Monday, together with two of his fellow prisoners, he went under guard to a bakery outside the KL Auschwitz area, where they had to start work. At 02:00 a.m., when a short hiatus was ordered, they proceeded with their escape plan. With their copied key they opened the door and cut the alarm bell wire. When one of the supervising SS men was busy writing a letter and the other eating, the prisoners pushed against the iron door and managed to open it and escape. Nine shots were fired in their direction, all missed.

In 1944 Witold Pilecki took part in the Warsaw Uprising. After WWII, he fought in the anti-communist underground, including collecting reports on the repression of Home Army soldiers by the interior ministry of the Soviet Union (NKVD).

In 1947 he was arrested. Accused of anti-state activities in a show trial he was executed in secret by the Communist authorities a year later.

British historian professor Michael Foot included Witold Pilecki in his six bravest people of the resistance movement during World War II. Historian Wiesław Wysocki from the Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw described him as a flawless man, adding that he was doomed to be forgotten throughout the entire period of the Polish People's Republic [1952–1989].

Witold Pilecki's conviction was quashed in 1990 by the Supreme Court. In 2006 he was posthumously awarded the Order of the White Eagle, and promoted to the rank of colonel in 2013.

Despite concerted efforts by the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), the body of Witold Pilecki has not been found to this day. After the exhumations carried out in 2012, it was found that he was most likely buried in a mass grave in Powązki cemetery in Warsaw. The exploration work is ongoing.

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