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  • 27 January 2013

    Captain Witold Pilecki - the only individual in the world to volunteer for capture and imprisonment in Auschwitz-Birkenau - was commemorated at a Jan. 27, 2013 event in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

    Pilecki’s mission in the notorious German Nazi concentration and death camp lasted almost three years, from 1940 to 1943.  He was sent by Poland’s Underground Resistance Movement  to smuggle out information about the then-secret camp and to create a resistance organization within. In 1945, Pilecki wrote a detailed report from his time in the camp. That report was recently translated into English, and published in 2012 by Aquila Polonica as The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery.

     

    “If you really care about the future, you must know the past,” Holocaust Museum Director Sara J. Bloomfield said in her opening remarks. Poland’s losses during World War II were terrible, she added, including the deaths of  90% of Polish Jews, killed as a result of German Nazi policies. “Most who survived did because of Polish help,” she said.
     

    Event speakers included Director of Research at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, Dr. Piotr Setkiewicz, and Dr. Timothy Snyder, historian and Yale University professor, as well as Dr. Edna Friedberg, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Historian.

     

    Dr. Setkiewicz explained the evolving nature of Auschwitz  – a camp created at the onset of World War II mainly for Polish prisoners. In 1941 the camp began receiving Soviet prisoners-of-war. By 1942, it had become a major extermination camp for Jews transported there from all over Europe. Pilecki’s  intelligence reports, written for Poland’s Underground movement, were among the first read by the Allies.

     

    Dr. Timothy Snyder said that Western knowledge of WWII atrocities and the Holocaust would be very different without Pilecki’s reports. Pilecki’s  bravery was indeed unique, he said, noting that while one could imagine a type of impulsive courage that propelled his initial capture and arrest, his survival of almost three years under terrible conditions was an entirely different kind of courage from a very special individual.

     

    Both panelists spoke of Witold Pilecki’s tragic fate following the war: He volunteered for imprisonment twice. The first was in 1940 to Auschwitz.  The second was in 1945, when after the end of the war he decided to return under an assumed name to his native Poland (his final military mission was with the Polish Armed Forces in Italy).   His second imprisonment by the communist government proved fatal - he was tortured, given a show trial and executed, one of countless Stalinist era victims.

     

    “Witold Pilecki is one of the most brilliant diamonds” of Polish history, Poland’s Ambassador to the U.S. Ryszard Schnepf said during his address. “Pilecki was the highest example of Polish patriotism.”

     

    “As the Ambassador of Poland, I feel happy and honored that Witold Pilecki today joins Jan Karski, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski and numerous other Righteous Among the Nations on the list of Poles commemorated in this Museum,” the Ambassador said. Few others are a better fit for the Museum’s mission of inspiring people all  around the world to confront hatred, prevent genocide and promote human dignity,” he added. “Pilecki was a living witness for all these ideals.”  

     

    The event was co-hosted by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Embassy of Poland.

     

    Learn More

    Witold Pilecki’s full story, including photos, at the Institute of National Remembrance in Warsaw

     

    Watch

    The event video

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