Polish authorities are hoping to identify the remains of a Second World War resistance fighter who infiltrated the Auschwitz Nazi death camp, after having excavated 100 mostly male skeletons this summer.
Witold Pilecki posed as an inmate over three years at the notorious camp, before making an escape to spread the word of the executions carried out there. However, the Holocaust hero was arrested and tried on spurious charges by the then-Communist regime, before he could receive rightful recognition for his act of bravery.
Speaking of her late father’s heroism, Pilecki’s daughter Zofia Pilecka-Optulowicz paid tribute to the man as “unique” and spoke of her hopes to be able to light a candle in his memory on identification of his remains.
The remains of the slain resistance fighters were retrieved from a mass grave at Warsaw’s Powazki Military Cemetery, as part of the Polish government’s attempts to posthumously recognise its fallen war-time heroes and redress its WWII history.
The killings were ordered by Soviet occupiers in an attempt to suppress the highly effective Polish resistance and maintain its own power. The bodies were buried close to the officially-recognised gravestones of the victims’ prosecutors and judges who sent them to their deaths. Pilecki’s son, as well as dozens of other surviving relatives, has contributed his DNA in the hopes of identifying a match from the skeletons’ remains. Up to 400 resistance fighters are thought to have been buried in the Powazki mass grave.
One of the key leaders of the Polish resistance movement, Pilecki launched his attempts to fight Poland’s German occupiers in 1939, during which operation many resistance fighters were sent to Auschwitz, then mainly serving as a detainment camp for resistance workers.
It was this that sparked the idea to infiltrate the camp, using forged papers. He is the only known person to have voluntary entered the Nazi death camp, from where he despatched reports of various means of extermination to the outside world on scraps of paper concealed in the lining of inmates’ clothes. These provided the first eyewitness accounts of the camp, although his accounts of gas chambers were not readily believed by Poland’s exiled government in London.
He managed to survive disease, routine beatings and hard labour through the aid of a resistance network he established within the camp. After escaping from Auschwitz, Pilecki joined the Polish Home Army resistance group, continuing to fight the Nazis in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. He was arrested by Communist secret security forces in 1947.
Pilecki has become renowned for his heroism in democratic Poland, with a Warsaw street being named after him, as well as numerous schools across the country.
Other wartime heroes whose remains Poland is seeking to identify in clued former Home Army Commander August Emil Fieldorf, who served as an emissary to the exiled Polish government.
The Polish capital recently commemorated the 68th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, which saw a failed revolt by the Polish resistance army to liberate the city from Nazi occupation result in the deaths of some 16,000 Polish fighters, and a further 200,000 Polish civilians killed in subsequent Nazi reprisals.
The Warsaw Uprising was conceived to coincide with the Soviet Red Army’s march on Nazi Germany, after Poland had lived through five years of Nazi occupation, but when the Soviet advanced halted, the Polish resistance was forced to fight single-handedly for 63 days, allowing German troops to regroup and defeat the revolt.
House-to-house searches were carried out by German forces to expose hidden Jews and approximately 25% of Warsaw’s infrastructure was destroyed.