Academic journal article Military Review

Captain Witold Pilecki

Academic journal article Military Review

Captain Witold Pilecki

Article excerpt

WITOLD PILECKI JUST about signs his own death warrant by allowing himself to be sent to Auschwitz; for that reason, one realizes immediately that Pilecki was a special man whose moral code is rare. His underground army superiors did not order him to do so; it was his own idea. There is a post-modern tendency to sully heroes and their idealism, but Pilecki is no holy fool. His Catholic faith, spirit of friendly good-fellowship, and patriotism buoy him. What were the sources of these traits that may help us understand why he volunteered to infiltrate and how he survived Auschwitz? The most striking characteristic in his upbringing was his parents' determination to preserve the family's Polish identity.

Pilecki was born on 13 May 1901 in Poland (where independence had not existed for over 100 years). The Third Partition (1795) expunged Poland, and the Russian Empire absorbed much of it; the Germans and Austro-Hungarians engulfed the remaining territories. Technically, Pilecki was born a Russian, although Russian authorities tried to suppress the family's heritage. Countless major and minor Polish uprisings bloodied the 19th century, and Pilecki's ancestors were participants in the January Uprising (1863-1864). As punishment for their disobedience, the Russians seized much of their property, forcing them into a life of exile. Pilecki's father, Julian, a child of this revolution, eventually graduated from the Petersburg Institute of Forestry and accepted a forester position in the Russian region of Karelia, northeast of St. Petersburg, causing him to study in and work with the Russian language. He married Ludwika Oslecimska, a Polish woman, and together they had five children; Witold Pilecki was the third child.

Living in Russia proper took a toll on the family. Julian was concerned with the quality of the children's schooling and more troubled with the children's assimilation into Russian culture and language. In 1910, he moved his family to Polish Wilno (now Vilnius, Lithuania). However, the family's patriotism came with a cost--Julian had to remain in Karelia because he was a senior inspector and the family could not afford to lose the income. Before and during World War I, Pilecki's father was not a constant presence in his life. Perhaps the sacrifice made by his father would later serve as a model for Pilecki's own sacrifices. Given the family legacy of duty to Poland, perhaps Pilecki would have learned from an early age, too, that sacrifice to the cause is more than a romantic notion.

Hemingway, Owen, and Remarque have taught us to be suspicious of facile patriotism, and have exposed its destructive underpinnings. For them, it is not sweet and fitting to die for the fatherland. However, when we shift our Western eyes to Eastern Europe, the viewpoint of dying for one's country carried less cynicism than it did for the "lost generation." When one begins to understand that during the time of imperial occupation "Poland" only existed in the mind and heart, then one will realize what made Pilecki, the man.

The move to the Russian-controlled territory of Poland was an improvement--Pilecki was able to attend a better school and was able to visit his Polish kinsmen. The phase before World War I marks another important influence in Pilecki's life as he joins the scout movement, which at the time was illegal. The Russian imperial political police kept watchful eyes on the groups of highly organized, trained, and patriotic youth. Although World War I disrupted Pilecki's formal education, the scouts were Pilecki's constant. As his mother and siblings moved around to avoid the Eastern Front, Pilecki as a teenager founded several scouting regiments and organized educational courses for youths.

He returned to Wilno to restart his formal education, but this time in Eastern Europe was extremely chaotic. The Russian Civil War (1917-1922) interrupted his studies, and again the scouts influenced his life. …

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