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Witold Pilecki: A Deserving Addition to the Roles of Honor
The stark horror of what Pilecki saw at Auschwitz is evoked by this 2012 photograph of Crematoria. (Photo by Marcin Bialek, licensed under Creative Commons)
Jack Fairweather, The Volunteer: One Man, an Underground Army, and the Secret Mission to Destroy Auschwitz. (The story of Witold Pilecki.) New York: HarperCollins, 2019, $28.99, Amazon $20.49, Kindle $13.99.
War aim or by-product?
In 1995, Jan Karski, a Polish exile reporter of the Holocaust, remarked of the failure to rescue most Jews from mass murder:
It was easy for the Nazis to kill Jews, because they did it. The Allies considered it impossible and too costly to rescue the Jews, because they didn’t do it. The Jews were abandoned by all governments, church hierarchies and societies, but thousands survived because thousands of individuals in Poland, France, Belgium, Denmark, Holland helped to save them. Now, every government and church says, “We tried to help the Jews,” because they are ashamed, they want to keep their reputations…. No one did enough.
By 1 August 1946, when the full truth was known, Winston Churchill expressed sorrow that so many Jews were leaving Europe: “…I had no idea, when the war came to an end, of the horrible massacres which had occurred.” Though he had reports from 1942 to 1944, his statement was broadly true. He did not realize the full magnitude and number of death camps until they were all liberated. Even then, it took time to reconstruct much evidence destroyed by the Nazis. Throughout the war, many civil servants and ministries insisted that saving the Jews was not a war aim. but a by-product of victory.
“Show us the proof”
In the event, to save the Jews, it was necessary to show proof of Nazi genocide. The evidential mountain was harder to scale given attitude of officialdom. Churchill knew and resented the broad anti-Semitism in his and Allied governments. The Jews, some officials said, exaggerated their mistreatment and were “prone to wailing.” Undue emphasis was “bad for public morale” and might “stir up” anti-Semitism. It was, however, a legitimate concern that tactics detracting from Germany’s defeat would prolong the war.
Similar arguments surfaced against Jewish immigration to the West at the Evian and Bermuda refugee conferences (1938, 1943). They added weight to Hitler’s assertions that nobody in the world wanted Jews among them. In Britain the Mandate of Palestine added another complication. Large numbers of Jewish refugees there, it was said, risked provoking the Arab population.
A problem with History as an intellectual discipline is that it is too easy after the fact. During the Second World War, nobody knew for a long time who would prevail. By the time they did, it was too late for hundreds of thousands. During the war, industrial genocide on the scale actually being practised was unknown to human beings, unimaginable to many. They learned too late.
…was an ordinary person who did extraordinary things. In September 1940, he walked into a Nazi roundup of Poles with the object of being sent to Auschwitz. Initially, his aim was to report conditions of prisoners to the Polish Underground. In 1940-41, Auschwitz mainly contained Poles. By 1942, however, Jews were the main component, and a grim change occurred. Poles had been persecuted; Jews were murdered. Pilecki reported the changing events, the construction of the gas chambers and crematoria. Eloquently, he contrasted the placid scene in the world beyond the fences:
When marching along the grey road towards the tannery in a column raising clouds of dust, one saw the beautiful red light of the dawn shining on the white flowers in the orchards and on the trees by the roadside, or on the return journey we would encounter young couples out walking, breathing in the beauty of springtime, or women peacefully pushing their children in prams. Then the thought uncomfortably bouncing around one’s brain would arise…. swirling around, stubbornly seeking some solution to the insoluble question: Were we all…people?”
After three years Pilecki escaped. He lived to survive the Nazis, only to fall to Poland’s next abusers, the Communists. He fought in the Warsaw Uprising in August-October 1944, and remained loyal to the government-in-exile after the Communist takeover. In 1947, he was arrested by the secret police and executed after a show trial. Fairweather’s Pilecki account is not altogether new. It was first told in Fighting Auschwitz (1975) by the Polish historian Józef Garliński, himself a former Auschwitz inmate.
Passing word to London
Pilecki reported to Underground leader Stefan Rowecki in October. Already Poles were asking that, “for the love of God,” Auschwitz should be leveled. It might be a suicide mission and cause panic, Pilecki opined, but some prisoners might escape. Rowecki send reports to Wladyslaw Sikorski, premier of the exiled government in London. Pilecki reported installation of the first gas chamber in mid-1942.
Sikorski had a problem. Many British hosts thought of Poles as “unruly foreigners with hard-to-pronounce names. ‘Sozzle-something,’ Churchill is reported to have called the senior Polish commander Kazimierz Sosnkowski.” The British knew of German concentration camps being used to corral enemy soldiers. They were reluctant to accept Polish reports of atrocities.
It is significant that Pilecki usually described “an extermination policy directed against Poles.” Why not Jews? Fairweather believes Western “disinterest in Jewish affairs” caused Pilecki to emphasize Poles. Indeed, Pilecki told Sikorski that continued reports about the Jews were “undermining support for the Polish government among ordinary Poles.”
Then there was the mechanics of an attack. Britain was struggling to keep its bombers airborne, let alone hit targets as far east as Poland: “The RAF had 290 serviceable aircraft but had lost almost a third by the end of November 1941,” mostly to accidents by inexperienced young crews. Too often, “bombing” consisted of opening the bomb bays after having flown for “about the right amount of time”! Occasionally bombers mistakenly hit targets in eastern England. Sometimes the Germans were “unsure what the objective of any particular raid had been.” So much for the notion that bombing Auschwitz was a precision operation that only needed to be ordered to be done.
Portal, Prime Minister and Pope
Fairweather says Churchill’s schedule was too full to hear them, which contradicts the evidence (see Addendum below). Pilecki’s appeals reached the Chief of Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal. His response was curt. Bombing Auschwitz was a diversion, he said, given the need to concentrate on German industrial plants. The “weight of bombs that could be carried to a target at this distance with the limited force available would be very unlikely to cause enough damage to enable prisoners to escape.”
In August 1942, Churchill denounced Nazi deportation of families. He did not yet know, Fairweather says, that they were being sent to their deaths, The Germans were saying Jews were being sent to “labor camps in the East.” The U.S. State Department opened a “modest investigation,” which consisted of asking the Pope. Pius XII certainly knew about the mass murders of deportees, Fairweather writes. “But he was wary about stirring Hitler’s anger against the Church and declined to comment.”
In November The New York Times published the first reports of exterminations at Auschwitz in western media. Rabbi Stephen Wise of the American Jewish Congress brought a report mentioning Auschwitz to Roosevelt. FDR said he was aware, but did nothing. “Roosevelt didn’t reveal his concerns about stoking anti-Semitism at home by focusing on Jewish suffering.” Fairweather makes a powerful case that Anglo-American governments were chary about provoking more anti-Semitism.
Fairweather reports that Foreign Office officials wrote: “We have repeatedly told the Poles, reprisals are such are ruled out…. The Poles are being very irritating over this.” He does not report that Churchill himself discussed bombing reprisals as early as December 1942. (See addendum.)
In fairness, Fairweather notes that there were limits to Pilecki’s empathy for Jews. Witold never saw the Holocaust “as the defining act of World War II…. He never let go of his Polishness or his sense of national struggle. At times…he is brutally frank about the difficulty he felt in identifying with the gassing of the Jews… His focus was on the survival of his country, his men, himself.”
We asked Esther, Lady Gilbert, a Holocaust historian like her late husband Sir Martin, for her view of The Volunteer. Its story, she believes, is “of the Polish experience, horrible as that was. But if by ‘Holocaust’ we specifically mean the intention to wipe out every last Jew and Jewish community, it is not a Holocaust story.
“Yes, Pilecki’s word did get out. Part of his problem, however, was that the Polish Underground was split between the Armia Krajowa, the Home Army, and the Armia Ludowa, the Polish Communists. Under better organisation, working together, he might have made more impact.”
One good effect of Pilecki’s reports, Lady Gilbert continues, was the Allied War Declaration of December 1942. It was plain, and stark: “German authorities, not content with denying [Jews] the most elementary human rights, are now carrying into effect Hitler’s oft-repeated intention to exterminate the Jewish people in Europe.”
The Auschwitz Protocols
Pilecki escaped from Auschwitz in April 1943. Reports that Auschwitz was exterminating masses of Jews came with eye-witness escapees’ reports (the Auschwitz Protocols) between December 1943 and April 1944. These were the reports that prompted Churchill’s famous command: “Get everything out of the air force you can, and invoke me if necessary.” As in 1941, the plenary authorities considered, and again said no, mainly for the same reasons. The full account is in Sir Martin Gilbert’s definitive book, Auschwitz and the Allies.
Fairweather says bombing the camp would have “alerted the world” to what was going on. Perhaps not. The Allied Declaration had alerted the world, with little reaction. The Germans were adept at covering up. Even when presented with Auschwitz Protocols, Allied officials found reasons not to send bombers. Some distrusted Polish underground sources. Military priorities motivated others. Well into 1943, just holding their own was a challenge.
Then there was the question of Jewish objections to bombing the inmates—a widely shared view. What about bombing the railway tracks to Auschwitz? They were narrow targets, and could be easily rebuilt. Fairweather says the decision not to bomb was “unconscionable.” In hindsight, it certainly seems so. At the time? Thoughtful people may differ over that. History stumbles along the trail of the past, Churchill said, trying to “kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days.”
A place among the Righteous
Fairweather believes Pilecki and his compatriots do not receive the credit they deserve. The French resistance is famous, he notes; yet over half the intelligence to reach London from the continent came from the Poles—divided though they were. Getting oneself shipped to Auschwitz was a breath-taking act of bravery. History will value Pilecki’s eloquent story of the victims of Nazi, and later Communist, crimes against humanity.
We searched for the name of Witold Pilecki on the website “Righteous Among the Nations,” part of the Yad Vashem Memorial site in Jerusalem. Lady Gilbert explains the reasons for this in her comment below.
In 1940, Fairweather has Churchill “on the roof of his secure accommodation” watching the Blitz. Rooftops in the Blitz were not secure. Staffers talked the PM down for his own safety. Churchill did not sit there contentedly watching the fires.
More serious is the assertion that the Poles couldn’t get Churchill’s attention because his schedule was too busy. A cursory reading of The Churchill Documents would show he made time for much less serious things than this. He had a capacity for detail that put many to shame. And the record shows that he made time for the Poles.
Eight days after the December 1942 Allied Declaration, Sikorski described the “mass expulsion of the Polish population, slaughter and mass executions” in five Polish districts. He did not mention Jews. The Chiefs of Staff Committee met on 31 December. There, Churchill asked Portal about bombing “certain targets in Poland” as a reprisal—as the Poles had asked. Portal replied January 3rd:
We have, I think, always insisted that air attacks are ordinary operations of war against military (including of course industrial) targets, and intended to destroy the enemy’s war output. We have thus deprecated the carrying out of air attacks as reprisals. [They] would be an explicit admission that we were bombing civilians as such and might well invite brutal vengeance on our air crews. [The Polish request is] more strictly a political warfare matter and relates to the Jews. [Hitler] has so often stressed that this is a war by the Jews to exterminate Germany that it might well be, therefore, that a raid, avowedly conducted on account of the Jews, would be an asset to enemy propaganda.
* * *
The above shows that Churchill and Portal knew perfectly well that Jews were suffering. Three days later Portal amplified his reasoning. Fairweather notes that the Polish 303 Squadron shot down more Germans in the Battle of Britain than any other unit. Portal’s words show that he too appreciated the Poles’ brave contribution. From Martin Gilbert, Auschwitz and the Allies, 222:
It would be “very unprofitable [Portal wrote] to divert our best bombers to Polish targets and to keep them waiting for long periods for the moonlight and good weather without which they could not locate such distant objectives.” In addition, “the small scale of attack” which Britain could produce at such a distance “would not be impressive as a reprisal.” It would be more effective, Portal wrote, after a successful air-raid over Germany, to emphasise “to the world” the part played in such a raid by the Polish Air Force.”
It seems so simple in retrospect: bomb Auschwitz, stop the killing. Our knowledge of the horror overwhelms contemporary factors. Portal added that a reprisal, however ineffective would overwhelm the RAF “with requests from all other Allies that we should also redress their grievances in the same way.” The result would be nothing but “token reprisals which would not only be completely ineffective as deterrents but would also destroy the last shred of the cloak of legality which at present covers our operations.” —RML
Richard Cohen is a real estate Lawyer based in London, England. He is one of the moderators for the International Churchill Facebook Group and is the head of the Essex Branch of the Jewish Historical Society of England. Richard M. Langworth is senior fellow of the Hillsdale College Churchill Project.