Childhood & Early Life
Pilecki was born on May 13, 1901, in Karelia, Russia, to Julian Pilecki and Ludwika Pilecki (née Osiecimska). Pilecki was the fourth of the five children of his parents.
His father, Julian, attended the ‘Petersburg Institute of Forestry,’ where he studied forestry, and later became a senior inspector with the ‘Board of National Forests’ in Karelia. While Julian continued with his job, Ludwika moved to Northwestern Krai with the children in 1910.
The family finally settled in Wilno (present-day Vilnius, Lithuania). Pilecki completed his schooling there, after which he joined an illegally operating scout movement called the ‘ZHP Scouts Organization.’
Due to the impact of the First World War in Vilnius, Pilecki and his family had to flee to Mogilev, Byelorussia. They sought protection from Germans. Pilecki started a local chapter of the ‘ZHP Scouts Organization’ after he moved to Oryol, Russia.
In 1918, he moved back to Vilnius to finish his primary education from ‘Joachim Lelewel High School. He finished his secondary education in 1921.
Soon after, he attended the 'University of Poznań,’ where he studied agriculture. He then attended ‘Stefan Batory University’ to study arts.
In 1924, he was forced to end his studies due to his father’s ill health and their deteriorating financial condition.
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In 1918, Pilecki joined a self-defense paramilitary training group under the ‘Lithuanian and Belarusian Self-Defense Militia.’ The group went on to disarm the German troops and take positions to save the city from the Soviet ‘Red Army.’ This was during the beginning of the Russian Revolution, and the purpose was to defend Wilno.
After Wilno was captured by Bolshevic forces, Pilecki fled to Bialystok and soon joined the Polish-Soviet War (1919–1920). He later joined the 211th ‘Uhlan (light cavalry) Regiment.’ He fought the Battle of Warsaw and also got involved in the Rudniki Forest as part of the regiment
He also fought in the Polish–Lithuanian War during this time. In 1921, he got transferred to the army.
Soon after getting promoted to the rank of corporal, Pilecki focused on completing his education. However, he had to give it up after his father’s health deteriorated.
He decided to train himself at the ‘Cavalry Reserve Officers' Training School’ in Grudziadz. He was sent as an ensign to the ‘26th Lancer Regiment’ during this time.
In 1926, he was promoted to the rank of second lieutenant. For the next few years, he continued his social work and also focused on agricultural development.
In 1932, he developed his own training school (cavalry) in Lida. During this time, he earned the rank of the commander of the ‘1st Lidsky Squadron.’
In 1939, he was assigned to the ‘Polish 19th Infantry Division’ as a cavalry platoon. As part of the platoon, he fought against the Germans at the time of the invasion of Poland.
After the German forces destroyed the platoon, the latter merged with the ‘41st Infantry Division,’ where Pilecki joined as the divisional second-in-command. A month after the signing of the ‘Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact’ (1939), the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland, leading to the surrender of the Polish government to the ‘Nazis.’
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In spite of government’s surrender on September 27, 1939, Pilecki continued fighting through his division. However, his division was disbanded, with parts of it surrendering to its enemies.
A month later, Pilecki and his commander, Major Włodarkiewicz, founded the ‘Tajna Armia Polska’ (TAP), or the ‘Secret Polish Army.’ Within a year, the ‘TAP’ had more than 8,000 men working for it. The ‘TAP’ was later incorporated into the ‘Union for Armed Struggle’ (Związek Walki Zbrojnej), which then came to be known as the ‘Home Army’ (Armia Krajowa, AK). By the summer of 1940, Pilecki had attained a different level of patriotism.
He volunteered to enter Germany's ‘Auschwitz’ concentration camp in Oświęcim. After receiving approval from his seniors about the plan he presented, Pilecki deliberately received detention from the Germans, along with 2,000 civilians, on September 19, 1940.
After 2 days of rigorous beatings, he was sent to ‘Auschwitz.’ He later stated that after the transfer, his identity had become limited to “number 4859” and nothing more.
He also noticed that the food provided to keep a prisoner alive was barely sufficient for 6 weeks. If someone lived more than that, it meant that he/she had stolen food, and the punishment for the same was death.
Amidst all the atrocities, Pilecki managed to organize the ‘Union of Military Organizations’ (ZOW), which sent reports and updates about the camp to other Polish underground organizations. The organization also provided extra food, clothes, and news to its members.
In 1942, a secret radio station was also built using smuggled parts but was later dismantled due to the fear of it being discovered by the German army. Apart from this, messages and reports were sent out after being sewn into laundry clothes.
After 3 years of surviving in such horrific conditions, Pilecki decided to break out of the camp. He felt that he could help prisoners after convincing the Polish intelligence to do away with the resistance.
On the night of 26/27 April 1943, he, along with two others, cut the phone line of the camp and escaped with a few German documents. This incident turned him into one of the most-remembered Polish men of all time.
In August 1944, he fought in the Warsaw Uprising and was captured and sent to the ‘Murnau POW’ camp in Bavaria. After the camp was liberated by the US in 1945, he went to Italy and joined the ‘Polish Second Corps.’On May 8, 1947, he was arrested by the ‘Ministry of Public Security’ and subsequently tortured. He was accused of crossing the border illegally, using forged documents, carrying illegal arms, conducting espionage for “foreign imperialism,” and many other crimes.
He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to death. He was executed on May 25, 1948, at the ‘Mokotów Prison’ in Warsaw. He was 47 years old at the time of his death.