In Warsaw, Poland, there’s a cemetery where many of the country’s most famous poets and thinkers are buried.
The grounds are covered by marble monuments.
But in one corner there’s an unmarked grave.
And right now, an exhumation is under way in that corner.
There lie the remains of about 100 people executed by the communists who took power in Poland after World War Two.
One of those buried there is believed to be Witold Pilecki.
He’s not well known in the US, but he’s a hero in Poland.
He fought the Nazi invasion in 1939, then helped to form the underground resistance.
“But he’s a hero because he volunteered to go to Auschwitz,” says Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland.
“He went to find out what was happening and tell the world.”
Pilecki built a radio in the camp to send reports back to his resistance colleagues in Warsaw.
Those reports helped the Polish government-in-exile tell the world what was happening at Auschwitz.
In 1943, Pilecki escaped and fought with the Polish resistance during the Warsaw uprising against the Germans.
He was captured and tortured by the Nazis, but survived World War Two.
After the war he returned to Poland and again stood up to totalitarianism, documenting the atrocities of the Communists.
That got Pilecki arrested and tortured again, this time by his fellow Poles.
He was shot in 1948, after a very public show trial.
Since the fall of Communism in Poland, Pilecki has received several posthumous honors from the Polish government.
“But he is even more of a hero to the Jewish people of Poland,” according to Rabbi Schudrich.
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Marco Werman: In Warsaw, Poland, there’s a cemetery where many of the country’s most famous poets and thinkers are buried. The grounds are covered by marble monuments, but in one corner there’s an unmarked grave site and right now, an exhumation is under way in that corner. There lie the remains of about a hundred people executed by the Communists who took power in Poland after World War Two. One of those buried there is believed to be Witold Pilecki. He’s not well known in the US, but he’s a hero in Poland. Michael Schudrich is the Chief Rabbi of Poland. Uh, Rabbi Schudrich, first of all, who was Witold Pilecki.
Michael Schudrich: Witold Pilecki was a hero because he asked to be smuggled into the Auschwitz death camp. While everyone else in Europe was trying to avoid being sent to Auschwitz, this man said, “Someone’s got to get inside and see what’s really happening.”
Werman: Right. So who was he and why did he want to do that?
Schudrich: He was an officer in the Polish army, in the Polish military, which was defeated by the German Nazis in September of ’39. And then he did it because he thought that was the right thing to do. I mean I don’t know if we know that much in his heart of hearts why he did it, but it seemed like it was the right thing do do. Someone had to go in there to be able to come out to say to the world, “This is what’s happening in Auschwitz.”
Werman: I mean it’s pretty extraordinary how he got himself in there. He essentially got himself arrested. I mean but once in Auschwitz the details are amazing. He and some others who were trying to [??] inside the death camp actually built a radio to communicate with the outside. How did they do that?
Schudrich: How do you do something like that in a place like Auschwitz? With great difficulty. Because there were workshops, because the Germans were, first and foremost, using Auschwitz as an extermination camp, as a mass factory for murder and genocide, but they were also using it for industry, and therefore those who were able to get themselves placed into one of the labor sections of the camp had access to things that eventually could make something like a radio. So people actually did have access to such things that could make a radio. So the problem was not having access to the materials, the problem was getting them out of the factory, which was a risk of life.
Werman: I mean we should recall too that there was a lot of uncertainty all over the world about what Auschwitz actually was. Was it a prison? Was it some kind of industrial site? Was it Witold Pilecki who essentially informed the world that this is a death camp, that this is death at an industrial scale?
Schudrich: He was one of those. He was one of those people that were able to go in and out and then to tell the world what was there. He wasn’t the only one, but he certainly was one of the key people.
Werman: And in 1943, he managed miraculously to escape from Auschwitz, but his story didn’t end there. I mean he was a hero to many, but then he was arrested by the Communists in 1947. Can you tell us why?
Schudrich: Right. Basically because he was part of the anti-Communist front, the Polish anti-Communist front. The Polish Communists arrested him and then eventually killed him. And this is just a horrible thing that, you know, he was a hero, he survived the German Nazi only to be eventually, just a few years later, murdered by Communists.
Werman: So . . .
Schudrich: This is a man that truly fought both extremes of totalitarianism and must be regarded as a hero, both as a Nazi-fighter and as a Communist-fighter, fighting against the Nazis and fighting against the Communists.
Werman: So now there’s an effort to identify Pilecki’s remains. Who’s leading this effort and why are they doing it?
Schudrich: It’s being done by people in Poland and I think it’s in order to give proper respect. For me the greatest form of respect is for us remembering what he did, what he wrote. It’s very important that his diary has now been published in English which will get out the word, make it more accessible to many more people. But certainly I think that the people that are looking now to identify his remains also want to be able to do it to show him greater respect.
Werman: Michael Schudrich, Chief Rabbi of Poland. Thank you very much for telling us this story.
Schudrich: Thank you so much.
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