Ecr Group Meeting Room is now dedicated to Witold Pilecki. The story of the hero of World War II and the importance to remember his sacrifice today 

Culture - June 6, 2023

“I have said goodbye to everything I have known so far on this Earth and I have entered something that is no longer part of it”. These are the words that Witold Pilecki used to describe his feelings when he voluntarily entered the concentration camp at Auschwitz.

To better understand his sacrifice and why on 31st May 2023 the European Parliament decided to name the ECR group meeting room after Witold Pilecki, it is necessary to tell his story, marked by pain, love of freedom and truth.

Witold Pilecki was born on 13 May 1901, into a noble Polish family. In 1918, he began his military career by enlisting in the Polish Army and becoming a cavalry lieutenant.

We do not have many photos of Pilecki, but in those rare images we do have we can see his serene gaze, a gaze of someone who wanted to act for the right thing, regardless of difficulties and obstacles.

Indeed, he dedicated his life to acting for the good, even sacrificing family serenity and economic well-being. He fought first against the Bolsheviks in 1918-1921 and then against the Nazis during the Second World War.

It was precisely during the Second World War that he decided to take part in one of the most sensitive secret missions of the war, although his value was only recognised long after the end of the conflict and long after his death.

Pilecki voluntarily decided to enter Auschwitz, with the express purpose of seeing what really happened inside the death camp and then informing the Polish authorities and the Allies.

Already during the early stages of the Second World War there were disturbing rumours about what was happening at Auschwitz, although it was not yet the place of horror that it later turned out to be. However, the Polish nationalist resistance, which Pilecki had joined, had no way of knowing what the facts were. So it was that on the morning of 19 September 1940, the 39-year-old Pilecki deliberately allowed himself to be arrested in Warsaw during a round-up of Poles by the Nazis, who captured around two thousand people on that occasion. He was tortured for a couple of days on Wehrmacht premises and then sent to Auschwitz.

The officer was well aware of what he was doing, although he certainly could not have imagined the horror he would find before his eyes. In Auschwitz, prisoners were often killed publicly, suddenly and in brutal ways.

After being captured under the name of Tomasz Serafinski, Prisoner No. 4859, in order to protect his family and not to be placed in a compromising situation within the camp, Pilecki led the Resistance from inside the camp, monitored German radio frequencies and maintained contact with the Polish underground army headquarters in Warsaw, to which he transmitted a detailed report of Nazi atrocities.       

The infiltrator spoke of the gas chambers, zyklon B, millions of deaths, atrocious torture and inhuman methods. However, despite his precise dossier, the inmates of Auschwitz were not saved because the National Army was unable to organise the liberation of thousands of people.

Inside the camp, the infiltrating officer put incredible plans into action: with other prisoner accomplices, he recovered various metal parts and managed to build and operate a radio transmitter. This was hidden in the place where the SS happily refused to go: the hospital, crowded with prisoners suffering from contagious diseases. The radio emitted for a while, at different times, until it was discovered. It was in the hospital that Pilecki and his men recovered fleas from the bodies of typhus patients and found a way to slip them into SS uniforms. For several German guards, this was fatal. But what was most spectacular the Polish officer managed to organise was his own escape. Assigned to the camp bakery, he and four of his men made a cast of the keys with breadcrumbs, filed down pieces of metal to make the same shapes and escaped into the night.

During his time in Auschwitz, Pilecki was fortunate enough to have an assignment outside the camp. This placed him in a delicate position, because it made him aware of the contrast between inside and outside the camp: outside, life flowed normally, people walked around, mothers took care of their children, men worked in the fields. Inside, on the other hand, life was as if stuck and in constant danger, marked by the air of death and terror that one breathed every day.

After leaving Auscwitz, Pilecki continued to fight for his country. In 1944, during the Warsaw Uprising, he was again arrested by the Germans and sent to a concentration camp. He also emerged alive from there, liberated by US troops in April 1945. At the end of the war, Pilecki joined the ‘Polish Corps’, soldiers who did not accept Soviet domination in their country.

It was in 1947 that he met his death, when he was sentenced by a Stalinist court and tortured to reveal the names of the other conspirators. But even in that situation he remain firm to his ideals of loyalty and courage.

After being needlessly tortured, he was then tried and finally sentenced to death on the basis of false evidence. He died on 25 May 1948, in Warsaw, without anyone knowing where the body was later taken and without having the opportunity to remember him before his grave.

Pilecki is a very important figure because he was the first to speak about the situation the men were experiencing inside Auschwitz. In fact, his famous report, the so-called Witold’s Report, is the first and most detailed report, consisting of more than 100 pages, that describes the reality of Auschwitz precisely, making this document a valuable historical source. In the pages written by the Polish hero, all the pain and suffering that the totalitarian system is capable of causing to human beings shines through. The report is also a text of great human depth, because it also tries to answer the question of whether it is possible to preserve a form of humanity in a place of death like the extermination camp. When we read Pilecki’s pages today they help us to reflect on the facts and information gathered, how the soldier preserved his integrity as a human being in Auschwitz, and how his ethical values, despite his suffering, were never affected.

The Polish hero lived his life with determination, intelligence and great courage, although his valour was not recognised until 1990, when the Witold family finally saw the rehabilitation of his memory. Furthermore, May 25th, by virtue of the fact that it is the anniversary of Pilecki’s death, has been declared International day of heroes in the Fight against Totalitarianism by the European parliament.

Witold Pilecki is still honoured in the Garden of the Righteous of Warsaw.

The meeting room of the ECR Group at the European Parliament has also been dedicated to him with a cerimony that was held on 31st May 2023. The event underlines the importance of this important figure in the fight against Nazism and Communism.

European Parliament President Roberta Metsola attended the ceremony together with ECR co-chairs Prof. Ryszard Legutko and Nicola Procaccini and EPP President Manfred Weber.

After the ceremony, a conference was held to pay tribute to the life of Witold Pilecki. The conference was attended by ECR MEP Anna Fotyga, EPP MEP Rasa Juknevičienė, as well as numerous guests such as Marek Ostrowski, grandson of Witold Pilecki; David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee (1990-2022); Magdalena Gawin, Director of the Pilecki Institute; Krzysztof Szwagrzyk, Vice-President of the Institute of National Remembrance; Jack Fairweather, biographer and author of “The Volunteer”; Tandeusz Płużański, son of Pilecki’s co-conspirator and death cell inmate; and Marek Mutor, President of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience.

The fact that the meeting room is now dedicated to the hero Witold Pilecki is a significant message that is relevant today. Because by remembering the hero Pilecki inside the European institutions, it is also a reminder of the courage and love with which each of us must always live, even in the most difficult situations that seem impossible to overcome, without ever compromising. Because only in this way can we live in a better world, made of better me and women.