Pilecki’s a Polish film about an undoubted World War II hero: Witold Pilecki (1901-1948), a member of the Polish resistance, who allowed himself to be arrested and sent to Auschwitz, from where he could escape again, providing one of the first accounts of Nazi atrocities in the concentration camps. Truly exceptional, it’s hardly any wonder that today in Poland there are thirty primary schools named in his honour.
The film was produced with a Polish audience in mind, familiar with Pilecki the hero. Professors Anthony Polonsky (Brandeis) and Mary Fulbrook (UCL) contended that the story’s told ‘in a particular way using images of hagiography’, and as ‘a family drama’ rather than what ‘Pilecki was trying to do in difficult circumstances’. Although a ‘flawed’ film given the context and political climate in contemporary Poland, ruled by the reactionary Law and Justic Party (PiS), the film was ‘rather better than expected’. It did manage to highlight how a handful of determined people tried to reveal what was really going on in Auschwitz. Polonsky and Fulbrook provided accessible scholarship and gripping insights into the role of Auschwitz in the larger Nationalist Socialist project of mass murder, as well as looking at Pilecki the man and his achievements.
Pilecki came from a land-owning family and, as a cavalry officer, represented the ‘old-style Polish insurrectionary tradition’, guided by two principles: ‘Poland should operate with human values, and all groups should find their place’. He joined the resistance in November 1940. The film shows how Pilecki agrees to the resistance plan to get arrested in order to gain access to Auschwitz. He manages to smuggle out his first report soon afterwards which reaches the allies and the Polish government in 1941. The words of Pilecki’s unflinching witness to both the cruelty and resistance within the camp are spoken throughout the film. After his escape in November 1942, he fights in the Warsaw uprising before fleeing to Italy to publish his biggest report on Auschwitz and the mass murder of Jews.
Auschwitz is the biggest and best-known concentration camp as so many people from across Europe were taken there. Yet at other concentration camps, Fulbrook explained, there were much lower levels of survival. Auschwitz was a unique extermination and labour camp and was part of a large industrial complex using slave labour. At the ramp there were two options – immediate murder by gassing or forced labour where life expectancy averaged three months. Those inmates allocated jobs other than heavy manual labour had higher chances of survival. It’s amongst Auschwitz survivors that the most memoirs have been written. As a centre of attention, Auschwitz ‘now attracts more people every year as tourist than the total number of people killed there’.
It didn’t start as a death camp for Jews, but rather for Polish prisoners in 1940, before morphing into a death camp from 1942 until 1944. As a consequence, the camp was split into Camp One, the original camp, and Camp Two, Birkenau – the death camp. Pilecki was imprisoned in Camp one, which was remarkably porous, enabling him to smuggle out his reports. In contemporary Poland Auschwitz is more remembered as the ‘Polish Auschwitz’ of Camp one. In total, 1.3 million people entered Auschwitz, including 1.1 million Jews. Others included ethnic Poles, who had a 50% survival rate. Of the Roma community rounded up 75% perished.
While documenting the horrors of mass murder, Pilecki’s resistance activities centred on keeping morale going amongst the prisoners, obtaining medicines and attempts at setting up radio transmissions. This was combined with the continual struggle to stay alive himself. Extraordinarily, he became involved in organising cells to support resistance in Birkenau. It was only when he was unable to get the sufficient help from outside, he took the decision to engineer his own escape. All of this is disappointingly glossed over in the film.
After the war Pilecki joined a resistance group to oppose he communist government, which ends badly. In 1948 he’s put on trial as an ‘imperial spy, tortured, executed and buried in an un-marked grave. Pilecki and all others sentenced in the show trial were rehabilitated on 1 October 1990. Honours were posthumously awarded to him in the following years including the Order of the White Eagle in 2006, the highest Polish decoration.
Overall, the success of the Pilecki screening was driven by the passion and scholarship of both Polonsky and Fulbrook, who looked beyond the film to provide a compelling picture of Witold Pilecki as a righteous man.
For more information:
Mary Fulbrook is Professor of German History at University College London. For a list of selected publications by her see: https://blackwells.co.uk/bookshop/search/?keyword=Mary+Fulbrook
Antony Polonsky is Emeritus Professor of Holocaust Studies at Brandeis University. For more information on his profile and publications, see: http://www.brandeis.edu/facultyguide/person.html?emplid=7a470e807a5e8b2896df230df3bace187f70c1ee
Selected Accounts by Auschwitz Survivors:
Conolly, Kate ‘Tales from Auschwitz: survivor stories’ The Guardian, 26 January 2015.
Levi, Primo. If This is a Man. Translated by Stuart Woolf (Orion Press, 1959)
Löb, Ladislaus. Dealing with Satan. (Jonathan Cape, 2008)
Morris, Heather. The Tattoist of Auschwitz. (Bonnier Publishing, 2018)
Wiesel, Elie. Night. Translated by Marion Wisel (Hill & Wang, 2006)
Zsolt, Bela. Nine suitcases. Translated by Ladislaus Löb (Jonathan Cape, 2004)