Are we all human beings?
Auschwitz death camp was established on Himmler’s order on 27 April 1940. On 14 June, the first transport of political prisoners arrived at the camp; they were mainly Poles from the overcrowded prisons in the General Government, Silesia and Wielkopolska (Greater Poland).
Initially, the camp served as a prison as well as an isolation and slave labour camp. In 1942, it was transformed into one of the main centres of the Endlösung, the Final Solution to the Jewish Question, a Nazi plan to annihilate all Jewish residents of the territories occupied by the Third Reich. The camp was systematically enlarged – by 1944, it comprised three main sub-camps: Auschwitz I (Stammlager) in Oświęcim, Auschwitz II-Birkenau in Brzezinka where most of the mass murder infrastructure was located, and Auschwitz III-Monowitz, as well as 40 smaller satellite camps in which the prisoners were being forced to perform slave labour.
Additionally, a 40 square metre area referred to as Interessengebiet (a ‘business zone’) stretched around the camps sealed off with electrified barbed wire fence. The area, administered by the Germans, constituted a technical ‘backshop’ of the Auschwitz camps; it consisted of workshops, warehouses and offices as well as barracks for the SS-men. According to various estimates, 8,500 people staffed the KL Auschwitz throughout its period of operation (8,100-8,200 thousand SS-men and ca 200 female superintendents). At first, the staff totalled several hundred SS-men, but their numbers kept growing, especially towards the end of the war when – due to the impending evacuation – they increased to 4,480 SS-men and 71 female SS-superintendents.
The overall number of prisoners – in all the years of the camp being in operation – was estimated at 400,000 – 195,000 non-Jews and 205,000 Jews.
The number of people who perished at KL Auschwitz reaches 1.1 million, including 1 million Jews, 70,000-75,000 Poles, 21,000 Romani and 10,000-15,000 POWs from the Soviet Union and other countries.
Witold Pilecki spent two years and nine months in Auschwitz. It was his own initiative.
He used to send information on the functioning of the camp in reports addressed to the Home Army Headquarters. He created a conspiratorial network within the camp, capable of armed resistance. Despite several hundred people engaged in the network, the struggle proved impossible. The release of prisoners never happened. Pilecki himself escaped and returned to Warsaw, where he continued his activities in the KEDYW (Directorate for Subversion) of the Home Army Main Headquarters, founded a ‘NIE’ organization which was preparing for the Soviet occupation of Poland.
In 1945, in the so-called “Witold’s report”, he described the reality at the Auschwitz concentration camp, and made an attempt at explaining how the camp system affected the people and how one can retain humanity in the face of liminal conditions.
“Beautiful apple trees and chestnuts were blooming… In spring, it was particularly difficult to suffer the captivity. While we marched in a column to the tannery, enveloped in a cloud of dust floating above the grey surface of the road, we watched the beautiful sunrise, gorgeous pink flowers in the orchards and on the trees lining the road. On our way back, we would pass young couples strolling, soaking up the light springy air, or women pushing their babies in strollers. That is when one could not help thinking of an answer to this recurring, disturbing question: ‘Are we all human beings?’ Those strolling amongst the flowers and these, led towards the gas chambers? And those marching beside us, with guns in their hands, and us, the desperados?”
Pilecki himself passed the humanity test, both at the camp and in the post-war years, during the “enemies of the people” trial in 1947 and after he had been arrested by the Security Bureau, during the interrogations and tortures.
He was trying to shoulder the blame of this comrades from the anti-communist underground organization. “Therefore – I am writing down this very petition/ to take all the blame upon myself/ Cause even if I were to surrender my own life/ that is what I choose – rather than staying alive with this wound in my heart.”
The mastermind, leader, scout, soldier, descendant of the January Uprising insurgents, lover of art, poet – Witold Pilecki was shot dead by the execution squad on 25 May 1948, following a trial at the Military Court. He was buried in an unmarked grave.