September 27, 2010

AND THEN WE SOLD OUT THE POLES TOO:

Meet The Man Who Sneaked Into Auschwitz (NPR, 9/18/10)

Pilecki was eventually cleared to insert himself into a street round-up of Poles in Warsaw on Sept. 19, 1940. Upon arrival, he learned Auschwitz was far from anything the Resistance had imagined.

"Together with a hundred other people, I at least reached the bathroom," Pilecki's Auschwitz report reads. "Here we gave everything away into bags, to which respective numbers were tied. Here our hair of head and body were cut off, and we were slightly sprinkled by cold water. I got a blow in my jaw with a heavy rod. I spat out my two teeth. Bleeding began. From that moment we became mere numbers — I wore the number 4859."

That was a small and early number for a camp that would — one year later — see numbers in the 15,000s.

Alex Storozynski, president and executive director of the Kosciuszko Foundation, tells NPR's Mike Pesca that one of the early signs of Auschwitz's true purpose to Pilecki was the prisoners' diet. "The food rations were calculated in such a way that people would live for six weeks," Storozynski says.

Here's Pilecki's description of what a German officer told him: " 'Whoever will live longer — it means he steals. You will be placed in a special commando, where you will live short.' This was aimed to cause as quick a mental breakdown as possible."

Pilecki was assigned to backbreaking work — carrying rocks in a wheelbarrow. But he also managed to gather intelligence on the camp and smuggle messages out with prisoners who escaped. SS soldiers assigned Poles to take their laundry into town, and sometimes messages could be smuggled along with the dirty clothes to be passed to the underground Polish army.

"The underground army was completely in disbelief about the horrors," Storozynski explains. "About ovens, about gas chambers, about injections to murder people — people didn't believe him. They thought he was exaggerating."

Pilecki also hoped to organize an attack and mass escape from the camp. But no order could be procured for such a plan from Polish high command.
"We were waiting for an order, as we understood that without such one — although it would be a beautiful firework and unexpected for the world and for Poland — we could not agree to do that," Pilecki wrote.

For the next two and a half years, Pilecki slowly worked to feed his reports up the Polish chain of command to London.

"And in London," Storozynski says, "the Polish government in exile told the British and the Americans, 'You need to do something. You need to bomb the train tracks going to these camps. Or we have all these Polish paratroopers — drop them inside the camp. Let them help these people break out.' But the British and the Americans just wouldn't do anything."

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Posted by Orrin Judd at September 27, 2010 6:26 AM
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