On this date in 1948, Polish resistance hero Witold Pilecki was shot by Poland’s Communist government for a variety of subversions.
A former cavalry officer turned Home Army figure,* Pilecki authored one of the Great War’s most daring (and oddly obscure) covert escapades. In 1940, he volunteered to infiltrate Auschwitz — whose operations were then largely opaque to the Polish resistance — and allowed himself to be rounded up by the Gestapo.
Pilecki spent 31 months in the notorious concentration camp, organizing an inmate resistance network and shipping intelligence about the camp’s operations to the Polish resistance and (through them) the western Allies.
Though his pleas for a raid to liberate Auschwitz were in vain, Pilecki’s report catalogued the today-familiar horrors of the camp.
One bit, as it turned out, was a bit of foreshadowing.
The fourth and most heavy kind of punishment was an execution by shooting: death effected quickly, how much more humane and desired by those undergoing torture. “Execution” is not the right term; the right one would be “shooting dead,” or just “killing.” … The butcher Palitsch** — a handsome boy, who did not used to beat anybody in the camp, as it was not his style, was the main author of macabre scenes in the courtyard. Those doomed stood naked in a row against the Black Wall, and he put a small calibre rifle under the skull in the back of their heads, and put an end to their lives.†
Pilecki escaped Auschwitz in 1943, rejoined the Home Army, and had the good fortune to wind up in Italy at war’s end.
Instead of retiring to write his memoirs, he slipped back into Poland to spy on the postwar Communist government … but the man who had lived through Nazi internment couldn’t pull the same trick on the reds, who were in the process of rooting out anti-Communist resistance elements.
Pilecki was executed May 25, 1948, at Warsaw’s Mokotow Prison just as he had seen so many killed at the Black Wall — with a single shot to the back of the head.
Pilecki was posthumously rehabilitated by the post-Cold War Polish government, and honored with the country’s highest decoration
** Gerhard Palitsch — or Palitzsch — was a notorious SS roll-call man thought to have personally executed some 20,000 people in the manner described by Pilecki.
An illustration of Gerhard Palitsch executing prisoners at the Black Wall, by Polish inmate Jan Komski
Disliked by camp commandant Rudolph Hoess, Palitsch’s proclivity for taking inmate mistresses eventually got him busted for race defilement, whereupon he himself landed in the camp’s confinement, obliged to “[beg] inmates who used to tremble before him for bread.” (People In Auschwitz)
He was not for the ovens or the Nuremberg trials, however, and instead found himself mustered to the eastern front, eventually dying in action against the Red Army in Hungary. This page (in Polish) assembles various inmate recollections of Gerhard Palitsch.
† As the translation in the cited source is a tad uneven, I’ve taken the liberty of cleaning it up a bit.