One benefit of studying history is the unusual stories you run across. Especially those involving exceptional bravery.
I’ve found another one. Witold Pilecki was a Polish cavalry officer turned resistance fighter in World War II. On September 19, 1940, he went out during a Warsaw street round-up with a specific purpose — to get arrested and sent to the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. Once inside the camp, he did his best to sabotage the camp’s operations (including assassinating SS officers, stealing radios to broadcast messages, sabotaging facilities, and smuggling out records) and disseminate news of the atrocities occurring there through Polish resistance to the rest of the world. Only no one was ready to listen.
Eventually we all had to listen. But why haven’t we heard of this before?
Recall Poland’s problems didn’t end with the Nazis. The country was occupied by Soviet forces at the end of the war and a Communist government was installed. As a Polish patriot, Pilecki insisted on fighting on against this second occupation. But he was captured, put on trial, executed and all traces of his wartime record destroyed or locked away. His family only learned the details of his mission to Auschwitz in the mid-1990s. Since then his story has slowly emerged.
A huge help to this emergence is a recent book, The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero Who Infiltrated Auschwitz by Jack Fairweather. This brings a different dimension to the sad chapter of World War II concentration camps.
Stories like this, stranger than fiction, is what makes history so fascinating.