One man's daring mission to be shared at local Holocaust remembrance event

Jan 22, 2020

January 27 marks UN Holocaust Remembrance Day. In Buffalo, one of the events marking the upcoming occasion is a scheduled visit by an author who has published a book about a Polish resistance fighter who sought to gather intelligence about the Auschwitz concentration camp complex by infiltrating it.

Wednesday night's event will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the Regis Rooms of the Richard Winter Student Center, 81 Hughes Avenue on the Canisius College Campus. Admission is free.

A colorized photo of Witold Pilecki, who volunteered to infiltrate Auschwitz for the purposes of gathering intelligence on deeds committed inside by the Nazis and attempting to grow a resistance movement within the camp.
Credit Public Domain

Jack Fairweather's book, The Volunteer: One Man, and Underground Army, and the Secret Mission to Destroy Auschwitz, tells the tale of Witold Pilecki, a Polish Cavalry officer and co-founder of the Tajna Armia (Polish Secret Army), who volunteered in 1940 to be captured for the purposes of gathering intelligence about the inner workings of Auschwitz and to form resistance efforts within the complex.

"I think Pilecki's story has got so much to inspire us when we think about mankind's evil," said Fairweather, a journalist who previously served as a war reporter in Iraq and Afghanistan. "This is the worst that man can do to man, and Pilecki was there showing us how to respond, inspiring his men and hopefully inspiring us too."

Pilecki was able to get information outside the camp, reporting of Nazi extermination efforts. It included details of the Nazi "Selektion" of prisoners to die, the gas chambers and three crematoria. He also reported of sterilization experiments conducted on many prisoners, including children.

Before he escaped the camp in 1943, Pilecki formed a network of resistance among prisoners who carried out clandestine tasks such as sabotaging equipment and even assassinating SS officers by sickening them.

"They were using infected lice which contained typhus. It was endemic in the camp," Fairweather explained. "They were collecting vials of these lice and sprinkling them over the cloaks and coats of SS men. That way, they managed to kill some of the nastiest perpetrators."

Auschwitz was the largest of the Nazi regime's prisoner sites, a complex of more than 40 concentration, extermination (Auschwitz II-Birkenau) and labor (Auschwitz III-Holowitz) camps in German-occupied Poland. It opened in May 1940 and operated through January 1945, when advancing Soviets led SS agents to begin the evacuation of about 60,000 prisoners. An estimated 7,000 were left behind for the Soviets to discover when they liberated the camp on January 27, 1945.

According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, an estimated 1.3 million prisoners were sent to Auschwitz, most of whom were put to death. The victims included an estimated 960,000 Jews, 74,000 non-Jewish Poles, 21,000 Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war and as many as 15,000 others deemed unfavorable to the Nazis.

Fairweather says compounding the tragedy of the Holocaust is despite the information being sent out by Pilecki and his associates, the Allies did little to act. Pilecki had even urged Allied forces to bomb the complex, even at the risk of his own life, because he explained the atrocities were so great they needed to be halted.

"That was his message in October 1940, four years before there was the debate among the Allies about whether to bomb the camp to stop the Holocaust," he said. "Pilecki was already calling on them to do it. For me, it's one of history's great might-have-beens: What would have happened had the Allies intervened at that point?"

Following his escape, Pilecki participated in the Warsaw Uprising, was captured by the Nazis and sent to a POW camp and was later liberated by U.S. forces in April 1945.

In 1947, he began collecting information on wartime atrocities committed in Poland by the Soviets but was arrested by the Polish communist government, tried and then executed in 1948.

Wednesday's event will begin with a brief memorial, featuring Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra cellist Robert Hausmann playing Ravel’s Kaddish, which he played during the BPO's 2018 tour of Poland. The Yad Vashem Exhibit, The Auschwitz Album, will also be on display. 

Additionally, Daemen College will host a commemoration program Monday, January 27, beginning at 6 p.m., in Rosary Hall. The featured speaker is Wendy Weisbrot, whose father, the late Joe Diamond, was a Holocaust survivor. The Auschwitz Album Exhibit will be displayed that evening. The exhibit will then be made available for viewing at the Canisius College Library Exhibition Hallway during the month of February.