Witold Pilecki was 38 when Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, triggering the start of World War II. He helped organize a resistance campaign during which many fellow fighters were caught and sent to Auschwitz, which in the early war years served more as a camp for Polish resistance fighters than Jews. That inspired him to hatch an audacious plan: He told other resistance commanders that he wanted to become an Auschwitz inmate to check on rumors of atrocities. Carrying documents bearing the alias Tomasz Serafinski, the Catholic cavalry officer walked into the German SS street roundup in Warsaw in September 1940, and was put on a train transport to Auschwitz, where he was given prisoner number 4859. Pilecki is the only person known to have volunteered for Auschwitz. His terse dispatches to the outside world were slips of thin paper stitched inside clothes of inmates leaving the camp or left in nearby fields for others to collect. They included only code names for inmates who were beaten to death, executed by gunfire or gassed.
As sketchy as they were, they were the first eyewitness account of the Nazi death machine at Auschwitz. Pilecki survived hard labor, beatings, cold and typhoid fever thanks to support from a clandestine resistance network that he managed to organize inside the camp. Some of its members had access to food, others to clothes or medicines. He plotted a revolt that was to release inmates with the help of an outside attack by resistance fighters; it was never attempted because considered too risky, Pawlowicz said. Pilecki escaped in April 1943 when he realized that the SS might uncover his work. With two other men he ran from a night shift at a bakery that was outside the death camp's barbed wire fence. After his escape, Pilecki wrote three detailed reports on the extermination camp. One describes how his transport was met by yelling SS men and attacking dogs: "They told one of us to run to a post away from the road, and immediately sent a machine gun round after him. Killed him. Ten random colleagues were taken out of the group and shot, as they were walking, as 'collective responsibility' for the 'escape' that the SS-men arranged themselves." Pilecki's heroics were for the most part in vain. Even though his accounts of gas chambers made it all the way to Poland's government-in-exile in London and to other Western capitals, few believed what they were reading.