During WWII, the Polish army officer - Witold Pilecki – agreed to an order from the Polish underground army to infiltrate Auschwitz. He allowed himself to be captured by the Nazis during “lapanka” in Warsaw in order to be sent to Auschwitz. Thus, he entered Auschwitz “voluntarily” and under an assumed name of Tomasz Serafinski, who happens to be un uncle of Elizabeth Zechenter of JLS. Pilecki assumed Serafinski’s name by mistake as both men defended Warsaw and wounded Serafinski lost his identity document which Pilecki found. Pilecki thought that they belonged to now-dead Serafinski and he took them and used them to create a false identity document (German Kennkarte). Consequently, Pilecki was jailed in Auschwitz as Serafinski. However, the real Serafinski survived and managed to return from Warsaw to his home in Koryznowka in December 1939. Neither man was aware of the other’s actions.
Pilecki’s mission goal was to monitor and secretly transmit to the outside world the horrors of the Nazi death camp. Pilecki endured the horrors of Auschwitz for over 900 days, carefully documenting them, organizing resistance within the camp, and preparing preliminary liberation plans which were smuggled to the Allies. The evidence shows that Allies had them already in early 1942. Seeing no response to his urgent pleas for help, Pilecki finally managed to escape and by a sheer accident or fate, seeking to make a connection with the local underground command, he was led to that very same Tomasz Serafinski; Serafinski being the head of the local underground unit about 100 km away from Auschwitz.
Tomasz Serafinski and his wife Ludmila, took and hid Pilecki and two other co-escapees for over three months, procured them with new false papers and saved their lifes. Pilecki wrote his first comprehensive report to the Allies right there at their home known as Koryznowka, and they worked together on plans to either cripple or liberate the camps (with Allied air cover and weapon drops), etc.
Once Pilecki left, Tomasz Serafinski was captured by the Gestapo, tortured and only survived due to the brave actions of his wife Ludmila, a Polish underground officer in her own right. He survived but remained severely crippled for the rest of his life. Pilecki went on to participate in the Warsaw apprising (after which the Germans murdered 200,000 civilians in retaliation and leveled the city) and was subsequently executed by the communist government installed by the Russian army. He was tortured, executed and his body was never found. The story of Pilecki was carefully hidden by the communist government and it was only after Poland regained its independence, it is now safe to openly talk about it. Elizabeth Zechenter was never told about her uncle and aunt’s story either; she was led to believe until quite recently, that her uncle suffered from severe rheumatism.
The story reveals that the Allies knew what was going on in the German concentration camps earlier than is generally assumed. This raises ethical questions of what could and should have been done at the time.
To order The Volunteer, please see: https://www.harpercollins.com/9780062561411/the-volunteer/
If you want to see more details about the story of Pilecki and Serafinski, see the Special Edition of the Quo Vadis, published online as https://mailchi.mp/1c27083fdc1f/the-kosciuszkofoundation-philadelphia-chapter-newsletter-specialedition.