International student helps revive
story of Auschwitz resistance leader © Sept. 24, 2010, Norwich University Office of Communications

Political science student Natalia Zajak spent the summer of 2010 in Auschwitz studying the life of a prominent, if largely forgotten, resistance leader.

photo by Jennifer LangillePolitical science student Natalia Zajac spent the summer of 2010 among the archives of Auschwitz studying the life of a prominent but mostly forgotten resistance leader.

Norwich University student Natalia Zajac spent much of the summer studying a courageous figure whose sacrifices have been largely forgotten in her native country of Poland.

In 1940, Polish officer and resistance leader Witold Pilecki, whose service spanned from World War I into the early years of the Soviet Union, volunteered to infiltrate Auschwitz, the massive network of Nazi concentration camps in the town of Oswiecim. It is a story worthy of an adventure film, but frustrating and riddled with tragedy, according to Zajac. She still feels disbelief at the life this prosperous landowner chose to lead, and his courage.

Polish resistance officer Witold Pilecki

Wikimedia CommonsWitold Pilecki

“He could have died there within a week; two weeks, and no one would have ever heard from him again,” said Zajac, a Class of 2011 political science major who is simultaneously earning a master’s degree in English language and literature from a Polish university. “I question, sometimes, do we still have people like that?”

Pilecki had already been instrumental in forming the Secret Polish Army, part of the underground resistance that followed the Polish surrender to Hitler’s armies in 1939. Despite being a family man with two children, he accepted an assignment to enter the prison system.

“They had no idea what Auschwitz was,” said Zajac, explaining that the camps were still under construction and housing mostly prisoners of war. “They wanted someone to investigate it.”

While the Nazi’s plan of genocide was not yet in motion, Pilecki encountered horrors from the beginning. After allowing himself to be arrested in a roundup in Warsaw, Pilecki was beaten before he entered the camp. Tattooed with the number 4859, and calling himself Tomasz Serafinski, he fought off a bout of pneumonia in the early weeks and got himself reassigned from a labor job that would have meant quick death. The Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp was not in operation until 1942, but life for prisoners was already very short.

“The prisoners, at this point, were just worked to death,” said Zajac. “The most important thing in the camp was to get a job under a roof.”

With the help of a sympathetic physician, Pilecki began to work as a carpenter and tanner and was able to put his plan into play. This involved supporting other prisoners, smuggling reports to resistance fighters outside the camp and establishing a network of inmates, called the Union of Armed Struggle, ready for physical revolt. Despite constant danger, a starvation-level diet and the start of the extermination, Pilecki survived for close to three years and managed to escape with several other prisoners. Information he provided during and after imprisonment brought the full reality of Nazi behavior to the world’s leaders.

“His reports were said to be the first reports as to what was going on in Auschwitz,” she said.

His accomplishments went largely unsung, however. In 1948, Pilecki was tried for treason by the new communist government and executed. Reports of his life were repressed until the demise of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.

Zajac grew up in Oswiecim, and was able to conduct her research with a top expert. At the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Archives, she met noted researcher Adam Cyra, who helped guide Zajac and gave her a copy of a rare, 300-page report from 1943 by Pilecki that was key to her research.

Rowland Brucken, a Norwich history professor and Zajac’s mentor for the project, said that working with Cyra, along with speaking the native language, helped her find details that would otherwise be impossible to unearth.

“The biggest problem was what, exactly, he did inside the camp,” said Brucken, explaining that Pilecki’s quiet resistance involved actions such as managing work details to allow prisoners rest or making sure everyone had bowls to eat from. His efforts might not be recorded as an armed conflict would be. “This is something that wouldn’t be written about, normally.”

He had never heard of Pilecki before Zajac proposed the research. “She was so devoted,” said Brucken. “It’s a testament to her level of scholarship.”

Zajac will present her report on campus and at an April 2011 scholarship conference, and may publish it in a journal for undergraduate research. She’s also planning to look for a publisher interested in Pilecki’s report, which has never been published in English.

The project was challenging and often emotionally wrenching, she said, particularly when she considers the Allied governments that knew the realities of genocide in the Nazi concentration camps thanks to Pilecki and others, yet did nothing. The horror hits even closer to home, she said, because she grew up within miles of the barbed wire fences, and because a cousin of her grandmother, a participant in the resistance outside the camps, was thrown into Auschwitz at the age of 16. She was inside for four months, said Zajac, and survives today.

“What struck me was that she told me she forgives the oppressors,” said Zajac. “She doesn’t feel anger toward them.”