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Prisoner 918
April 13, 2011 12:21 PM   Subscribe

802 Prisoners attempted escape from Auschwitz. 144 were successful. Kazimierz Piechowski, a Polish boy scout, was one of them. Today, at age 91, he tells his story.

"Uciekinier (The Escapee)" is a 42-minute documentary about him.

Here's an additional short (3-minute) documentary about / reenactment of his escape, narrated by Mr. Piechowski.
posted by zarq (30 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite

 
*cry*
posted by Melismata at 12:27 PM on April 13, 2011


That story gave me shivers. Thank you for sharing.
posted by jillithd at 12:30 PM on April 13, 2011


Thank you for posting this.
posted by The World Famous at 12:31 PM on April 13, 2011


Wow - an amazing story.
posted by pantufla at 12:41 PM on April 13, 2011


jillithd and TWF, you're very welcome.
posted by zarq at 12:42 PM on April 13, 2011


That was a fascinating detail about how at that point, prisoners weren't yet being tattooed with numbers. And that it was their amazing escape that triggered the start of it.

Thanks for the post!
posted by atlatl at 1:08 PM on April 13, 2011


I hadn't heard that detail before either. I remember seeing people with those tattoos when I was a kid.
posted by pantufla at 1:14 PM on April 13, 2011


My Great Aunt Stan had one of those tattoos, how do Holocaust deniers hand wave that away?
posted by sweetmarie at 1:48 PM on April 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Here is a book written by a survivor from the camps. He ended up in Israel, wrote a number of books, used his camp number as his pen name till late in life.

https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/The_House_of_Dolls
When Eichman was put on trial, this writer collapsed and had to be carried out of the courtroom.

He was married but suffered PTSD and his wife finally convinced him to go to the Netherlands and get treated by a therapist who used LSD and specialized in camp survivors...It worked and he lived a productive life and died in his 90s.
posted by Postroad at 1:58 PM on April 13, 2011


Wow. It's amazing that the plan worked--it seems like something crazy out of Hogan's Heroes--and that these men went free.

And yet I bet the repercussions haunt them, even though they lived; the one man's parents' fate, and the tattoos.

And knowing that others had died before they came up with their plan, and still more would die after they escaped--that has to be a hard thing to deal with, as a survivor. You are so thankful to be alive, and yet you know others are still suffering.

I wonder if any of the men tried to tell others about the atrocities that were going on in the camp. I imagine it would be hard to get anyone to listen to you because the claims would seem so unbelievable to any sane person at the time. Death walls stacked with bodies?! How could that be?
posted by misha at 2:04 PM on April 13, 2011


sweetmarie: "My Great Aunt Stan had one of those tattoos, how do Holocaust deniers hand wave that away?"

David Irving is one of the most publicly known Holocaust deniers. One of his many insane claims is that the British tattooed camp survivors as anti-German propaganda.
posted by zarq at 2:07 PM on April 13, 2011


I actually just watched the BBC documentary that 3-minute clip comes from a few weekends ago. (It also aired on PBS under another title.) It's very well done; its extensive use of footage of Auschwitz as it is today reminded me of the chilling Then and Now exhibit that was posted to MeFi about a year ago. As you can imagine, though, it's a bit short on good times, apart from those three minutes.

It's wonderful that Piechowski is still with us. He should have as many good years as he can possibly get. What a life! Thinking about the length of it, though, and all the things he must have seen and done, only brings you back to the impossible vastness of the years and experiences that just never happened for millions and millions and millions of people, for a terrible cause but for no reason.

Also,

Yet in between the traditional trappings of a jamboree, Kazimierz Piechowski, or Kazik as he likes to be called, will tell them a story few in the UK have heard – how, during Nazi occupation, scouts their age were murdered in the streets, while others like him were sent to concentration camps to witness the horror of Hitler's Final Solution.

What?
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 2:41 PM on April 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Kazimierz Piechowski was in Auschwitz I, the original and main camp, not in the extermination camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau. The two camps were not physically connected. He probably heard stories about Auschwitz II but the gas chambers had only been in operation for a few months by the time he escaped. Things got much, much worse in 1943 and 1944 - they didn't bother tattooing most prisoners because they were killed within a few hours.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:19 PM on April 13, 2011


"In the speech the deputy commandant gave when a new transport came in, he would say: 'If anyone thinks of doing something stupid like escaping, let them know this: we will kill 10 people for each person who escapes from a work group or [housing] block.' It was like a cup of cold water hurled over my head."

So that the Nazis would not hold their real working group responsible, Piechowski and Bendera formed a fake group of four, recruiting another boy scout, Stanislaw Gustaw Jaster, and priest Józef Lempart for their "spectacular escape."


What am I missing here, at best wouldn't this just spread any retaliation across two more work groups?
posted by pseudonick at 3:32 PM on April 13, 2011


I wonder if any of the men tried to tell others about the atrocities that were going on in the camp. I imagine it would be hard to get anyone to listen to you because the claims would seem so unbelievable to any sane person at the time. Death walls stacked with bodies?! How could that be?

This post led me to the story of Witold Pilecki who volunteered to go to Auschwitz in order to gather intelligence. When he escaped in 1943 and gave his reports, they were considered "gross exaggerations" by the Allies. In a cruel twist, after the war he was executed by Stalinists, and his history only came to light in 1989. Wow.
posted by wanderingstan at 3:39 PM on April 13, 2011 [5 favorites]


When Poland became a communist state in 1947, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for joining the Home Army, serving seven.

There seems to be a lot of this (punishing former soldiers) in post-WWII eastern Europe, and I'm wondering about the forces at work here. Was this how the Soviet Union suppressed the countries it came to dominate?
posted by yath at 3:43 PM on April 13, 2011


Thanks zarq for posting this amazing story.

If you're in that situation you might as well try to escape. They're going to kill all of your friends no matter what you do.
posted by Daddy-O at 4:04 PM on April 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


If you're in that situation you might as well try to escape. They're going to kill all of your friends no matter what you do.

My father was in Auschwitz. Although he refused to talk about any of it when I was older, he did tell me some stories when I was very young, about 7 or 8 years old , when I asked him about the blue numbers on his arm and the burn marks on his back. They threw him in there as a 14 year old boy.

One of the first things that I asked was "Why didn't you escape?" , having watched too many WW2 movies on TV I suppose. His answer was that you could get out - that there were places under the fence where you could get out from - but he told me that there was no place to go. He said that (was was from Poland and spoke Polish) even if he could get out that there was no place to go. That everyone in the country (his words) would have just turned him in and sent him back - where they would have killed him immediately.

He was one of the people who were picked to work rather than picked for extermination. Whatever he did to stay alive there he never talked about but I suspect that he was deeply troubled all his life by whatever he needed to do - was forced to do as a young man. It changed him and not for the better. For the rest of his life he was never able to trust anybody - even his family and always needed to be in complete control of anything. "Control freak" does not begin to describe it. He also lost faith in people and the concept of real unconditional love forever eluded him as he could no longer believe in it.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 5:08 PM on April 13, 2011 [17 favorites]


Fantastic story; talk about guts.

I especially liked the bit about the commandant going apeshit over being tricked by his supposed inferiors, although it is sad and terrible that others were punished for it.
posted by bwg at 5:15 PM on April 13, 2011


It's mystifying to me how the Nazis, in the midst of an existential struggle on the Eastern Front--the greatest armed conflict in human history--devoted resources to a state industry for murder. The German army was largely horse-drawn throughout the war (only 40% percent of all units were fully motorized), and they were using trains to kill people instead of carrying weapons to the front.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:07 PM on April 13, 2011


It's mystifying to me how the Nazis, in the midst of an existential struggle on the Eastern Front--the greatest armed conflict in human history--devoted resources to a state industry for murder

Confiscated Jewish wealth 'helped fund the German war effort

Selected Laws, Regulations, and Ordinances Used by the Nazi Regime to Confiscate Jewish Assets Abroad


Expropriation (Aryanization) of Jewish Property
posted by Poet_Lariat at 9:31 PM on April 13, 2011


It's mystifying to me how the Nazis, in the midst of an existential struggle on the Eastern Front--the greatest armed conflict in human history--devoted resources to a state industry for murder.

To some extent it was self-funded, especially at the start. Towards the end it actually became the major goal of the Reich: I've read statements by senior Nazis that even though they might lose, at least they'd have got rid of the Jews and nobody would ever forget that.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:38 PM on April 13, 2011


Joe in Australia: "I've read statements by senior Nazis that even though they might lose, at least they'd have got rid of the Jews and nobody would ever forget that."

Or forgive it.
posted by bwg at 1:36 AM on April 14, 2011


Thanks for posting zarq. Incredible story.

. for those that didn't make it.
posted by arcticseal at 2:19 AM on April 14, 2011


two or three cars parked under the stars, I read that section as being about the fact that the Scout organization was a special target for the Nazis.
posted by Harald74 at 2:45 AM on April 14, 2011


Yeah, it's not well know that Scouts were a banned group. Nowadays, many people assume that Hitler Youth were Scouts* - and the reverse that Scouts were (are) Hitler Youth.

*They weren't, although they were friends for a short while.
posted by Helga-woo at 4:42 AM on April 14, 2011


I've never gone so far as to claim that I could rise to the level that so many faced with so much in WW2 had to rise to, but I do live with something of a sublime guilt / shame / general feeling of insufficiency when I compare my generation against the greater one of my grandfather's. I often feel that whatever good I may be able to accomplish in my life is just trying to live up to the noble example that they set, but I worry that I never will fully live up.
posted by allkindsoftime at 5:48 AM on April 14, 2011


allkindsoftime: I don't think your grandfather would have wanted you to have the opportunity to do what he did. I think he did it, in part, so you wouldn't have to. But you know, if it really came down to it, you'd probably surprise yourself.
posted by Goofyy at 9:57 AM on April 14, 2011


What am I missing here, at best wouldn't this just spread any retaliation across two more work groups?

"Welcome to Auschwitz! Obviously we intend to kill you all, sooner or later. But, for every person who escapes, we will kill ten people!"

Retaliation must have been an increasingly empty threat at that point.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:31 AM on April 14, 2011


Retaliation must have been an increasingly empty threat at that point.

I would imagine it's somewhat different to know that they'll most likely, even almost certainly, die eventually, and sooner rather than later, than to know that they'll die immediately and because of you, and that your escape took away any opportunity they may have later had to escape. I imagine it's not an easy thing to live with, even with the benefit of being able to look back and and see the fact of the (practically) inevitable deaths.
posted by Salamandrous at 2:38 PM on April 14, 2011


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