He Volunteered to Go to Auschwitz

Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.

In this great mortuary of the half-living — where nearby someone was wheezing his final breath; someone else was dying; another was struggling out of bed only to fall over onto the floor; another was throwing off his blankets, or talking in a fever to his dear mother and shouting or cursing someone out; [while still others were] refusing to eat, or demanding water, in a fever and trying to jump out of the window, arguing with the doctor or asking for something — I lay thinking that I still had the strength to understand everything that was going on and take it calmly in my stride.

That was on a relatively good day at the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp in 1942, in the words of the only known person to have ever volunteered to be a prisoner there. His name was Witold Pilecki. His story is one of history’s most amazing accounts of boundless courage amid bottomless inhumanity.

Powerful emotions gripped me when I first learned of Pilecki and gazed at his picture. I felt rage toward the despicable regimes that put this honorable man through an unspeakable hell. I welled up with admiration for how he dealt with it all. Here you have a story that depicts both the worst and the best in men.

To label Pilecki a “hero” seems hopelessly inadequate.

Olonets is a small town northeast of St. Petersburg, Russia, 700 miles from present-day Poland. It’s where Witold Pilecki was born in 1901, but his family was not there by choice. Four decades earlier, when many Poles lived under Russian occupation, the czarist government in Moscow forcibly resettled the Pileckis in Olonets for their part in an uprising.

For the first time since 1795, Poland was reconstituted as an in…