Who was Witold Pilecki, why is Probosz promoting him, and why we (most of us, in any case) have never heard about him? One of the forgotten heroes of World War II, Captain Witold Pilecki (May 13, 1901 – May 25, 1948) He played a crucial role in obtaining information about the atrocities at Auschwitz death camp, fought in the 1921 war against the Soviet Invasion of Poland and in the Warsaw Uprising. His exploits are almost unthinkable to all, who are focused more on their personal survival than doing the right thing. If there was a living embodiment of heroism anywhere on the planet, Pilecki is it.
As a seventeen-year old Boy Scout, Pilecki participated in World War I in a Polish self-defense unit. He soon enlisted in the Polish Army (cavalry) and fought in the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1920 – defending Grodno, and participating in the Battle of Warsaw, and the liberation of Wilno. He received two Crosses of Valor for this campaign. Then, he came back to finish high school, continue his military training, work on his family estate, marry and raise a family. Ever dedicated to volunteering and social causes, he received the Silver Cross of Merit in 1938 for his contributions to the community. In August 1939, Pilecki returned to active service as a cavalry commander, participating in the September campaign. It may seem improbable, but his horse-mounted troops fighting near Lwow (now Lviv) were able to shoot down a German plane and destroy two other planes and seven German tanks.
|Pilecki in Auschwitz, 1941|
After the Soviet invasion of Poland, Pilecki returned to Warsaw where he co-founded the Secret Polish Army that grew to 8,000 men and became one of the seed-groups of the Home Army. In 1940, Pilecki volunteered to be arrested and sent to the German Concentration Camp at Auschwitz (“Tomasz Serafinski”) in order to gather intelligence for the Allies. (Wladyslaw Bartoszewski was arrested along with 2,000 other Poles in the same street roundup in Warsaw).
His story makes us uneasy, both because of the superhuman heroism, intelligence, survival skills, and virtue, and because of the tragic and senseless destruction of such a worthy life. Infamously, Józef Cyrankiewicz— Poland’s Prime Minister in 1947-1952 and 1954-1970 and the country’s President in 1970-1972—testified against Pilecki and his companions during the public trials. Ryszard Bugajski’s film The Death of Captain Pilecki transfers our discomfort to the screen, as it visualizes the imprisonment, trial, torture and death of a true war hero. The film is so effective in bringing Pilecki’s story to life due to the talents of Marek Probosz, a Polish-American actor, director, writer and producer, based in Los Angeles and professionally active in Poland and the U.S., with over 50 films as well as screenplays, books and theatrical performances to his credit.
When asked about his interest in becoming Captain Pilecki on the screen, Probosz answered: “The arrival of Captain Pilecki in my life was an unexpected joy. The proposal of impersonating one of the greatest heroes of the 20th century was for me a great challenge, a way to give justice to history that was completely denied by the communists. The more I studied the tragic fate of this hero, the more delighted I was with his spiritual and physical power. I could not stop reading about him. Pilecki never gave up, he kept his dignity and internal freedom to his last breath. His final words before his execution at the Rakowiecka Prison in May 1948 were “Long live free Poland” (“Niech żyje wolna Polska"). To identify with Pilecki transformed me internally. After the completion of the film, I still felt a need to share his incredible history with the world. Five years after the premiere, I still travel around the world with The Death of Captain Pilecki, I meet audiences of many nationalities and discuss the phenomenon of Pilecki’s human nature. I repeat his mantra: “We raise our children to become honest people.” Political and social regimes always change, depending on the global balance of powers, but the final truths – love, freedom, truth, nobility – are universal and eternal. You get them from your mother. If we become aware of the responsibility that we carry, there is a chance that a new generation of heroes would be raised – new Pileckis. In Poland and around the world.”
Probosz responded to my second question, about the significance of Pilecki’s heroism with the following comment: “Pilecki is so important to us today, because the world we live in is in the throes of a profound inflation of the most important moral values. We miss true, uncorrupted, invincible heroes, who remain faithful to their ideals to the last breath. The character of Pilecki deserves a great, epic film that should be known to the whole world.
We had in Poland a James Bond who was not a fictitious super-agent, but a true hero of all nations. He is the only person in the world who volunteered to go to the death camp at Auschwitz in order to organize underground resistance among the prisoners and to liberate, without religious, racial or ethnic divisions, all the prisoners. We dream about such characters, we invent them in literature and film and here, such a story is written in blood, it is a true story of a Polish national hero.”
Whether he’s teaching, writing, directing, or performing in Poland and the U.S., Marek Probosz has vowed to keep alive the memory of Captain Pilecki, one of the greatest heroes that the world has ever known.
Article by Maja Trochimczyk, reprinted from Polish American Historical Association Newsletter, Fall 2011. Photos of Marek Probosz as Captain Pilecki from The Death of Captain Pilecki.