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MIKE PESCA, host:

Seventy years ago this weekend, a Polish patriot did something either unthinkably brave or colossally ignorant. He was voluntarily arrested by the Nazis because he knew where they would send him - Auschwitz, soon to be the most notorious execution camp operated by the Third Reich.

Today, it's almost certain that you've never heard the name of the man who first began to tell the world of the horrors of Auschwitz. His name was Witold Pilecki. Back in 1940, Pilecki and his compatriots in the Polish underground knew little of Auschwitz.

Mr. ALEX STOROZYNSKI (President; Executive Director, Kosciuszko Foundation): People thought that this was simply a prisoner of war camp.

PESCA: Alex Storozynski.

Mr. STOROZYNSKI: I'm the president and executive director of the Kosciuszko Foundation.

PESCA: That's a Polish history and culture organization. Witold Pilecki didn't know exactly what was going on in Auschwitz, but he knew someone needed to find out. To write the first intelligence report detailing what was happening there, he had to get inside.

Mr. STOROZYNSKI: He volunteered to be arrested by the Germans and go into Auschwitz, to try and figure out what was really going on there.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Death of Cavalry Captain Pilecki")

Mr. MAREK PROBOSZ (Actor): (as Witold Pilecki) On the 19th of September 1940, the Second Street roundup in Warsaw.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The correct title of the film is "The Death of Cavalry Captain Pilecki"]

PESCA: This is Pilecki's Auschwitz report, read by the actor Marek Probosz. He played Pilecki in the 2006 Polish film "The Death of Captain Pilecki."

(Soundbite of movie, "The Death of Cavalry Captain Pilecki")

Mr. PROBOSZ: Then we were loaded into trucks, and carried to the covered barracks.

PESCA: Once Pilecki entered Auschwitz, he realized it was far worse than a standard POW camp.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Death of Cavalry Captain Pilecki")

Mr. PROBOSZ: Together with a hundred of other people, I at last reached the bathroom. Here, we gave everything away into bags to which respective numbers were tied. Here, our hair of head and body were cut off, and we were slightly sprinkled by cold water. I got a blow in my jaw with a heavy rod. I spit out my two teeth. Bleeding began. Since that moment, we became mere numbers. I wore the number 4859.

PESCA: Four-eight-five-nine in a camp where the numbers would rise, by some estimates, to a million. Witold Pilecki was assigned to backbreaking labor. He was put on typical rations of an Auschwitz prisoner, which Alex Storozynski says were all but a death sentence.

Mr. STOROZYNSKI: Pilecki quickly learned the way the diet was set up, people's rations, food rations, were calculated...

(Soundbite of movie, "The Death of Cavalry Captain Pilecki")

Mr. PROBOSZ: ...calculated in such a way that you will live for six weeks. Whoever would live longer, it means he steals. He will be placed under special commando, where you will live short. This was aimed to cause as quick mental breakdown as possible.

PESCA: He managed to survive longer, though. He smuggled periodic messages out of the camp, sometimes with other prisoners who escaped or were let go. Pilecki described the execution and interrogation methods the Germans used. He was the first to tell of the growing number of deaths at the camp.

Mr. STOROZYNSKI: The underground army was completely in disbelief about the horrors, about ovens and about gas chambers, and injections to murder people. People were stunned. People didn't believe him; they thought that Pilecki was exaggerating.

PESCA: But Pilecki wasn't a public figure. He was a soldier, and an interred soldier at that. All he could do was provide information. Where it went from there was out of his hands.

Mr. STOROZYNSKI: He basically fed this up the food chain, and the food chain passed it on to London. And in London, the Polish government in exile told the British and the Americans, you need to do something. You need to bomb the train tracks going to these camps. Or, we have all these Polish paratroopers here in London; drop them inside the camp, let them help these people break out. But the British and the Americans just wouldn't do anything.

PESCA: Back in Auschwitz, after an unbelievable two and a half years, Pilecki and his superiors decided he needed to escape, or else he wouldn't live much longer.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Death of Cavalry Captain Pilecki")

Mr. PROBOSZ: The further I stay here might be too dangerous and difficult for me.

(Soundbite of music)

PESCA: Pilecki got a job in a bakery just outside the camp that was monitored by SS guards. He and a few fellow inmates were able to escape through a poorly secured back door.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Death of Cavalry Captain Pilecki")

Mr. PROBOSZ: Shots were fired behind us. How fast we were running, it is hard to describe. The bullets did not touch us.

PESCA: After his escape, Pilecki continued to fight in the underground. Once World War II ended, the Germans were vanquished and the Soviets rolled in. Witold Pilecki was once again recruited to gather intelligence.

Polish filmmaker Ryszard Bugajski directed "The Death of Captain Pilecki."

Mr. RYSZARD BUGAJSKI (Director, "The Death of Cavalry Captain Pilecki"): So after the war, he was actually captured by the Communists. He was accused of espionage, and he was shot.

(Soundbite of gunshot)

PESCA: The final scene in "The Death of Captain Pilecki" depicts the event that gave the film its title. Marek Probosz, who played Pilecki.

Mr. PROBOSZ: He was put into the potato bag and dumped somewhere in the Dumpster, to be eaten by dogs or rats. Today, nobody really knows where his body is.

PESCA: In fact, it's been only over the past few years, thanks in part to the release of new documents and this film, that more and more Poles have learned they could claim one of World War II's great heroes. There's a street named after Pilecki in Warsaw. There's talk of naming a square after him, too.

Three years after Pilecki first entered Auschwitz, two Jewish prisoners compiled their own report on the camp. Their bravery is not to be diminished, but by volunteering, Pilecki's actions remain almost impossible to understand. Marek Probosz tries.

Mr. PROBOSZ: Having beautiful wife and two kids that he loved dearly, he decided to leave them behind and go to - voluntarily to concentration camp in Auschwitz. Human being was the most precious thing for Pilecki and especially those who were oppressed, and he would do anything to liberate and to help them.

(Soundbite of music)

PESCA: Seventy years ago tomorrow, Witold Pilecki voluntarily entered Auschwitz as a captain for the Polish army.

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