The WWII Polish Resistance Hero Who Infiltrated Auschwitz Is Getting a Movie from the Producer of ‘1917’

Capt. Witold Pilecki is still a revered figure in Polish history. (Institute of National Remembrance)

On Sept. 19, 1940, the Nazi Gestapo rounded up 2,000 Poles from the streets of Warsaw. A Polish resistance fighter, Witold Pilecki, was among them, posing as a resistance leader named Tomasz Serafiński. When he was assigned to Auschwitz as a prisoner three days later, his fellow Poles were sure he would die there. But Pilecki was elated.

It was a mission no one would ever have ordered him to undertake, because the prison camp was already notorious as an overcrowded death trap for Poles and Jews alike. Poles were subject to harsh treatment and summary executions; “the killing,” Pilecki later wrote, “started the very day the first transport of Poles was brought.” As time went on, Jews and Soviet POWs would arrive and the camp grew increasingly violent.

Pilecki entered Auschwitz to establish an underground military cell in the camp. He would break out two years and seven months later, write a report about the mass murder executed by the Nazi regime there and advocate for an attack that would liberate its prisoners.

Now, Pilecki’s story is on the road to becoming a feature film, a joint venture between American and Polish producers. U.S.-based Powder Hound Pictures and the Polish Film Institute have tentatively titled the epic war drama “Enemy of My Enemy,” and it’s being produced by Jayne-Ann Tenggren, whose previous work includes the Academy Award-winning film “1917.”

Capt. Witold Pilecki as KL-Auschwitz prisoner Number 4859. (KL Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum)

It’s not just his resistance activities that make Pilecki one of Poland’s most revered heroes. He fought the Soviet Union during the 1919-1921 Polish-Soviet War and led a cavalry platoon against the Nazi invasion of his country in 1939. With the fall of Poland that year, he returned to Warsaw to organize a resistance movement.

As part of the Polish Resistance, Pilecki helped gather intelligence on the Germans and relayed information about Nazi atrocities to the Western Allies. It was part of that mission that led him to be voluntarily captured and sent to Auschwitz, and he was interned there as it devolved from a work camp for Polish political prisoners to a slave labor and death camp for anyone undesirable to the Nazi regime.

Pilecki’s mission was to enter the camp as a prisoner, then organize an underground resistance cell, which he did almost immediately. Called Związek Organizacji Wojskowej, or ZOW, it was intended to raise morale, distribute extra food and clothing to the prisoners, gather intelligence and train inmates either to take over the camp or aid any potential external liberators.

Various efforts inside the camp were successful. Knowing that there was an organized active effort against their captors raised the morale of prisoners, and they also purposely infected some of their SS guards with a form of typhus. They also aided the escape of Kazimierz Piechowski and three others, who would deliver Pilecki’s first report from inside the camp in June 1942. A total of 802 prisoners escaped from Auschwitz, and many managed to deliver Pilecki’s reports to the Polish Underground.

Though his reports were eventually delivered to the British and American intelligence services, most of those who read them questioned their reliability, and little was done to stop the atrocities happening there. Pilecki ended up witnessing the slave labor construction of Auschwitz Camp II-Birkenau and the first testing of Zyklon-B gas on Soviet POWs and sick Poles. He watched Birkenau become the main death camp for gassing European Jews.

Pilecki himself finally escaped the death camp in April 1943. With the help of locals and fellow resistance fighters, he returned to Warsaw and published what is now known as Witold’s Report, documenting everything he experienced. The Polish Home Army could not respond, however, and the Soviet Red Army was unwilling to advance on the camp.

Since Pilecki couldn’t muster a sizable force to liberate Auschwitz, he took up arms as a resistance fighter once again, participating in the August 1944 Warsaw Uprising. After being captured in the fighting there, he was imprisoned as a prisoner of war under his real name and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp.

After the war, Pilecki rejoined the Polish Army and returned to Poland to report to the country’s government-in-exile, still in London, on the Soviet-backed regime that was taking hold in the country. Under an assumed name, he reconnected with former members of the Polish Underground to gather intelligence. He was captured in 1947, tortured and, after a brief show trial, executed by the Communist government the following year.

“I was thrilled to read the script and to be working with the filmmakers,” Pilecki’s great-grandson, Krzysztof Kosior, told Deadline of the new film. “I am grateful this film is being made and that a global audience will know my great-grandfather’s story.”

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at He can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, or on LinkedIn.

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