Monday, December 18, 2017

Kazimierz Piechowski, one of the first prisoners at Auschwitz, went on to lead a daring escape, helping to steal the commandant's car by impersonating an irate SS officer

Mr. Piechowski was a 19year old eagle Scout, when German forces swept through Poland and began killing priests, intellectuals and members of the country's Scouting organization in September 1939, fearing — correctly — that the Scouts would help form the seeds of the country's underground resistance.

He soon struck out on a circuitous route for France, aiming to join the displaced Polish army. But he was captured near the Hungarian border, imprisoned and sent on June 20, 1940, to Auschwitz, which had been opened a month earlier by the SS as a concentration camp for criminals and political prisoners.

Mr. Piechowski enacted his own unlikely escape plan in 1942, two years to the day after he arrived at Auschwitz. He had seen plenty of escapes halted by the electrified barbed wire and watchtowers surrounding the camp, and knew that 10 people were forced to starve in reprisal for each person who escaped.

But the calculus changed abruptly when a friend of Mr. Piechowski's, Eugeniusz Bendera, learned that he was scheduled to be killed and suggested they flee the camp in an SS car. Bendera, a mechanic, had access to the vehicle. Mr. Piechowski, who was working in the warehouse, knew where to find a stash of uniforms and weapons that would allow them to disguise themselves as SS officers.

In an effort to spare his cellmates from retribution, Mr. Piechowski devised a plan in which he, Bendera and two others — Stanislaw Gustaw Jaster, a former Scout, and Jozef Lempart, a priest — would leave the main camp area by pretending to be part of a four-person work unit. If the entire unit disappeared, Mr. Piechowski figured, their block supervisor would likely be held wholly responsible.

On a quiet Saturday morning, they pushed a garbage cart through the first camp gate, under a sign reading "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("Work Sets You Free"). Three of the men scurried through a coal hatch inside the warehouse, and Mr. Piechowski led them to a room where they nabbed SS uniforms, four machine guns and eight grenades, according to historian Laurence Rees's 2005 book "Auschwitz: A New History."

The mechanic had picked the Steyr 220 – the fastest car in Auschwitz, there for the sole use of the commandant. "It had to be fast, because he had to be able to get to Berlin in a few hours. We took it because if we were chased we had to be able to get away."

They jumped into the Steyr 220 and drove toward the camp's main gate, greeting SS officers with a "Heil Hitler!" along the way, Mr. Piechowski later said. They had good luck pushing their garbage cart and taking the uniforms out of the warehouse, where SS officers failed to identify them, but at the camp's outermost gate they were met with a closed barrier.

"Wake up, you buggers!" Mr. Piechowski yelled in German to the men manning the gate, he later told the Guardian. "Open up or I'll open you up!"

The gate opened, and the escapees drove to freedom. The Nazis were incensed, says Piechowski. "When the commandant heard in Berlin that four prisoners had escaped he asked: 'How the bloody hell could they escape in my own car, in our own uniforms, and with our ammunition?' They could not believe that people they did not think had any intelligence took them [for a ride]."

Keeping away from the main roads to evade capture, they drove on forest roads for two hours, heading for the town of Wadowice. There they abandoned the Steyr and continued on foot, sleeping in the forest and taking turns to keep watch.

In revenge, Jaster's parents were arrested and died in Auschwitz, and there were serious consequences for the remaining prisoners. "A month after we escaped, an order went out that every person must be tattooed [with their prison number]. The Nazis knew that an escapee's hair would grow back, and that the partisans would make new documents for them. But when people saw the number, they would know that they were from Auschwitz. No other camp used numbering – it was our escape that led to it."

When the communists consolidated power in Poland after the war, Mr. Piechowski was sentenced to 10 years in prison as an enemy of the state, according to the London-based Mail on Sunday newspaper. He was released after seven years. He later worked as an engineer in the Gdansk shipyard.

This short documentary follows the songwriter Katy Carr's visit to Poland in August 2009 to meet Kazik, now 90, and have a direct window into his memory and experience of the last 80 metres of his escape, where he and the other prisoners have driven to the outside checkpoint of Auschwitz, and all their lives depend upon five seconds of daring and inspiration.

Kazik and the Kommander's Car from Kazik and the Kommander's Car on Vimeo.

Thanks Steve!


  1. I hope everybody reads this. I have a lot to be thankful for.

    1. Most of us reading this blog have. We won the time lottery (being born in the 20th century), the place lottery (born in an affluent and peaceful Western society) and the biological lottery (unless being born poor). Pity that so many people do not realize how lucky they are.

  2. Thanks... I hope everyone reads everything that I share worth reading (most stuff is just good for a moments entertainment, believe me, I know it)

    Yeah, taking a moment to compare lives with someone else can be a real eye opener... and in this case, his life changed history. That tattoo system? I believe that to be a very significant thing, and I've seen one, when I stopped to offer an old woman a ride so she didn't have to deal with groceries on the bus. A couple of miles, and a short conversation, and there it was.
    Humans have an infinite ability to be kind, or cruel.
    On a lighter note, you can always share a link to this with your facebook or twitter or whatever.... just saying, I wouldn't mind a good bit of free publicity that came along because I shared an incredible true story