The Polish Soldier Who Snuck Into Auschwitz and Was First to Report on the Horrors Inside
On September 19, 1940, Witold Pilecki, a Polish soldier, was captured by German SS officers and sent to the concentration camp in Auschwitz. Considering he was a spy, things had turned out exactly as he’d planned. Captain Pilecki’s mission was to organize resistance from within the most horrific symbol of the Holocaust, send information to the Allies, and record the horrors he witnessed for the sake of history.
Pilecki arrived in Auschwitz sometime in the evening between September 21 and 22, 1940, and described what he found as “another planet”—a hell in which every building’s walls were covered in swastikas and corpses lay everywhere. Pilecki went on to live in inhumane conditions for nearly 1,000 days and become the first person to inform the Allies about the appalling conditions of detention and the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime.
Pilecki’s comprehensive 1945 report on his undercover mission was published in English in 2012 under the title The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery. Yet, for some reason, his story still isn’t widely known. I wanted to know more about the career of this exceptional man, so I got in touch with the people who recently translated the book in French—former director of the AFP bureau in Warsaw, Urszula Hyzy, and Patrick Godfard, who is a professor of history.
VICE: The book was published in English in 2012, with the New York Times describing it as “a historical document of the greatest importance.” How come it was only translated to French now?
Urszula Hyzy and Patrick Godfard: Pilecki was a “disturbing” character for the Allies, who pretended for a long time not to know what was happening in the camps, and for the Communists, who were responsible for his death in 1948. In communist Poland, it was forbidden to talk about Pilecki and his children were barred from higher education.
The Auschwitz Volunteer remained in the archives of the Polish Underground Movement Study Trust in London [Studium Polski Podziemnej] before being discovered by the historian and former prisoner Józef Garlinski, who wrote Fighting Auschwitz: The Resistance Movement in the Concentration Camp in the 1970s. It was not until after the end of the Cold War that the book was published in Poland.
Ukrainian Revolution Awakens Totalitarian Demons
While attention has been focused on Russia’s occupation of Crimea, pro-Russian Ukrainians and uninformed observers have raised alarm in recent weeks about a purported resurgence of fascism in Kiev. Reports have circulated about the interim Ukrainian government supposedly banning the Communist Party, lifting bans on Nazi propaganda, or committing a host of politically unconscionable acts. Setting aside the utter improbability that any such initiatives would become the law of the land, these claims have certainly scared the crap out of some people.
For the West (and a minority of Russians), the storyline has been that a pro-democracy movement—which strives for human rights, dignity, yoga pants, and all that jazz—overthrew a corrupt Ukrainian regime that was merely a puppet of Russia. For Russians (and a minority of Westerners), it’s been that an armed group illegally seized power in a right-wing coup with the support of neo-fascists.
The political arguments surrounding the events in Crimea are similar to what you’d expect from the average American online political discussion, even if most of the Hitler comparisons are written in Cyrillic.
This Man Claims Hitler Is Buried in Spain
Julio Barreiro Rivas is a Spanish sculptor, composer, writer, and historian living in Venezuela. The octogenarian was born in the Galician province of Pontevedra and since then has led a pretty interesting life: heading up a family band called Los Hijos de la Casa Grande, masterminding an alleged orgy island for senior Venezuelan military officers, and claiming to have met Hitler. In fact, Julio has an interesting theory about Hitler: He says that history’s most despised man never killed himself at all and actually died and is buried in a cemetery in Galicia, northwest Spain.
“This finding wouldn’t change Europe’s history; it would just modify it,” he told me modestly during a 30-minute international call. “People in Berlin and Russia know that Hitler and Eva were very unlikely to commit suicide one day after their wedding. Their friend Franco needed to compensate them for their favors in times of war, so he kept Hitler’s gold in Spain.”
Admittedly, there are a vast amount of holes in Julio’s story. Who are these “people in Berlin and Russia” who “know” for certain that Adolf and his lover would not have spent their honeymoon killing themselves? And how does he know that the former fascist dictator of Spain owed Hitler a favor? Still, Julio is committed to his tale and tells it with a burning intensity. When you speak to him, you get the feeling that this isn’t a prank, a joke, an attempt at being snide, or even some kind of artistic allegory. When I spoke with him, he genuinely seemed to believe what he was saying.
"Even more nonsensical is the story about their bodies being burned with gasoline in the chancellery garden," Julio continued. "Only those who would be truly interested in eradicating the memory of Hitler would believe it. That is, the Germans, who might believe it out of shame, and the Russians and the Americans, because they weren’t able to catch him.” Or just people who don’t really care about where exactly history’s most evil man is rotting. But Julio went on.
Image of the three-engine plane on which the Führer allegedly travelled to Galicia
“Hitler set off early in the morning of April 29th, 1945, aboard a three-engine airplane. He landed in a small village called Córneas, hidden amid the mountains of Lugo, where an escort from the Guardia Civil [the Spanish military police] and some donkeys carrying saddlebags full of gold bars and other relics were waiting for him. He headed for Samos, through the towns of Cebreiro, el Hospital, and Triacastela, where he would eventually meet a committee from Samos’s convent. I don’t think anyone can refute my theory, since I saw Hitler, alive and kicking, in the convent.”
No One Wants a Nazi Body Except These Shady Catholics
On October 11, Nazi war criminal Erich Priebke died. He was 100 years old and had been under a very lax state of house arrest at his lawyer’s apartment in Rome, serving out the final days of the life sentence he was given for orchestrating and conducting the Fosse Ardeatine massacre on March 24, 1944.
The ex-SS captain never expressed any kind of remorse for the 335 civilians and soldiers who were killed that day, always maintaining that he’d simply been following orders. Even in his “testament”—a seven-page message released by his lawyer last week—Priebke denied both the Holocaust and the Nazi gas chambers, claiming they were just “very big kitchens.”
While remarks like these have turned him into a kind of spirit animal for fascism fetishists and Nazi nostalgists, unsurprisingly Priebke remains widely despised. Argentina, where he lived for 50 years after the war, wouldn’t allow Priebke’s body to be returned to the country to be buried alongside his wife, and his German hometown of Hennigsdorf also shunnedhis corpse, fearing his grave would become a pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis.
Germany’s Blood-Drenched WWII Debt Could Save Greece’s Economy
Above: The rounding up of Jews in Thessaloniki in July of 1942. (Image via)
In early April of 1941, the German army defeated Greek forces along the country’s northern front. Where Greece had spent the previous winter in jubilation after successfully fending off the Italians, they now experienced existential horror at the inevitability of occupation by the Axis powers. The terror was so strong, in fact, that the prime minister shot himself just days before the Germans marched into Athens.
And the three-year occupation of Greece did indeed prove to be hell on Earth, most notably for the famine that wiped out more than 300,000 citizens, but also because it hosted some of the worst atrocities committed by German troops during the war. This included the raping and pillaging of villages, and the systematic execution of able-bodied men, and, in some cases, women and children.
The occupation of Greece tore the nation apart so much that when Axis powers left in 1944, the country soon broke out into a three-year civil war over the ensuing power vacuum.
Today, more than 70 years since the beginning of the occupation, Greeks and historians are pointing out that, aside from the question of unpaid reparations, Germany still owes Greece on two other counts: debt owed on a forced loan Germany took from Greece, and the returning of ancient artifacts stolen during the occupation.
Last April, Syriza, Greece’s second largest party, raised the issue with Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs Dimitris Avramopoulos. Avramopoulos agreed that the matter must be decided once and for all by an international court. It was the first time a Greek official had publicly made such an announcement.
Experts are estimating that, all told, Germany owes approximately €162 billion ($211.5 billion), including interest. However, the general accounting office in Greece refuses to make the number they’ve come up with public.
Please Kill Me – Among the War Pigs
It’s amazing to me how many real-life Spinal Tap moments I’ve had. This always leads me to ask myself, “Did that really happen, or was I so fucked up that I just imagined it?” You know, tramping around a backstage construction area with INXS, searching for the stage door for an hour before giving up. Watching a groupie’s face melt after finding out the opening band she’d just gangbanged wasn’t Danzig, the headliner. And my favorite, watching the Ramones demand that me and the staff at Punk magazine cross out, by hand, all reference to them as a punk band in their cover story. They just didn’t think the term was “accurate.”
This month, Black Sabbath released their new record 13, and it shot to number one in the UK after its first week of sales. Now remember, that’s 43 years since “Paranoid” went number one in 1970.
I’m also reminded that some of the dumbest metal moments—some of those Spinal Tap flashes—have landed among the most profound experiences of my life. I had one of those bizarrely significant experiences with Ozzy Osbourne in Nuremberg, Germany, in the same stadium where Leni Riefenstahl made her epic Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will.
I was traveling with Scorpions, a huge heavy metal phenomenon of the 1980s. They were so internationally famous that I had to wonder if the whole world had gone batshit crazy. Not that Scorpions sucked. Far from it—they were a decent band with some great songs, and they put on a fantastic show. It was the ratio of fame to talent that was a bit disproportionate, if not utterly ridiculous.
I Went to an Abandoned Nazi Ranch
My co-workers are always going to exotic places, doing dangerous things. I, on the other hand, rarely leave my desk. I don’t like heights, going swimming makes me immediately imagine drowning, and having to drive a car down a windy road makes my crotch sweat. My three biggest fears are impotence, accidentally eating mold, and Nazis. So, when approached to scope out a purported Nazi hideout in Los Angeles’s Rustic Canyon, I jumped at the opportunity to do something crazy for once.
I absolutely wish I hadn’t. Murphy Ranch, as it’s called, was built in 1933 by wealthy American Third Reichers, Winona and Norman Stephens to house a totally self-sustaining Nazi community. Nazi sympathizers engaged in military exercises, under the expectation that the war in Europe would inevitably spill over into the American mainland. That didn’t happen, and the ranch was abandoned. There seemed to be nothing to worry about, but if there’s one thing I can count on, it’s that I will find something worry about.
After driving to the end of a residential street, we reached the entrance to Camp Josepho, the current name for the recreational area where the ranch resides. A barrier stands guard to keep unauthorized vehicles off the camp’s trail. We ditched our car and began the hike into the canyon. We hit a fork in the road, and I left our bag of empty beer bottles on the ground as a marker in case we got completely lost, which I was sure we would.
If it wasn’t bad enough that we were walking in 90-degree heat through a goddamn forest, we found our path down into Murphy Ranch. A seemingly endless series of 500 poorly fashioned stairs appeared to be our only means of accessing the Nazi campground.
There were no guardrails, and each step was about as wide as half my foot. In my mind, an elaborate scenario played out in which I would slip, fall 50 feet, bump my head on every step on the way down, then be Medivac-ed out via helicopter, and having to live the rest of my life inside an iron lung.
The Greeks Just Won’t Stop Fighting and I’m Bored
It’s May 2010 and I’m sitting with my coworkers in front of the miniature TV we managed to get the IT guy to install in our office in Athens. We’re watching the news for updates on the bombing of Marfin Bank on Stadiou Street. No one in the office is doing any work. In fact, those in my department are the only people who showed up to work at all, since today marks one of the first in a series of national strikes.
Instead, we’re all crouching in front of the TV, which prompts my boss to shout from the door of her office, “Can someone tell me what could be so important that you guys have yet to post anything about Lady Gaga’s Armani costume for American Idol?” Bless her, she likes mixing her morning pills with a shot of whiskey.
One year later—October 2011—and I’ve flown to Athens from London with three VICE staffers to cover a two-day-long national strike for our series Teenage Riot. It’s boiling hot, the people are angry, and I’m an intern desperate for a job at VICE, so I spend the next couple of days running through protesting crowds and away from blocks of rock, clouds of tear gas, and flagpole-swinging communists. I have no idea how hanging out in the closet of Greek Vogue as a teenager led to this, but I’m loving it.
But now, I’m so fucking bored of it. Yesterday saw yet another national strike in Greece, one that was very similar to the one we filmed last year. The weather was perversely hot for mid-October, thousands of people gathered in Syntagma Square to protest a bunch of new austerity measures, Molotov cocktails were thrown in the air, and a man died.
I understand that should make me angry, but all it’s done is make me feel depressed and confused. It’s been three years since the bombing of Marfin Bank and, in these three years, I’ve managed to move from London to Athens, then back again, change jobs twice, go through a couple of boyfriends, drop acid at fashion week, and attend a few too many weddings.
The place where I come from, however, hasn’t changed one bit. It keeps burning itself to the ground, being refurbished, then burned down again. Every year, a little before the passing of new austerity measures, we hear that things are looking up—that the economy is back on track—only to then see bigger cuts to our parents’ pension cheques and a rise of support for the extremist right-wing party, Golden Dawn.
Is this madness ever going to end? And is protesting (read: rioting) really the best way to go about changing things?
Having fled to London just before the real shit hit the fan, I hardly feel like I have the right to pass judgement on a situation I only encounter on Christmas and during the summer holidays, so I called my friend Petros to chat about what’s going on.
VICE: Hey man. First of all, a guy died today and a guy died almost exactly one year ago.
Petros: That’s true. But the guy today died because of heart failure during the demo before any tear gas was thrown, which was what caused the death of that protester last year. Not that that makes things any better. Also, both guys were PAME (Communist front) members.
Spooky. What really upset me last year was how PAME was protesting alongside us on the first day, but turned against us by the second. My boss and I got chased by a group of men waving red flagpoles at us.
The thing with PAME is that they would always hold their own demos at completely separate times from the rest of us. So, when they announced they’d be joining in last year, that was a first. Everyone was surprised. After what happened, they announced that was the last time they were going to join in and just went back to their old way of doing things, which is meeting earlier than the rest of us, walking to the parliament, then walking right past it. That’s pretty much it. That’s what they did yesterday, too.
Members of PAME demonstrating.
So they pretty much censored themselves. What about far-right elements? What’s the presence of the Golden Dawn at demos these days?
Non-existent, or at least not obvious. Of course there must be far-right elements, but the larger sentiment is mostly liberal. In fact, a lot of yesterday’s chants were against the Golden Dawn or linking the Golden Dawn to the police. My two favorites are, “Let’s get together and kick the Nazis out of Parliament!” and “Beware, Beware. Golden Dawners in uniform!”
Hey, you know what’s a big re-emerging trend in Europe at the moment, besides the Cosby sweater and poverty? Fascism! I mean, it’s only the middle of July and so far we’ve seen nationalists playing football with anarchists’ heads in Poland, slapping women on Greek TV and crashing May Day and Gay Pride parties in Sweden and Bristol respectively.
The hacking/general mischief collective Anonymous is pretty ahead of the curve when it comes to scary fashions. Completely unfazed by the hotness of fascist women, a few months ago the group declared war against the many Nazi-loving websites that have begun to flood the internet, with something they calledOperation Blitzkrieg and later with a website dedicated to leaking fascists’ personal data called Nazileaks.
Finally, do you know who is very good friends with Anonymous? Alec Empire, of Atari Teenage Riot fame. And so, he interviewed one of the members of Anonymous involved in Nazileaks for us.
Take it away, Alec.