The Polish experience of confronting two totalitarian regimes is a vital part of world memory. However, the Polish voice is barely heard in international discussions on the history of the twentieth century. Translations of source texts are few and far between, the achievements of Polish science and culture are sometimes overlooked, and blatant errors appear in public statements about the role of Poland in World War II.
Depositions made before the Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland – one of the largest collections of civilian testimonies from Nazi-occupied Europe – have long remained unknown to foreign researchers and creators of culture. The personal accounts of thousands of Polish citizens paint a terrifying picture of German terror in occupied Poland. It is high time for these voices to sound in Poland and all over the world.
Founded in 2016, the Witold Pilecki Center for Totalitarian Studies pursues interdisciplinary research and reflection on the Polish experience of confronting two totalitarian regimes in the twentieth century.
We document German and Soviet crimes by gathering testimonies of victims, their families and loved ones. We support scholarship, publish primary sources and their translations, foster international academic exchange, and carry on publishing and educational activities. We work to both inspire and promote the most interesting artistic and cultural productions related to the history and experience of totalitarianism.
Material gathered by the Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland and its legal successors reflects the fate of victims of the German occupation of Poland. We plan to launch an online digital repository comprising witness interview reports of Polish citizens who testified before the Commission after the war. For the first time, their testimonies will reach a wide audience, facilitating the discovery of personal and local histories, and inspiring scholars, journalists and creators of culture. Thanks to their translation into English, they will also inform international academic knowledge about the German occupation of Poland and perpetuate the memory of victims of totalitarianism.
The Second World War began in 1939 with a consecutive attack on Poland by Germany and the Soviet Union. Poland was the first country to take up arms against two totalitarian systems: Nazism and Communism. As a consequence, Polish territory became the site of mass murder perpetrated by both totalitarian regimes.
The Germans carried out their plan of exterminating Jews – Polish citizens and those deported from other parts of Europe – on Polish soil. They systematically murdered the Polish intelligentsia, and in 1944 condemned a whole city – Warsaw – to death. The Soviets, meanwhile, persecuted “enemies of the people,” organizing mass deportations to the East. In 1940, in Katyn and other places, they executed over 20,000 Polish officers and members of the intelligentsia. Millions of people were displaced or deported to concentration camps, the GULAG and forced labor camps. Inhumane living conditions under German and Soviet occupation deprived many of the chance to survive.
From 1939 to 1945, between 5.6 and 5.8 million Polish citizens were killed. Half of that number are victims of the Holocaust. The end of the war did not bring longed-for freedom, but almost half a century of Communist oppression.
Can we, people of the twentieth century, dare look those who lived before us in the face and – funny thing – claim our superiority, since it is in our age that a military mass annihilates not an enemy army, but whole nations, defenseless societies, using the latest achievements of technology?
Witold Pilecki was born in 1901. Before the war, he managed his family estate in Poland’s Eastern Borderlands. When the Second Polish Republic collapsed under the blows of totalitarian foes, he immediately joined the underground resistance. He was deported to Auschwitz in 1940 of his own accord, with the consent of his commanders. He stayed there for over two and a half years, organizing a secret network and sending reports to the Polish underground on conditions and the situation in the camp as well as on the annihilation of the Jews.
After his daring escape from Auschwitz, Pilecki worked for the Home Army’s Directorate for Sabotage and Diversion (Kedyw). In 1944, he took part in the Warsaw Uprising and, upon its defeat, was captured and deported to Germany. In 1945, he returned to Poland, now controlled by the Communists, as an emissary of General Władysław Anders, tasked with setting up an intelligence network. Arrested in 1947 by the Secret Police, he was brutally tortured during interrogations and sentenced to death in a show trial. He was executed on 26 May 1948.
Cavalry Captain Witold Pilecki (1901-1948) challenged two totalitarian systems: Nazism and Communism, and became a victim of both. He personifies the best of patriotism, courage, love of freedom, and solidarity with those persecuted – all being universal values shared by people across the globe and fundamental to the Western tradition. The family of Witold Pilecki – Zofia Pilecka-Optułowicz, Andrzej Pilecki, and Prof. Edward Radwański and his wife – have kindly granted the Center for Totalitarian Studies the privilege of being named after him.