Sometimes, we come across news that humbles us, filling our thoughts with gratitude and introspection.
Such was the case with the passing of Kazimierz Piechowski last month.
When he was a young man, he embodied the “A Scout is Brave” point of the Scout Law while facing imminent death.
Piechowski was a Polish Boy Scout; at 19, he was captured and imprisoned at the Auschwitz concentration camp, where about 1.1 million people died during World War II. Poland’s Boy Scouts were targeted and killed by the Third Reich because it was feared the Scouts would help start an uprising against Nazi Germany. They were right, but before Piechowski could join any resistance, he had to first escape one of the predominant sites of The Holocaust.
War breaks out
The Polish Scouting program began in 1911, but its focus shifted to the war effort during the First World War. After the war, the organization regrouped and worked on rebuilding the homeland. Piechowski joined the Scouts when he was 10.
“I joined because I was patriotic,” he told The Guardian. “And when I arrived home, my mother was crying a little bit and said to me: ‘I am so happy you are on the right way.'”
Nine years later, Nazi Germany invaded Poland.
“They started shooting the Scouts,” Piechowski recalled.
He witnessed his friends being rounded up and killed, so he decided to flee. He tried to make it to France, but was captured near the Hungarian border. Piechowski was taken from prison camp to prison camp before finally arriving at Auschwitz, where he became “Prisoner 918.”
‘Hell of death’
Piechowski was assigned to a work crew at the camp, slogging in the elements, starving and trying to conserve his energy, so he could survive another day. He was often charged with loading carts with corpses to haul to a crematorium.
“When I recall working in this hell of death, I can still feel it,” he said in the 2007 Polish documentary Uciekinier (The Runaway).
Fortunately, Piechowski was later assigned to work in a storehouse across the street from the camp. It was there, he noticed a room that stored SS uniforms and weapons.
His friend, Eugeniusz Bendera, learned he was to be executed and urged Piechowski to help him concoct an escape plan. They recruited Jozef Lempart, a priest, and Stanisław Gustaw Jaster, who was also a Scout.
On June 20, 1942, the four went over their plan, prayed and agreed to take their own lives if their escape failed. They grabbed a wagon full of garbage and convinced a guard to allow them through a gate.
They ditched the wagon and headed to the garage. Bendera, a car mechanic, identified the commandant’s vehicle that they would use to escape. The other three jumped through a coal hatch, rushed through the underground hallways and broke into the storeroom – heading straight for the room that housed the uniforms and guns. Using a crowbar, they pried that door open, put on the Nazi uniforms and grabbed firearms and ammunition.
They marched outside where Bendera had brought the car around. Bendera put on his uniform and the four began driving, Piechowski in the front seat.
It was a relatively smooth drive as SS officers they passed failed to recognize them, simply raising their arms to greet them with a “Heil Hitler!”
When they approached the final gate, the SS officer didn’t open it for them until Piechowski opened the car door, flashed the rank insignia and ordered the officer to let the vehicle through. He did, and the men were free.
After the war
The four men went their separate ways after fleeing Auschwitz; news of their escape gave hope to the prisoners still there.
Piechowski later joined the Polish Home Army to fight the Nazis. After the war, he studied to be an engineer, but communist authorities sentenced him to 10 years in prison for fighting with the Home Army, which they viewed as dissidents to their rule. He served seven and was released at age 33, taking a job with the communist government.
After the communist party dissolved in Poland in the late 1980s, Piechowski traveled the world with his wife, Iga. Although he was still haunted by his experiences, he continued to share his story with students and other groups.
“I am a Scout, so I have to do my duty — and be cheerful and merry,” Piechowski said. “And I will be a Scout to the end of my life.”
Piechowski passed away at age 98 on Dec. 15 in Gdansk, Poland.
Hat tip: Thanks to John Novack for sharing Piechowski’s obituary with us, which appeared in the Washington Post.