From The Daily Telegraph 20 December.
Kazimierz Piechowski, who has died aged 98, escaped from Auschwitz dressed as an SS officer in a staff car stolen from the concentration camp’s commandant, in one of the most audacious exploits of the Second World War.
Piechowski arrived at Auschwitz in 1940 aged 20 having been arrested trying to get out of his native Poland following the German Occupation. “We were only the second transportation to the camp and we had to help build it,” he recalled in an interview with The Guardian 70 years later. “For the first three months we were all in complete shock.”
They were given a spoon and bowl, in which they were expected to urinate at night as well as to eat from. “If you lost your spoon, you ate from the bowl like a dog. If you lost your bowl, that was it: you did not get any soup.”
Starvation and torture were commonplace. Guards would snatch off a prisoner’s cap, tell him to fetch it and then shoot him as he ran, claiming they had foiled an escape so as to get three days holiday. Piechowski, who spoke German, was attached to the Leichenkommando which disposed of corpses.
He recalled naked prisoners being whipped to their execution. “The death wall was between Blocks 10 and 11. They would line prisoners up and shoot them in the back of the head.” Piechowski would put the bodies on a cart and take them to the crematorium.
“Sometimes it was 20 a day, sometimes it was a hundred … Men, women and children.”
Prisoners were used as clerks and in 1942, a friend, Gienek Bendera, a Ukrainian mechanic, learnt that he was to be executed. With two others, Jozef Lempart, a priest, and Stanislaw Jaster, a soldier, Piechowski made an escape plan and on June 20, a Saturday, when the guards stopped work at midday, put it into action.
Pushing a rubbish cart through the main Arbeit macht frei gate, the four walked towards a storeroom where Piechowski had earlier removed a bolt locking the coal chute. Once inside, they dressed in SS uniforms and took weapons. In the meantime, Bendera used a key to the garage to get the powerful Steyr 220 belonging to the camp commandant Rudolf Höss.
“It had to be fast,” said Piechowski, “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 had vowed to shoot themselves rather than be captured. “We didn’t want to kill any Germans because the retribution would be horrific.”
They drove through the camp but were unsure if they needed documents to get past the final barrier. As they neared, it was still down. “We have 60m to go and it is still closed. I look at my friend Gienek – he has sweat on his brow and his face is white and nervous. We have 20m to go and it is still closed.” Bendera stopped the car and Lempart urgently whispered to Piechowski, who was in the front in a lieutenant’s uniform, to do something.
“Wake up, you buggers!” he shouted in German. “Open up or I’ll open you up!” Alarmed, the guard made haste to raise the barrier and the car roared through to freedom. They drove for about 40 miles before splitting up.
“Eventually we knew we would have to abandon the car … When that happened, I took two steps and said goodbye to the car, my friend.” Although stories that they sent a postcard to Höss were untrue, their escape understandably embarrassed the Germans, who held an inquiry. As a result, they began to tattoo numbers on to prisoners at Auschwitz.
By way of reprisal, Jaster’s parents were incarcerated in the camp, where they perished. Although he was glad to learn that the guards who had let him escape were not shot but only sent to the Russian Front, Piechowski himself suffered from flashbacks and nightmares – in which SS men chased him with dogs – for the rest of his life.
Some 144 people managed to escape from the camp during the war, mainly from worksites outside the wire. Although Piechowski was not recaptured after his escape, his troubles were not at an end. He made his way to Ukraine, but anti-Polish feeling forced him to return to Tczew, where he worked on a farm and joined the Home Army, the Resistance.
When the war ended, he qualified as an engineer at Gdansk University of Technology. He was denounced, however, to the Communists for having been in the Underground and was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. He was released after seven. “I was 33 years old. I thought: ‘They have taken away my whole youth – all my young years.’ ”
Full obituary with photographs.
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The life and times of the Greatest Generation, the heroes (British and Allies) of WWII.