On June 20, 1942, a Steyr 220 sedan rolled out of the gates of Auschwitz, the notorious extermination camp in Poland.
In the sedan were four men, apparently members of the SS-Totenkopfverbande, or “Deaths Head” units, SS soldiers charged with administering the camps.
What seemed to be a routine jaunt by four Nazis was in fact an incredible escape from the infamous killing factory–an escape right in front of the camp itself.
Kazimierz Piechowski was a captured Polish resistance fighter who had bounced around different Gestapo camps doing forced labor. In fact, he was merely a teen Boy Scout–apparently the Polish Boy Scouts were considered a resistance movement by the Germans, thus targeted by the SS and the Gestapo. He arrived at Auschwitz as a political prisoner (not marked for extermination) in June of 1940, where he was assigned to carry corpses to the crematoria.
On June 20, 1942, Piechowski led three other prisoners in an escape attempt: Stanisław Gustaw Jaster, a Polish army officer, Józef Lempart, a priest from Wadowice (which was the hometown of Pope John Paul II, so they may have known each other), and Eugeniusz Bendera, a Ukrainian mechanic in charge of vehicles on the camp lot.
They first go through the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei gate (“Work will set you free“) disguised as a haulage detail pulling a cart. Then Piechowski, Jaster and Lempart went to a warehouse where they stashed uniforms, machine guns and grenades, while Bendera went to the motorpool to fetch appropriate transportation. When Bendera showed up with the car, he casually went into the warehouse and put on his SS “uniform.” The four then go to the car, with Bendera driving. Piechowski was in the front passenger seat, as he had the best working knowledge of German. As they approached the gate, the doors wouldn’t open. Nervously, Piechowski opened the door enough so his SS rank insignia was showing, and barked orders in German to open the gate.
The gate opened, and the four drove off, never to return to Auschwitz.
The Nazis subsequently hauled Piechowski’s parents to Auschwitz in reprisal, where they died. They even convened a special investigation in Berlin to see how such a brazen escape was possible. It is believed that after the Piechowski escape, inmate numbers were tattooed on arms to better identify runaways.
Piechowski himself continued in the Polish resistance, and became an engineer after the war. He even served 7 years in a Communist labor camp for his alleged anti-Communist role in the resistance–which was more than double the time he spent imprisoned by the Nazis. After the Cold War, he quietly retired and refused all honors bestowed on him.
Bendera, according to Piechowski, was the real mastermind, as he conceptualized the plan and the logistics. He would live in Poland until his death in 1970. Lempart, the priest, would leave the priesthood, marry and raise a family before getting hit by a bus in Wadowice in 1971. Jaster’s end remains a mystery: a book claims that he collaborated with the Nazis and was executed by the resistance in 1943. It has since been refuted as lacking evidence, and is believed Jaster died in Gestapo activity sometime in the fall of 1943–the circumstances are still unclear.
Attached is the 2006 Polish documentary Uciekinier (“Man on the Run”), an award-winning film about the escape.