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.
This Day in History 11/9: The Fall of the Berlin Wall
The announcement of our winner of “History’s Greatest A**hole” contest will have to wait, as Mr. D needs to wax nostalgic about today’s anniversary.
Twenty years ago today, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall, the most visible and hated symbol of the Cold War, came tumbling down as the East German government flung open its borders. The opening of the Wall was the beginning of the end for Communism in Eastern Europe, as (mostly) peaceful revolutions swept across the continent, bringing down regime after regime until the great bear itself, the Soviet Union, dissolved in 1991.
Today, most kids have never even heard of the word Communism or anything like a Cold War. Yet try to be a child seeing these events unfold. For my generation, those that witnessed the end of an era, we couldn’t even believe it was happening.
For most of our lives, we thought that the great conflict between East and West, the Cold War, the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union had reached a meandering stalemate that could last forever. If the rivalry did heat up, it was usually every four years during the Olympic Games.
I was a precocious kid, and even at that age a rabid anti-Communist. Most of my friends used words like “Commie” and “Russkie” pretty casually, but I knew the evil they contained. When Katerina Witt of East Germany won the gold medal in figure skating in 1988, I left the room. I screamed at my parents that I refused to listen to an anthem from a Communist dictatorship. No one booed louder when Nickolai Volkoff sang the Soviet national anthem before wrestling for the WWF (now WWE).
Christ, I made Alex P. Keaton look like Nancy Pelosi.
Yet even I, the great red-baiter that I was, had the inevitable shrug most had when confronting the Soviet menace. They were there, and they we there to stay. As long as they don’t move from where they are, and no sneaky stuff with Typhoon submarines, then I guess we can coexist. It was even a buzzword of the Brezhnev-era Kremlin: “peaceful coexistence.”
Then I heard about what was happening in Poland. Yes, I was a wierd kid: the Solidarity movement of Lech Walesa fascinated me.
I mean, here was a situation that, to a true lover of Marx and Lenin, made absolutely no sense: a “worker’s republic” refusing to let a group of shipyard workers from Gdansk organize into a labor union. A labor union is the crux of all Communist ideology, and it was turned on its head as Solidarity formed to combat unfair conditions laid down by Warsaw’s Soviet satellite regime. The authorities fought back brutally, enforcing martial law from 1981-1982. Yet the movement survived, and it worked to undermine, and eventually destroy, the Polish dictatorship.
The Polish revolution worked because of a gap in the Soviet clinch on power. By the 1980s, the Soviets were in economic freefall, and badly needed Western capital and technology just to keep up. Thus, Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev began a program of gradual liberalization of the economy (perestroika) followed by a loosening of the authoritarian political landscape (glasnost). On top of this, Moscow basically allowed its satellites to do what they wanted. There would be no repeat of the crackdowns of years past–this time the Red Army will not interfere.
The result was a flood of anger and resentment. Reform movements were going on all over Eastern Europe, mostly among grassroots groups looking for bread-and-butter changes: better housing, higher wages, better working conditions, etc. The people’s republics simply grew so stagnant that they were completely divorced from the reality of the people, and rebels like Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa were considered heroes.
Yet we never thought that wall would ever come down. And it did, thanks to massive demonstrations, public media attention, and an East German government willing to say “enough is enough”, and replace the autocratic Erich Honecker with the more pliant Egon Krenz, who summarily threw open the borders to allow East Germans free access to the west. That hated wall, that son-of-a-bitch wall finally came down.
As with most things, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism seemed inevitable now. Today, we are still dealing with the aftereffects of the Revolutions of 1989, both good and bad. But for kids like me, who never thought it was going to happen, the Berlin Wall was a moment we could never forget. Like the clamoring hordes in Boston in the 1770’s, no one was silencing the will of the people anymore.
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