On the morning of December 15th, 2017 the sad news about the passing of Kazimierz Piechowski was made known to us. We were studying in the archives at the time when his family had contacted the museum to deliver the news to which we were present. Upon hearing the announcement, we felt compelled to revisit his incredible story of bravery and honour in the face of extreme adversity.
Piechowski escaped Auschwitz with 3 other prisoners by stealing the car of commandant Rudolf Höss. After stealing SS uniforms, they bravely made their escape from the camp into relative freedom.
Kazimierz Piechowski was born on 13th October 1919 in Rajkowy, Poland.
After the collapse of Polish resistance to the German invasion, Piechowski and his friend decided to leave their hometown 12th November 1939 and attempted to get to France to join the free Polish Army. While crossing the border into Hungary they were caught by a German patrol. They were first sent to a Gestapo prison in Baligrod. They were told by the Gestapo: Actually, we should shoot you, but we have for you something much more interesting. They were sent to a prison in Sanok next, then to Montelupich Prison in Kraków. Their last stop before Auschwitz was a prison in Wiśnicz.
Piechowski was sent to Auschwitz as a political prisoner in the second transport on 20th June 1940. His prisoner number was 918.
They took us there so we could build the blocks, barracks and the roads. It was a tough work, and that year was a bloody one in Auschwitz.
He was also assigned to transport the bodies of the dead prisoners to the crematoria:
It was a horrible task ... Thank God I worked there only six weeks, otherwise I would end myself.
He started planning the escape for four in 1942, after learning his friend Eugeniusz Bendera (number 8502) was on the list of people to be executed.
This thought came to my head, I can win this if I base on how stupid the Nazis are. I teased the fact that the Germans thought they were so much better than everyone and that the stupid prisoners can't come up with nothing creative. They thought all we want is to find a potato and to eat it. So I decided to escape through the very main gate.
Man, I said to myself, you can leave this place as a member of a fake work unit! It can be Rollwagenkommando! This is how you respect the commandant's orders! You are not escaping from a real block or a real kommando! Now you know! Let's get down to work now – from the book by Kazimierz Piechowski – I was a number...
Piechowski decided that four prisoners should escape as the smallest work units consisted only of four people.
The second prisoner was Eugeniusz Bendera – prisoner number 8502 who was deported to Auschwitz on 9th January 1941. His friends told him he was on the list of the people to be executed and that became the reason for the escape.
Third person was Stanisław Jaster – prisoner 6438. This is how Piechowski described him: He worked in the warehouse. He was a young boy from Warsaw, so fierce. He was a bad boy in the best meaning of this word.
The fourth prisoner to escape was Józef Lempart – prisoner 3419. He was a priest from Wadowice. As a result of his escape, his parents were deported to Auschwitz. His mother died in Birkenau.
This is how Piechowski described his escape:
The four of us took the cart and made our way to the Arbeit macht Frei gate. I was wearing the badge of the Vorarbeiter – the overseer. We were lucky enough as the guard (the loser) did not check if our work unit exists. He let us through. We made it to the garage. Gieniek stayed there, and we entered the warehouse and got the uniforms and the guns. I put the uniform on (...) Gienek took the car and stopped it by the warehouse. He took his hat off, reported just like a prisoner should. He was being observed by the guard on the guard tower but he did not react at all - I was wearing the uniform after all. Gienek entered the building, changed into a uniform, and we loaded the weapon in the truck.
As we took the first turn, one of the SS saluted us. We kept going. We saw the barrier. Both of the SS-men there had guns. We still have 200m to go. The barrier is still down. One hundred meters. The barrier is still down. I was so worried. 50 meters, 20 meters. The barrier is down! Gienek changes the gear and slows down. (...) Then the priest hit me in my back, and said -Do something, Kazek! I woke up. I opened the door and I started shouting at the guard. He did not do anything. So I left the car, put the hand on my gun. Then he jumped, he put the barrier up. That's all we have been waiting for. We left.
Piechowski and his friends had to split shortly after the escape. Kazimierz joined the Home Army, where he fought until the war finished. Then he was imprisoned fo seven years by the Soviets. He was not able to tell his story until 1989.
The camp administration started to look for a scape goat to punish due to the escape. Some SS-men working in the camp were blamed for it, and one of them – Kurt Pachala – was sentenced to be killed due to starvation in 1943. Most of Auschwitz prisoners were happy with the fact as he was sadistic and cruel. He had nothing to do with the escape, though.
Lempart survived the German occupation but died in the car accident in 1947. Bendera moved to Warsaw and lived there until his death in 1970s. The biggest controversy surrounds Stanisław Jaster who was killed by the Polish resistance in 1943 for cooperating with Gestapo and the Nazis. However, Piechowski defended him his whole life. Both of Jaster's parents were deported to Auschwitz as a result of his escape. His mother died in Birkenau in 1943.
Sources used in the article are courtesy of Kazimierz Piechowski, 'Byłem numerem'
Written by Iga Bunalska and Michael Challoner