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When someone wants to tell you how to live, tell them about the late Kazimierz Piechowski

If you aspire to any influence on the way our country develops you might find a trip to Auschwitz useful.

Depressing, chilling and unsettling too.

What is the limit, the outer boundary on collective human behaviour?

What are we capable of?

Auschwitz helped me understand at least those questions a little better.

Germany's socialists came to power through the workers party and unions.

I say took power because it was always about the exercise of power over other people - it was never about leadership.

Auschwitz will tell you about the capabilities ordinary workers have within them, capabilities to do what they're told by power-weilding people.

Kazimierz Piechowski was a living link to those times.  His innate driving force always pushed hard in the direction of freedom.

Germany's socialists and Russia's communists all tried to break him but couldn't.  

Freedom won.

Vale Kazimierz Piechowski.


Auschwitz escapee Kazimierz Piechowski has died

The infamous German inscription that reads 'Work Makes Free' at the main gate of the Auschwitz I extermination camp. Picture: Getty
  • The Times

Every prisoner at Auschwitz dreamt of escaping. Many hatched plans, some made attempts, almost all failed and paid the ultimate price. Of the handful who succeeded, one stands out not only for his courage but also for his sheer, breathtaking audacity.

Kazimierz Piechowski’s escape plan was simplicity itself. He would dress up in an SS officer’s uniform and drive out of the camp in the commandant’s car.

For this to work he needed a little help and a lot of luck. Prisoners tended to work in groups – known as “blocks” — of about 20. Because Piechowski knew that ten prisoners from the same “block” would be executed for every one who attempted to escape, he decided to create a “fake block” of four workers, himself included.

On June 20, 1942, the four pulled a cart containing kitchen waste towards the “inner” entrance gate, the one across which the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei sign was arched. Piechowski, a German speaker, told the guard that they were Rollwagenkommando (haulage detail). It was not true, but he hoped that the guard would not bother to confirm this by checking his duty list. They were able to walk freely out of the main camp and towards the storage building near the “outer” entrance gate. This they entered via a trap door covering a coal chute that Piechowski, who worked in the storerooms, had earlier unbolted from the inside. They then broke into the room on the second floor where the SS officers’ uniforms were kept. As one of the prisoners was a mechanic who helped to repair the camp’s staff cars, he had been able to make a copy of a garage key. They used this to break in and steal the Steyr 220 convertible belonging to Rudolf Hoss, the commandant of Auschwitz.

As they drove towards the outer gate they realised, to their horror, that the guards were not lifting the barrier as they approached. Piechowski had hoped they would take one look at the commandant’s car and wave them through.

Their mouths dry, their hearts thumping, they came to a halt. Time stood still. Then, with not a little chutzpah, Piechowski leant out of the car wearing the SS-Untersturmfuhrer’s uniform that he had stolen and shouted: “Wake up, you buggers! Open up or I’ll open you up!” Shocked, one of the guards scrambled to raise the barrier and, as the car swept past, he saluted.

Keeping clear of the main roads, they drove for two hours, heading for the town of Wadowice. There they abandoned the car and continued on foot, sleeping in the forest and taking turns to keep watch. Once he was back home, Piechowski joined the Polish resistance. The furious commandant, meanwhile, introduced a policy of tattooing inmates with their prison numbers, so that future escapees might be more easily identified.

“Some people tell the story that once we were free we sent Hoss a postcard thanking him for letting us use the car,” Piechowski said many years later. “The truth is we did nothing of the sort.”

Born the son of a railwayman in Tczew, Poland, in 1919, Kazimierz Piechowski had a happy childhood, spending his free time playing bows and arrows with his two brothers or swimming with them in the River Vistula. At the age of ten he joined the boy scouts. Unfortunately, when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939 this marked him out as a potential subversive. “Four days after they arrived in Tczew, they started shooting the scouts,” he recalled. Among those rounded up and killed were some of his childhood friends. “I knew that, sooner or later, I would also be killed,” he said. “So I decided to run away.”

He attempted to get to France to join the Polish army, but was caught crossing the border to Hungary. In June 1940 he was part of the second batch of 313 prisoners to be sent to the newly opened Auschwitz. He was given the number 918. He was soon assigned to the Leichenkommando, where his duties included carrying the bodies of those who had been executed to the crematoria, between 20 and 100 a day.

After the war he attended the Gdansk University of Technology and became an engineer, and then found work in Pomerania, only to be denounced to the communist authorities for being a member of the Home Army, as the Polish resistance was known, and sentenced to ten years in prison.

Upon his release he resumed his work as an engineer until he retired, after which he spent as much time as he could travelling the world with Iga, his wife. He wrote two books and was the subject of two documentaries.

In 2009 the British singer Katy Carr released a song about Piechowski called Kommander’s Car.

Kazimierz Piechowski, Holocaust survivor, was born on October 3, 1919. He died on December 15, 2017, aged 98

The Times