Today in History: The Daring Escape Artist Quartet From Auschwitz
On June 20, 1942, Kazimierz Piechowski and three others, dressed as German guards, stole a car and became four of only 144 prisoners to escape Auschwitz successfully.
Kazimierz Piechowski, also known as Kazik, was born in the town of Tczew. Growing up, he was a member of the Boy Scouts, a nationwide Polish organization focused on patriotism, brotherhood, and bravery. When the Germans occupied Poland in 1939, they singled out Poland's Boy Scouts as a dangerous organization, considering it a symbol of nationalism and conspiratorial resistance.
It was common practice for Germans to round up the Scouts and shoot them in the street. Seeing this happen to many of his friends, nineteen-year-old Piechowski attempted to flee to France but was captured at the Hungarian border. After spending eight months in various prisons, he was sent to Auschwitz.
Piechowski recounted his story in an interview with The Guardian. He was among the second transport at the camp, so he worked 12-15 hours daily on the camp's construction. He then worked for six weeks, carrying the corpses of executed men, women, and children and bringing them to the crematorium.
Piechowski did not think about escaping the camp, primarily because the guards made it very clear they would kill ten other prisoners for every person who escaped. But that changed when someone with access to the prison records informed him that his mechanic friend, Eugeniusz Bender, was on the list to be killed.
He recounts, "When I thought that they would put Gienek [Bendera] against the wall of death and shoot him, I had to start thinking."
His mechanic friend had access to cars, and Piechowski was working at the shop block, where uniforms and ammunition were stored. A plan was hatched.
Piechowski recruited another scout, Stanisław Gustaw Jaster, and a priest Józef Lempart, so they had four people. This was important because they formed a fake work group to throw the guards off, requiring a minimum of four people.
On the day of the escape, the four prisoners headed to the infamous "Arbeit Macht Frei" gate at the camp's entrance carrying a garbage truck with kitchen waste. When the guard questioned them, Piechowski informed the guard they were in the garbage collection unit and they were allowed through. There was still one more heavily guarded gate the men needed to pass through to reach their freedom.
Their next stop was the store block, where Piechowski had unscrewed a latch earlier that day, allowing them entry. Once inside, the prisoners had access to the officers' uniforms and arms.
In the meantime, Bendera went to get the fastest car, a Steyr 202, from the garage with a copied key. They required the quickest car to give them a chance at getting away if they were chased. The four men piled into the car, driving toward the main gate.
Piechowski recounts, "We are driving towards the final barrier, but it is closed . . . We have 80m to go. It is still closed . . . 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 as Piechowski stared blankly ahead, not knowing what to do, he felt a blow on his shoulder. It was Lempart. "He whispered: 'Kazik, do something.' "This was the most dramatic moment. I started shouting." Fortunately, the SS guards obeyed, and the car drove to freedom.
The men drove on forest roads for two hours. Then, they abandoned the car and continued on foot. Ultimately, Piechowski and Bendera spent time in Ukraine before Piechowski decided to return to Poland. He joined the partisan Polish Home Army and spent the rest of the war fighting the Nazis.
Unfortunately, Piechowski's trials did not end there. He was sentenced to 10 years for joining the Home Army when Poland became a communist state in 1947. He served seven of those years before being released. "When I finally came out of prison, I was 33 years old. I thought, 'They have taken away my whole youth – all my young years.'"
Many attribute the subsequent practice of tattooing prisoners to the escape of these four men. Jaster's parents were arrested and murdered in Auschwitz in retaliation as well.
Piechowski wrote two books about his experiences and made it his mission to ensure no one forgets the Auschwitz horrors. He died on December 15, 2017, in Gdansk, Poland, at 98.