On 20 June 1942, the SS guard stationed at the exit to Auschwitz was frightened. In front of him was the car of Rudolph Höss, the commandant of the infamous concentration camp. Inside were four armed SS men, one of whom – an Untersturmführer, or second lieutenant, was shouting and swearing at him.
“Wake up, you buggers!” the officer screamed in German. “Open up or I’ll open you up!” Terrified, the guard scrambled to raise the barrier, allowing the powerful motor to pass through and drive away.
Yet had he looked closer, the guard would have noticed something strange: the men were sweating and ashen-faced with fear. For far from being Nazis, the men were Polish prisoners in stolen uniforms and a misappropriated car, who had just made one of the most audacious escapes in the history of Auschwitz. And the architect of the plot, the second lieutenant, was a boy scout, to whom the association’s motto “Be prepared” had become a lifeline.
Kazimierz Piechowski born October 3, 1919 Rajkowy, Poland) is a retired engineer, a Boy Scout during the Second Polish Republic, a political prisoner of the German Nazis at Auschwitz concentration camp, a soldier in the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa) then a prisoner for seven years of the communist government of Poland. He is known for his famous escape from Auschwitz I along with three other prisoners dressed as members of the SS-Totenkopfverbände, fully armed in a stolen SS staff car, in which they drove out the main gate—”a universally acclaimed… [feat] of exceptional courage and gallantry”, in the words of Kazimierz Smoleń.
After the collapse of Polish resistance to the German invasion, Piechowski along with fellow boy scout Alfons “Alki” Kiprowski (b. 9 October 1921) were captured by the German occupiers in their hometown of Tczew and impressed into a work gang clearing the destroyed sections of the railway bridge over the Vistula, which had previously been blown up by the Polish military to impede Nazi transports. Polish Boy Scouts were among the groups targeted by the Gestapo and the Selbstschutz. They decided to leave Tczew on November 12, 1939 and attempted to get to France to join thefree 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 inSanok 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, the so-called Legionsgaenger, one wishing to join Polish military formations—or “legions”—abroad. Moreover, the Polish Boy Scouts were labeled a criminal organization in Occupied Poland. Piechowski was among a transport of 313 Polish deportees to Auschwitz on 20 June 1940: it was only the second transport after the initial one from Tarnów. Among this Tarnów group was another Pole who would escape in an SS uniform: Edward Galinski. Galinski’s escape was short-lived.
Piechowski received inmate number 918. He credits Kapo Otto Küsel (inmate number 2)—one of the original 30 German deportees from Sachsenhausen—with his survival by assigning him lighter work. Piechowski was in the Leichenkommando, assigned to bringing corpses to the crematorium, including those shot at the “Black Wall” by SS-Rapportfuhrer Gerhard Arno Palitzsch. Piechowski was present when Polish priest and fellow Auschwitz prisoner Maximilian Kolbe offered to exchange places with a fellow Pole who was among a group of ten sentenced to be starved to death. The sentence was in retribution for a perceived escape attempt of a prisoner.
Steyr 220, similar to car used in the escape
He also had access to the list of upcoming executions, and when he checked it once he saw that his friend, Eugeniusz Bendera, was going to be executed. So both of them and 1 more man planned an escape plan. So on Saturday morning of 20 June 1942 told his camp leader along with his two inmates, that they were assigned to throw away the waste. Later they decided to go to a storage closet, grab three German uniforms, and escape.
On the Saturday morning of 20 June 1942, exactly two years after his arrival, Piechowski escaped from Auschwitz I along with two other Poles, Stanisław Gustaw Jaster (b. 1921; inmate number 6438), veteran of Invasion of Poland in rank of first lieutenant from Warsaw;Józef Lempart (b. 1916; inmate number 3419), a priest from Wadowice; and Ukrainian Eugeniusz Bendera (b. 1906; inmate number 8502), an auto mechanic from Czortków, Ukraine. Piechowski had the best knowledge of the German language within the group, and held the command of the party.
They left through the main Auschwitz camp through the Arbeit Macht Frei gate. They had taken a cart and passed themselves off as a Rollwagenkommando—”haulage detail”—a work group which consisted of between four and twelve inmates pulling a freight cart instead of horses.
Bendera went to the motorpool; Piechowski, Lempart, and Jaster went to the warehouse in which the uniforms and weapons were stored. They entered via a coal bunker which Piechowski had helped fill. He had removed a bolt from the lid so it wouldn’t self latch when closed.
Once in the building they broke into the room containing the uniforms and weapons, arming themselves with four machine-guns and eight grenades. Bendera arrived in a Steyr 220 sedan (saloon) car belonging to SS-Hauptsturmführer Paul Kreuzmann, license number SS-20868. As a mechanic he was often allowed to test drive cars around the camp.
He entered the building and changed into SS uniform like the others. They then all entered the car: Bendera driving; Piechowski in the front passenger seat; Lempart and Jaster in the back. Bendera drove toward the main gate. Jaster carried a report that Witold Pilecki (deliberately imprisoned in Auschwitz to prepare intelligence about the Holocaust and who would not escape until 1943) had written for Armia Krajowa’s headquarters. When they approached the gate they became nervous as it had not opened. Lempart hit Piechowski in the back and told him to do something. With the car stopped, he opened the door and leaned out enough for the guard to see his rank insignia and yelled at him to open the gate. The gate opened and the four drove off.
After the escape
The prisoners abandoned the stolen escape vehicle in the vicinity of Maków Podhalański, at a distance of some 60 kilometres (37 mi) from the camp.Kazimierz Piechowski eventually made his way to Ukraine, but was unable to find refuge there due to anti-Polish sentiment. Forging documents and a false name, he returned to Poland to live in Tczew, where he had been captured. He soon found work doing manual labor on a nearby farm, where he made contact with the Home Army and took up arms against the Nazis within the units of 2nd Lt. Adam Kusz nom de guerre Garbaty (one of the so-called “Cursed soldiers”).
His parents were arrested by the Nazis in reprisal for his escape, and died in Auschwitz; the policy of tattooing prisoners was also allegedly introduced in response to his escape. Piechowski learned after the War from his boy-scout friend Alfons Kiprowski, who remained a prisoner at Auschwitz for some three more months after his escape, that a special investigative commission arrived at Auschwitz from Berlin to answer—independently of the camp’s administration—the question as to how an escape as audacious as Piechowski’s and his companions’ was at all possible.
After the war he attended the Gdańsk University of Technology and became an engineer, and then found work in Pomerania. He was denounced to the communist authorities for being a member of the Home Army and sentenced to 10 years in prison; he served 7. At the end of his sentence, he was 33; he reports thinking, “They have taken away my whole youth—all my young years.” Thereafter he worked as an engineer for the communist government for some decades.
After the democratic transition, he declined the Order of the White Eagle when Maciej Płażyński tried to award it to him, politely (but also enigmatically) replying, “I do not feel that this honour is owed to me”. In 1989 he sold land he owned near Gdańsk and travelled with his wife to various parts of the world, visiting over 60 countries. In 2006 Piechowski was named an honorary citizen of the city of Tczew with which he has had a longstanding association (as his pre-War hometown).
Likewise in 2006 Kazimierz ‘Kazik’ Piechowski was the subject of the 56-minute-long documentary film Uciekinier (“Man on the Run”) produced by Marek Tomasz Pawłowski and Małgorzata Walczak, which won several international awards. In 2009 the British singer Katy Carr released a song about Piechowski under the title “Kommander’s Car”; while 2012 saw another documentary on the subject directed by British filmmaker Hannah Lovell, the 26-minute Kazik and the Kommander’s Car (to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the escape). Kazik currently lives in Gdańsk, Poland.