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The Auschwitz Volunteer: Why Would Someone Choose to Go to a Concentration Camp?

The most important tool available to you is your mind. This is true whether we are talking about survival, or thriving in a post-corona world. In many cases, just surviving is determined by a person’s mindset, and their will to survive no matter what. Witold Pilecki clearly demonstrated how one can use a survival mindset to overcome and even thrive in the most dire circumstances. Pilecki was an officer in the Polish resistance, who in 1940, volunteered to be captured by the Germans in order to be sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Following the Nazi takover of Poland, Pilecki noted that the resistance and the Allied forces had little reporting coming from the new concentration camps the Nazis had established, so he hatched up a plan to be caught up in a street roundup in Warsaw, Poland, then to be held as a political prisoner in Auschwitz. When he first arrived in Auschwitz, the SS guards told him that the conditions in the camp were designed so that prisoners would survive no more than six weeks, if they were not killed sooner. Having brought no tools into the camp besides his mind, Pilecki survived for three years in the camp, passing up multiple opportunities to be released or to escape. During this time, he built up an underground network of supporters who passed communications into and out of the camp, and prepared plans to rise up, and take over the camp as soon as they received the order from the Polish Resistance.

During his time in Auschwitz, Pilecki disseminated multiple reports out of the camp, where he described the atrocities that were occurring inside. He also managed to gain the favor of certain guards in order to place himself and others in his organization into favorable work details, and organized a complex system for his group to steal food and supplies, which was then distributed among the members of his organization. Pilecki recounted the way the Nazis killed prisoners by gunshot to the head, lethal injection, gas, beatings, cold, starvation, work to exhaustion, diseases, and countless other ways. Pilecki noted that when prisoners gave up hope or their purpose for living they soon left Auschwitz “up the chimney of the crematorium.'' Pilecki survived for so long under those harsh conditions because he kept focused on his mission. In fact, in his 1945 report Pilecki recounted that at times he even enjoyed his time in Auschwitz, because his work in the camp was so valuable and fulfilling. While Pilecki passed up multiple opportunities to escape, he constantly searched out new escape routes and made escape plans. He passed off some of these plans to other prisoners, through whom he sent reports out of the camp. Eventually, Pilecki concluded there was no more he could do in the camp, and chose to escape in 1943. He then joined back up with the resistance, where he continued to fight against the Nazis for the rest of the war.

Pilecki serves as the perfect example of how one’s mind is a critical tool for survival in the worst of conditions. While others become overcome by fear, feelings of hopelessness, and lack of a reason to go on, those who direct the power of their mind will find ways to overcome any situation. If the meaning of your life boils down to eating, sleeping, and purchasing toilet paper, you will not create value in the post-COVID-19 world. You need to focus on your "why". In Pilecki’s case, it was to gather intelligence from the camp to inform his commanders and organize a resistance. You will have your own “why”, and that “why” must be bigger than the obstacles you will face. Everyone’s “why” is different. Some look to religion, others to their loved ones, while still others hold to a mission that drives them. Find your reason to thrive, and let that be your driving force to get you through any adversity.

Beyond merely surviving, the point of a resilient mind is to thrive with adversity. We will always face challenges, setbacks, and failures. Our mental fortitude will help us to bounce back from these obstacles, and come out stronger in the end. Just as with physical resilience, we need to exercise our minds to become more resilient. We need challenges to grow. We need a support system to help us get through tough times. We need to be able to rest and recover before we face our next challenge.

The COVID-19 pandemic will create challenges for months or years to come. Think about your personal situation. What challenges will you or your loved ones face in the future? Your challenge may be providing for your family during prolonged periods of unemployment. Your challenge may be loss of freedom to pursue your own goals. Your challenge could be security from looters, or criminals, as law enforcement agencies will be unable to protect everyone. Whatever your individual challenges may be, think about your "why", and how you can use your mind to overcome your challenges to become even stronger. By thriving in the midst of your individual challenges, you will create value that will make a difference to the whole world.

To learn more about Witold Pilecki, read The Auschwitz Volunteer, which documents his experiences during his three years in the concentration camp.

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