6. Simon Gronowski
Simon Gronowski, a young Jewish boy from Belgium, was just 11 years old when he and his mother were shoved into a cattle car headed for Auschwitz. Simon’s father had escaped from the Nazis, and the young boy was determined to join him. A group of men in the cattle car managed to force open the door of the moving train, and Simon jumped out.
The train slowed, and when shots rang out in his direction, Simon raced for the forest. He spent the entire night stumbling through woods and fields. Eventually, he found a village, where he knocked on one of the doors and met a woman who brought him to the local police.
The policeman, Jan Aerts, suspected that Simon had escaped a Nazi transport and decided to help him. He gave Simon food and clean clothes and put him on a train to Brussels, where his father lived. Simon reunited with his father, and they survived the war in hiding with Catholic families.
Tragically, Simon’s mother, Chana, and his sister, Ita, were murdered in Auschwitz. Simon settled in Brussels after the war, became a lawyer and jazz musician, and later married and had a family.
For 50 years, he rarely spoke about his wartime experiences. Then he agreed to write a book. He also began speaking at schools, urging children to protect freedom and work for peace in their country.
5. Witold Pilecki
Witold Pilecki has the distinction of almost certainly being the only person to volunteer for Auschwitz and then escape from it. He was a 39-year-old Polish war veteran who fought against the Nazis and joined the Polish resistance.
After hearing horrific accounts about Auschwitz, the resistance decided that they needed to send someone to the camp to gather information. Pilecki volunteered. Using an alias, he allowed himself to be arrested in 1940.
Pilecki remained in Auschwitz for three years. He gathered information and secretly composed three reports about life in the camp, including its transition from a prison to an extermination camp. He also managed to arrange a resistance network of more than 500 inmates inside Auschwitz, which he called the Union of Military Organization.
In April 1943, Pilecki decided to plan an escape in the hopes of persuading the Polish resistance to launch an attack on the camp. On April 26, he and two other inmates were working in the bakery, which was outside the camp. When the SS guard wasn’t paying attention, they managed to get outside and run away.
Pilecki made it back to Warsaw but failed to convince the resistance to attack Auschwitz. He participated in the Warsaw Uprising, after which he was arrested by the Nazis and taken to a prisoner-of-war camp.
Pilecki was liberated by the US Army in April 1945. Soon after, he joined the II Polish Corps in Italy as an intelligence officer. In 1947, he was arrested by Polish communist authorities, interrogated, and tortured. He was later given a show trial and executed by the communist regime.
To this day, his burial place remains unknown, although it is suspected to be in Warsaw’s Powazki Military Cemetery.