PACIM (Polish American Cultural Institute of Minnesota) sent me an unsolicited e-mail announcing the showing of the Death of Captain Pilecki at a small neighborhood movie theater. It piqued my interest. Little did I know by attending that I would be drawn by its message to act. Prior to and after the showing, Marek Probosz spoke and took questions. He was also available for photos. Even though I did not meet him, his passion and dedication to expose the heroic life story of Witold Pilecki was selfless and impressive. It was there that I also learned of the book “The Auschwitz Volunteer”.
I ordered the book that afternoon and read it over the course of two weeks.
As I related the story of Pilecki to family and friends, it did not take me long to realize that, at 77 years of age, I had devoted little time studying my heritage, Poland’s painful history, and the price we paid as a people to gain our independence and control of our destiny. Our own (US) national events leading to the destruction of symbols (statues) and attempts to expunge and re-write the history of America moved me to think about how I could “institutionalize” my Polish heritage, so that it would not be forgotten by later generations of Polish descendants. Also, the story and the unsung heroism of Witold Pilecki, his resistance during WWII and his voluntary Auschwitz imprisonment had to be told. The tragedy of the holocaust, the elimination of 3 million Polish Jews, 1.9 million non-Polish Jews, and 140,000 sent to Auschwitz with 70,000 killed, is all part of our fabric.
What could I do to leave that legacy? I thought back to my upbringing and the importance my Polish parents placed on education. Mom and Dad experienced the challenges of being raised by immigrant non-English-speaking parents. (The language barrier made it nearly impossible to have a grandparent/child relationship). They wanted an easier life for my sister and me and worked hard to save to provide us educational opportunities. For me, it meant St. Thomas Military Academy (now St. Thomas Academy) in St. Paul, Minnesota. A small private Catholic high school established in 1885 grounded on four pillars – Catholic, College Preparatory, Military leadership, and all boys. My four years of academic, religious, military leadership and discipline gave me the skill set and character development that formed my adult life.
I had found the answer — our family would establish an endowed Polish Heritage Scholarship at St. Thomas Academy. It is called the Witold Pilecki Polish Heritage Scholarship. It is merit based with the requirement that those applying be validated as at least 50% Polish descent, additionally applicants must read “The Auschwitz Volunteer” or listen to the audiobook “The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery” (“A historical document of the greatest importance” — The New York Times) from Audible.com performed by Marek Probosz, and submit a book report on either one, culminating with an interview before a select academy committee. The first recipient is to be selected, as a sophomore, for the ‘23-‘24 academic year. The scholarship is subject to renewal annually through the Senior year. As fate would have it, May 25, 2023, is the 75th anniversary of the execution of Witold by the Russian regime established in Poland.
Clearly, the anniversary could not go unrecognized. For me, it was a spiritual moment and one that was to be. My thoughts quickly returned to my experience of viewing The Death of Captain Pilecki. Would it be possible to make contact with Marek Probosz to share with him my journey and ask his interest in being part of it? I got busy making e-mail contacts and referrals. To my surprise, within a 10–14-day period, contact was made, and an e-mail response was received from Marek. He understood the historical significance of May 25, 1948, my desire to leave a meaningful legacy honoring Witold, Polish heritage and the untold story. We have since shared thoughts and ideas. He has agreed to be an active partner in announcing the scholarship and the first recipient for the 2023 school year — 75 years after the execution of Witold Pilecki, accompanied by the screening of the movie “The Death of Captain Pilecki” followed by the Q & A with Probosz.
— W. W. Bendarczyk