COSTA BOOK AWARD WINNER: BOOK OF THE YEAR * #1 SUNDAY TIMES (UK) BESTSELLER "Superbly written and breathtakingly researched, The Volunteer smuggles us into Auschwitz and shows us--as if watching a movie--the story of a Polish agent who infiltrated the infamous camp, organized a rebellion, and then snuck back out. ... Fairweather has dug up a story of incalculable value and delivered it to us in the most compelling prose I have read in a long time." --Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm and Tribe The incredible true story of a Polish resistance fighter's infiltration of Auschwitz to sabotage the camp from within, and his death-defying attempt to warn the Allies about the Nazis' plans for a "Final Solution" before it was too late. To uncover the fate of the thousands being interred at a mysterious Nazi camp on the border of the Reich, a thirty-nine-year-old Polish resistance fighter named Witold Pilecki volunteered for an audacious mission: assume a fake identity, intentionally get captured and sent to the new camp, and then report back to the underground on what had happened to his compatriots there. But gathering information was not his only task: he was to execute an attack from inside--where the Germans would least expect it. The name of the camp was Auschwitz. Over the next two and half years, Pilecki forged an underground army within Auschwitz that sabotaged facilities, assassinated Nazi informants and officers, and gathered evidence of terrifying abuse and mass murder. But as he pieced together the horrifying truth that the camp was to become the epicenter of Nazi plans to exterminate Europe's Jews, Pilecki realized he would have to risk his men, his life, and his family to warn the West before all was lost. To do so, meant attempting the impossible--an escape from Auschwitz itself. Completely erased from the historical record by Poland's post-war Communist government, Pilecki remains almost unknown to the world. Now, with exclusive access to previously hidden diaries, family and camp survivor accounts, and recently declassified files, Jack Fairweather offers an unflinching portrayal of survival, revenge and betrayal in mankind's darkest hour. And in uncovering the tragic outcome of Pilecki's mission, he reveals that its ultimate defeat originated not in Auschwitz or Berlin, but in London and Washington.
Finding conditions in Auschwitz even more horrific than he had expected, Pilecki nevertheless managed to set-up an underground network, and for the next two and a half years managed to obtain and smuggle out crucial information on the camp's operation to the Polish underground in Warsaw. He soon came to believe that only the disruption of an Allied bombing raid would enable at least some prisoners to escape: the extremely high death rate in the camp made the inevitable casualties amongst the prisoners a price worth paying, and the Polish government in exile pushed this point of view in London and Washington. But despite the growing urgency of Pilecki's reporting that Auschwitz and the neighbouring Birkenau had become the centre for the extermination of hundreds of thousands of Jews, and that the bombing was necessary to destroy the apparatus of that extermination, no action was taken by the Allies.
Incredibly, Pilecki escaped from Auschwitz in 1943 remaining a member of the resistance until the end of the war. He was eventually shot in 1948 after being convicted of treason in a Soviet-style show trial, after being interrogated and tortured more than 150 times.
This is a harrowing book, as can be imagined from its subject matter, and more than once I was tempted to put it down, but I am glad that I completed it. What stands out more than anything, is the heroism of Pilecki who risked his life time and time again to alert the world to the horrors of what was happening in Auschwitz. This story has apparently been known in Poland for some time, but Jack Fairweather's Costa Prize winning book is the first time that this story has been told in English.
This book was obtained through the Librarything Early Review program.
His story isn't too well known in America, or really outside of Poland I don't think. He's a story that everyone should know. The story of the man who gave up everything he had, to do his best to help destroy something that was destroying so many lives.
I do very much enjoy military history, especially WWII and the great generation, but often books focused on facts are slow reads and difficult to get through. Mr. Fairweather broke this common theme in this genre and wrote a book full of facts, but that reads like fiction. Fast and unable to put down. Highly recommended.
Opening in May 1940, Auschwitz was originally conceived as a concentration camp, and it's original prisoners were Polish criminals, quickly followed by Polish political prisoners, intellectuals, and Catholic priests, but few Jews. The first gassings began in September 1941, a year after Pilecki arrived in the camp, and it's first victims were Soviet prisoners of war. It wasn't until March 1942 that the first mass deportations of Jews arrived at Auschwitz, the same month women began arriving there. Pilecki was there to witness it all.
From the moment Pilecki arrived, his life was in danger, and he was subjected to violent abuse and illness. He began writing reports on the numbers and composition of prisoners, the layout of the camp, and any information he thought would be useful to an Allied attack, and had them smuggled out of the camp. He also began organizing resistance cells, with the ultimate goal of staging a mass breakout in conjunction with an attack. His decision to remain in the camp himself, despite opportunities to escape, is nothing short of heroic.
While Pilecki's story is fascinating and deserving to be told, the execution of a true account was problematic. The author had to rely on a few reports and diaries, collaborating historical documents, and general interviews with survivors. In order to craft a logical narrative, many assumptions had to be made. For a history buff, the lack of consistent evidence is frustrating, although understandable. At times, the shift between the third and first person perspective is jarring. Overall, however, the book is well-researched with extensive notes and bibliography. It is very readable and accessible, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the Holocaust and the Polish resistance.
To many of us in the Polish community the story of Witold Pilecki is a very well known story of resistance and heroism. The problem has been the story has never been well known outside of that community. Due to the Russian Occupation of Poland that
This excellently researched and written history of Witold Pilecki who volunteered to enter Auschwitz to gather intelligence and resistance is available in English at last. The Volunteer, researched and written by Jack Fairweather, is an excellent book, that shows how far the Poles went into their resistance. While French resistance is mythologised and over blown, the Polish resistance is rarely mentioned or avoided at best.
This is the true story of Witold Pilecki, who voluntarily got arrested by the Germans so that he would be sentenced to Auschwitz. Here he would organise acts of resistance and intelligence from the camp out to the wider world outside of Poland. Pilecki was a reserve army office, who had not been mobilised in the first wave, but had been called up just as the invasion began.
Like many of the soldiers he slowly fell back towards Warsaw, with each defeat, even though that Poles did hold out until October. From the beginning the Germans were executing Poles, and committed many war crimes against the civilian population, as well as those in uniform. It was when Pilecki met a fellow devasted officer her knew in Warsaw they resolved to set up a secret army to continue the fight.
With the Germans sweeping everything in front of them, Hitler had issued decrees for round ups for those groups, Jews, homosexuals, left-wing activists. They were all being sent to Auschwitz, and it would be Pilecki that would volunteer to be arrested and taken to the camp.
When the trainload of prisoners including Pilecki arrived at Auschwitz the guards beat them into the camp and shot others. It became clear that the Germans were intent on reducing all Poles to the state of an underclass known as the untermenschen. Life was brutal and hard and for many short. To ram this home the Germans on Christmas Eve installed a tree festooned with lights, but the presents piled underneath were the bodied of dead Poles.
It was Pilecki who found that trainloads of Jews were being taken to farmhouses in the woods and using converted farmhouses as gas chambers. At this time, he was unable to understand that this was the planned beginning of the extermination of Europe’s Jewish Population.
Pilecki remained loyal to the Government in Exile, in London and would later be arrested by the Russians. In May 1948, he was shot as a traitor to Poland after a show trial, by the Russians and their Communist friends. His papers and reports had been sealed by the Russians and the archives were sealed until the sixties but were still unavailable to the west until 1991.
He has been a hero in Poland, today his name should be known far wider. When the west allowed Russia to commit criminal acts and allowed them to suppress. Unlike in France, where the majority of the population collaborated with the Nazi Conquerors it suited the Western Allies, especially the French, to see these stories covered up.
The book finally shines a spotlight on a history some people wanted forgotten. Well done Jack Fairweather you have given light to a story of true heroism.
I thought The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather was excellent, especially considering that it was written based on diary entries and notes compiled by a man who had volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz. He would be able to tell the world what was
While I read the book and thought it was well written and fairly easy to read, it infuriated me because it revealed the terrible truth about both Nazis and the Allies. Pilecki risked his life every day; he could have been shot and killed at any moment for no reason. He did this so he could let the world know what was actually happening in Auschwitz and Nazi Germany so that the British and Americans would try to help these suffering people. However, this did not occur. Initially,they felt that what Wilecki said could not be true. Then later, they said they did not want to "divert resources from the war effort" to help in a rescue effort.
The Volunteer is well worth reading and I recommend it anyone who enjoys history and learning, particularly about The Holocaust. However, I found myself wondering about the Allies and their terrible treatment of the Jews during World War II.
Very good read if you are interested in WWII and such. It was very well written and reads almost like fiction, which for me was good as I’m not one for history-type books. I highly recommend this book.
It is hard to imagine, in hindsight, that at one point, Auschwitz was not synonymous with complete evil as it is today. When it was first set up, it was a concentration and work camp, yet even then, the Polish resistance understood that something more sinister was behind this secret camp. That’s where Pilecki was tapped to get himself arrested and to go undercover to report on what was happening and to build a resistance network in the camp.
Along the way, Fairweather describes how the Nazis slowly but steadily evolved the camp from its beginning as a prison of political prisoners to an extermination camp that dealt death at an industrial scale. He argues convincingly that even though allied leaders knew what was happening, they were kept by their own “genteel anti-Semitism” from doing anything about the camps. While it is always perilous to apply modern standards to previous eras, one is still stunned by the lack of concern for human beings.
I was amazed by Pilecki’s ability to keep his wits about him. Fairweather describes how the deliberate malnourishment and ever-present disease and encouragement of turncoats created a culture in the camps where no one could trust any fellow prisoner and where the German guards were feared with a paralyzing fear. The unequivocal evil of the guards who would sadistically beat, torture and murder prisoners on a whim—or less—was just stunning to me. Frequently I just had to shake my head as I realized that this was not a work of fiction—that men actually did this to their fellow man.
And yet, through all this, Fairweather shows glimpses of hope, caring, camaraderie, resistance, trust and even selfless acts of love among prisoners. These moments kept me afloat as I proceeded through the pages of evil. Fairweather didn’t use these examples and stories wantonly—rather they were used deliberately to create the environment in which Pilecki was living and trying to work. To leave them out would ultimately have done a disservice to him and others who actually survived and fought back.
While this is certainly not for the faint of heart, I would recommend it to someone who was interested in the story or understanding how the allies could have known and not done something. I had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau several years ago and I was moved by the experience. I was moved again by reading this book. I have seen the places described in the book.
We must remember so this never happens again. Fairweather has made a valuable contribution to the body of knowledge that helps us remember.
So what makes him interesting as a (compromised) resistance hero? Well, he is one of those ruling class heroes. Not the intellectual under-dog from a marginalised group who takes up arms with the ‘powers that be’. He rides to war as a cavalry officer of the Polish army charged with a clear sense of duty and patriotic fervour. His previous war with the Whites against Russia’s Reds gave Poland her right to be born again, and now this birth right needs to be protected. Again. He shares many of the convictions of the Polish elite – patriotic, anti-Bolshevik, anti-Semite, pro law and order. And a family man. But after a Blitzkrieg style defeat, Pilecki dives under the radar, cutting off his family life (though he stays with his sister-in-law in Warsaw) and enjoying life in the shades of a resistance movement. This is where already any writer about Pilecki becomes compromised or mired in contradictions – family man – no family man; uniting force for the politically and racially fractured landscape of resistance movements or splitter who remains true to his anti-Bolshevik and anti-Semite convictions? Fairweather opts for the former. Twice. His projected reader needs a steady, politically correct hero. And I know it is soo difficult to write about a morally oscillating, conflicted hero, when the readership wants a simple black and white, good guy-bad guy story. So Fairweather tries his level best, letting some doubts shine through. But he also decides to nurture his hero, the way his readership wants, which in the end sort of backfires – after the worst is over, Pilecki engages with another love in his life, does not re-unite with his family, hardly sees his kids, opts for the shades, does not link up with Jews, gets trapped by Soviet informers, convicted to death and not pardoned despite all kinds of calls to do so to former Auschwitz inmates like the Polish PM. Why? If he was such a good family man, if he was such a fighter against the holocaust? These all represent fascinating ingredients for a compromised hero story, and yet Fairweather only partially succeeds in doing that (my moral compass is partly informed by the use of ‘true story’ in the blurb – this is what publishers want, because they think it sells; my response is – ahh, probably a story with flat characters – not interesting. Fairweather let the publishers have their way completely by inserting true story in the title!).
And yet, the book is well written and provided with ample photographs of its protagonists and key places featuring in the narrative allowing the reader to identify with the characters as if being there, real life. Also plenty of maps are provided. Truly laudable gestures, which spice up the story.
Picking up the narrative – what Pilecki does after the Nazis and Soviets have invaded Poland, is to go under, working for a resistance organisation – going underground. There are so many of these resistance groups that it is hard to believe the Gestapo and NKVD were doing their jobs during the first year of occupation. At some stage Pilecki gets assigned to infiltrate a new concentration camp being established near Oswieçim, ostensibly to organise the resistance inside this camp (and to link up with two military hands of the underground that got picked up before). During one of the many razzias of Warsaw, he willingly gets arrested. This is when his ordeal starts. The writer, through the manuscripts of Pilecki plus own archival research entailing a wealth of testimonies and records from the camp’s administration, describes life and its horrors in the camp. This part compares well with other testimonies. It also bears out that despite the harsh behaviour of kapos and SS guards, the original camp regime was relatively mild compared to the part of the camp that was reserved for Soviet POWs and Jews (and certainly compared with the neighbouring Birkenau camp, construction of which only started by the end of 1941). Auschwitz proper is characterised by stone buildings of multiple floors (in contrast to the wooden barracked Birkenau), and surprisingly many inmates manage to escape or get released (!). Soon Pilecki has a widely spread network of inmates (and German kapos) working for the resistance, countering the natural inclination of inmates to snitch and pry on others as a survival strategy, with the principle of solidarity and taking care of each other. The latter of course is laudable though incredibly hard to achieve. Saving a crust of bread out of one’s mouth and sharing that with someone who has turned Muselmann (the extremely hungry, who rock back and forth as if in prayer – hence Muselmann) takes quite some strength. However, the network thus built is widespread, with members in all parts of the camp (hospital, kitchen, administration, out-going work parties).
Initially its aim is two-fold: (1) record what happens in the camp and get that information to the outside world in order to elicit a response from the Allies against Nazi atrocities; (2) prepare for an armed rising and break-out, destroying the camp facilities. Both aims give purpose to life and gain in urgency over time, as the atrocities turn increasingly horrific. Pilecki barely survives two serious bouts of illness. After each illness, he is shifted to a work detail that allows recuperation (either outside the camp; or in the kitchen; and ultimately in the carpentry workshop which operates under a pretty benevolent and lenient regime). The resistance movement is successful in getting messages out to either Warsaw or all the way to the Polish government in exile in London. And thus it is able to report on increasing numbers of deaths, changes in killing methods (the first group that gets gassed using Zyklon B concerns Soviet POWs), and the change in real purpose of the camp (from work camp for Polish inhabitants and, later, Soviet POWs, to extermination camp for Jews). The Allies response to these messages is invariably the same – they do not consider bombing the camp a priority in their war effort, discredit the figures on number of people killed and methods of killing, and are lukewarm towards providing the Jews of Poland, or anywhere else, with an exit by allowing more refugees in their home countries. On the second count of their objectives, an armed rising, the camp underground is unsuccessful. This is the cause of much frustration on Pilecki’s part.
As the camp’s regime tightens (more SS staff, stricter punishment of deviant behaviour) the chances for a successful revolt diminish. Pilecki knows their only chance lies in a combined rising with support from the underground outside the camp. The latter he will not get (possibly because Poles do not rise for Jews?). So by April 1943, Pilecki decides to escape and lobby for outside help himself. Together with two other inmates, Pilecki makes his way out, starts pleading with the Warsaw underground and fails to garner support for a rising. Meanwhile the camp underground withers away. Pilecki resigns himself to writing more reports. And in 1944 he gets involved in the Warsaw rising fighting in vain, escaping to Italy, returning to Soviet ruled Poland, occasionally meeting his wife (and kids), continuing his work for the underground. And then he gets caught in 1947, convicted for being a traitor in a show trial, after being subjected to lengthy torture compared to which Auschwitz was a kindergarten (his own words). He is convicted to death and executed with a neck shot. End of story. Oblivion. Pilecki’s story is partly revealed in 1975 in a book called ‘Fighting Auschwitz’, but the real story is only reconstructed after the 1989 opening of state archives in Warsaw. A first biography is published in 2000. But since it is all in Polish, it takes time to trickle-down to the rest of the world.
Witold's story was virtually lost for 50 years mostly because the Communists that took over Poland after World War II considered him a traitor because he had opposed the Russians when they entered Poland. The author, Jack Fairweather, is a journalist who has reported on wars in the Middle East but it was a conversation with a journalist friend that sent him on the search for Witold Pilecki. It took him five years during which time he tracked down Witold's reports, diaries, and even some compatriots. There are numerous pictures and maps in the book so it does feel like a piece of journalism where the illustrations help explain the story. And like a good journalist Fairweather mostly lets the facts speak for themselves but I'm sure most people reading this would be horrified and appalled that the Allies did not act on Witold's intelligence. It reminded me so much of General Romeo Dallaire's account of the Rwandan genocide 50 years after World War II which showed how the UN ignored the fact of the genocide until it was too late. And of course the present Russian incursion into the Ukraine has a lot of parallels with the Nazi war-mongering and brutality. At least now, with modern communications, it is not as possible to hide war crimes. Hopefully we have learned some lessons from our failures in the 20th century.