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The Volunteer: A Soldier Himself, Illegal Army and Secret Mission to Destroy Auschwitz (excerpt)

We can now read “The Volunteer” by Jack Fairweather – winner of the Costa Award for 2019. A remarkable and thoroughly documented book that had to be written. The book was published by Kolibri Publishing House.

The “volunteer” translated by Ventsislav K. Venkov takes us back to 1940, when the former cavalry officer Witold Pilecki was arrested by the German authorities and sent to a concentration camp on the outskirts of Auschwitz.

The purpose of the mission: to inform the Polish resistance and the Polish government in exile, and through it – the allies of the anti-Hitler coalition – about the massacres of the camps and the gradual transformation of the Auschwitz camp into an epicenter of the extermination of European Jewry. After a stay of two and a half years, however, Pilecki came to the conclusion that in order to push the West to action, he would have to do the impossible – to escape from Auschwitz.

Completely erased from history and executed in 1948 by the post-war Polish pro-communist government, Pilecki remains almost unknown to the general world. His archive and the ciphers with which it was encrypted by Pilecki were returned to his son Andrzej only after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Oxford graduate Jack Fairweather was born in 1978 in Wales. He served as a military correspondent with British troops in Iraq in 2003, and later covered the war in Afghanistan for the Washington Post. Having gained access to a number of archives on both sides of the Atlantic, the author offers the first in-depth and detailed documented study of the life of Witold Pilecki.

For The Volunteer, Fairweather won one of Britain’s most prestigious literary awards, the Costa Prize, founded in 1971 by Whitbread Breweries and now named after the world-famous café chain. The total prize fund “Costa” amounts to 60,000 British pounds.

The Volunteer (excerpt)

He who loves very much does much. He who does good does much. But he who serves the community does a lot before he conforms to his own interests. / Toma Kempijski /


Trucks with roaring engines stop at the entrance. Screams and shots are heard. The house manager knocks on the door:

“The Germans have come.” Hide in the basement if you want, or get out through the back garden.

The man in the room does not move. The action takes place at dawn on September 19, 1940 in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. The Germans invaded Poland the previous year, and World War II broke out in Europe. Hitler has yet to announce his plans to exterminate the Jews. For now, his goal is to ruin Poland by eliminating its professional class.

The country has been subjected to brutal terror. Thousands of Poles – doctors, teachers, writers, lawyers, Jews and Catholics – were arrested in the streets and subsequently shot or interned. In June, the Germans opened a new concentration camp for some of the prisoners. The name of the camp is “Auschwitz”, but it is almost unknown what is going on inside it.

The man in the apartment was informed in advance about the morning chase and the probability that those who got into it would be sent to the camp. And that’s exactly why he’s here now. His goal is to infiltrate the camp as a member of the resistance, to create illegal nuclei, and to gather evidence of Nazi crimes committed there. Someone kicks open the front door of the block and steps echo on the concrete stairs. The man puts on his coat when he notices that a three-year-old boy, lying in bed, has dropped his teddy bear on the floor from the next room. The Germans are already knocking on the door and shouting. The man bends down and hands the teddy bear to the child, while the mother opens it to the Germans.

“See you soon,” he whispers to the child. Then, contrary to all his instincts, he is allowed to be arrested.

“Witold Pilecki became a voluntary prisoner at Auschwitz.” This very concise summary of a human story marked the beginning of my five-year study, in which I traced the steps of a man from an amateur farmer in rural Poland to an illegal activist in occupied Warsaw, to a slave in a horse-drawn carriage to a concentration camp and to a spy at the epicenter. the great Nazi evil. I studied Witold in great detail. But I never cease to return to the simple initial sentence and to the moment when he expected the Germans to invade his quarters, not ceasing to think about what his story could tell us about our time.

My friend Matt McAllister first mentioned the Witold case to me over dinner on Long Island in the fall of 2011. Matt and I served together as reporters during the wars in the Middle East and tried to find some meaning in it. which we had witnessed.

In his typical straightforward style, Matt had gone specifically to Auschwitz to get a direct impression of the greatest evil in history, and there he had learned about the group of resistance fighters Witold led in the camp itself.

During that dinner, we both found some confidence in the thought that, despite their small numbers, a few dared to oppose the Nazis.

At the same time, however, I was struck by how little is known about Witold’s mission to warn the West of Nazi atrocities and to create an illegal army to destroy the camp.

Some of the events became clear to me a year later, when the English translation of Witold’s longest report on the camp came out. The story of the release of this report is remarkable in itself. The Polish historian Józef Garlinski, who gained access to the document in the 1960s, found that Witold had coded all the names he mentioned.

Garlinsky managed to find some of them, and found others through interviews with surviving concentration camp inmates, and subsequently published the first history of the resistance movement in the camp. In 1991, Adam Saira, a researcher at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, discovered Witold’s unpublished memoirs, his second report, and other fragmented writings that had been locked up in Polish archives since 1948. Among these materials was the key to identified Witold co-conspirators.

From a report I read in 2012, I became convinced of how conscious a chronicler Witold was of his own experiences at Auschwitz, which he described in his harsh, insistent prose. Still, the description in front of me remained torn, and in places distorted.

Fearing that he would expose his colleagues and expose them to the risk of arrest, he did not record individual critical episodes, spared us his destructive observations, and carefully placed events in a framework understandable to the military who would read what was written. It leaves unanswered a number of questions, the most critical and unclear of which are: What happened to the intelligence that Witold obtained at Auschwitz at the risk of his life?

Did he manage to provide the British and Americans with information about the Holocaust long before they publicly acknowledged the role of the camp? Were his reports covered up? How many lives would have been saved if his warnings had been heeded?

For me, this whole story turned out to be a personal challenge: I was the same age as Witold was at the outbreak of the war; like him, I had a young family and a home. What was it that prompted Witold to take all the risk associated with such a mission, and why did his whole approach as a volunteer seem so compelling to me?

I sensed in Witold the same anxiety that had made me join the war, and it has not given me peace since. Could Witold teach me something about my own efforts to understand life?

I flew to Warsaw in January 2016 and started looking for answers to these questions. At first I wanted to meet Witold’s son Andrzej. Before the meeting, I was very worried. By what right do I, the stranger, suddenly plunge into his father’s past? Andrzej was very young, almost a child, when Witold was executed. For fifty years he was taught that his father was an enemy of the state, and he, Andrzej, although he did not believe, discovered the whole truth about his father’s mission only in the 1990s, after the opening of communist archives. My worries, of course, were in vain. Andrzej turned out to be an extremely pleasant and fascinating interlocutor, despite the fact that he warned me from the very beginning:

“I’m not sure what else you’ll be able to find or where to start your search.”

“From you,” I said.

When so little is known about a person, every detail Andrzej mentions matters. To me, Witold’s thinking was what he had left in writing, and only people like Andrzej could explain to me what Witold meant. I was also struck by the large number of people still alive who knew Witold. Some of them had not shared their memories so far, either because they were afraid to do so with the Communists or because no one had asked them.

In addition to collecting testimonies from the living, I also wanted to personally recreate Witold’s life path. Despite the enormous damage from the war, some places still existed, and for me the most important of them was the apartment where Witold was detained. My personal impressions of the different places would be especially valuable to me in describing the specific events.

And even more important would be the opportunity to hear the experiences of the witnesses. It turned out that the former three-year-old boy Marek, who used to live in the apartment, was still alive. He and his mother, Witold’s sister-in-law, survived the war but were expelled from their homes by the Communists. Marek and I made our first visit to their former home in seventy years. The visit reminded us of the teddy bear case, and to me it was an eloquent example of Witold’s ability to look beyond himself, even in times of extreme stress.

I realized, of course, that I would need hundreds — if not thousands — of such details to write the book. And where exactly I will find them became clear to me during my visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. There are more than 3,500 testimonies of surviving concentration camp inmates; hundreds of them shed light on Witold’s activities or describe events he witnessed.

So far, most of them have not been translated or published. This is exactly the kind of material I needed to make Witold’s reactions clearer to me, and that was my goal, too, to understand his thinking and begin to find an answer to the question of what made him resist.

Holocaust researchers quickly came to the conclusion that it was not only the killing of millions of innocent Europeans, but also the collective refusal to recognize and counter this horror. Allied officials made an effort to weed out the truth, but once they came face to face with reality, they did not dare to take the moral leap that would have prompted them to take action.

However, the failure was not only political. Even the Auschwitz prisoners themselves found it difficult to imagine the scale of the Holocaust as the Germans turned the brutal prison camp into a death factory. And they succumb to the human tendency to ignore, justify, or deny massacres as a phenomenon unrelated to their struggle. But not Witold. In contrast, he risks his life to shed light on the horrors of the concentration camp.

In the course of my research, I sought to find out exactly what qualities distinguished Witold from those around him. But in the process of finding more of his writings and in my meetings with people who knew him, and in a few isolated cases – and who fought alongside him – I found that perhaps the most remarkable thing about Witold Pilecki – a farmer and approaching his fortieth birthday, a father of two without any particular success in the service and without piety – is how little he was different from you and me at the very beginning of the war. Accordingly, this finding raised a new question: What prompted this indistinguishable man to expand his moral capacity to uncover, point to, and oppose the greatest Nazi crimes while others around him turned their heads?

I present here his case as a provocative new chapter in the history of Auschwitz and an attempt to realize how a man who risked everything to help his neighbors found himself.

Charlotte, 2020

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