A volunteer’s journey to hell and back
A review of The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero Who Infiltrated Auschwitz. By: Jack Fairweather. Publisher: WH Allen / Penguin Random House, London, United Kingdom.
At the end of September this year, the European Parliament voted through a proposal to establish May 25th as the International day of heroes who fought against totalitarianism – this date marks the execution day of Witold Pilecki in 1947 by the communist regime in Poland. Until recently, few outside of Poland had heard of this name. Even within Poland, this man’s extraordinary story only really began to be told after 1989 with the fall of communism, and only in recent years has it entered the mainstream Polish historical narrative.
Pilecki was a man who volunteered to become a prisoner at the Nazi-German Auschwitz camp in the quest for the horrific truth of what was taking place there. In September of 1940, 37-year-old Captain Witold Pilecki, a Polish underground resistance fighter, volunteered to be arrested by the Gestapo in order to infiltrate the concentration camp, the place which would later become the centre of the Holocaust. His mission was ambitious: to enter Auschwitz, gather intelligence on the fate of those being interred at the camp, report on the Nazi crimes taking place and form a resistance movement to stage an uprising.
Uncovering the story
Pilecki spent two and half years as a prisoner at Auschwitz, escaping in April 1943 and taking part in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, ending up as POW in Murnau. He chose to return to Poland after the war despite advice to emigrate, owing to his involvement with the Polish underground state, which was considered a rival to the Soviet imposed communist government. Continuing his resistance work in the post-war anti-communist underground, Pilecki was arrested by the secret police (Urząd Bezpieczeństwa), put on a public show trial for crimes including espionage for the western powers, forgery of documents and planning an assassination. He was executed in 1947, and to this day his burial place is unknown. Taking into consideration his exceptional war-time activity, it is surprising that it has taken so long for his story to enter the wider narrative of the Second World War. However, he has finally found his narrator in Jack Fairweather – a former war correspondent for the Washington Post and Daily Telegraph.
Fairweather and his team of researchers have left no stone unturned in uncovering the story of this little known, but incredible individual. In his new book The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero who Infiltrated Auschwitz, Fairweather presents a detailed account of a man who risked his freedom, family and own life in order to enter the Auschwitz concentration camp, otherwise known as hell on earth. Purposefully arrested in Warsaw during an SS-organised round up on September 19th 1940, Pilecki was beginning his mission to gather intelligence on Germany’s concentration camp located at Auschwitz in the Polish city of Oświęcim. In 1940, little was known about the precise activities of the camp, and at the suggestion that someone could infiltrate the camp in order to set up a line of communication from the inside, Pilecki put himself forward.
Married with two children, this was not a light decision. Pilecki recognised that in taking on this mission he could potentially never see his family again. He did not tell his wife, Maria, the full details in order to protect her, but she knew that his decision meant he was putting his country first above everything else. Arriving at Auschwitz on the night of September 21st in an over-packed freight car, Pilecki was met with shouting and men with angry dogs and sticks as he and the other prisoners were ordered to vacate the carriages. The reality of the brutal violence and inhumanity which characterised the concentration camp was becoming more apparent, as the SS were shooting those who dared to escape, even if prompted to do so by the guards themselves. In the fear and chaos that was taking place, Pilecki barely realised the barbed wire fencing and the gate under which he was passing upon which included the chilling phrase, Arbeit macht frei (Work sets you free). The way to this freedom was soon made apparent to Pilecki at the camp roll call in the coming days when SS Hauptsturmführer, Karl Fritzch, told the prisoners: “Look there at the chimney … This is the crematory. Three thousand degrees of heat. The chimney is your only way to freedom.”
Fairweather succeeds in presenting an extremely detailed and sobering account of Pilecki’s two and a half years at Auschwitz. Using a range of material from the Auschwitz archives, recently declassified files, as well as Pilecki’s own family papers and unpublished accounts from camp inmates, the extent of the camp’s resistance movement, which was set up by Pilecki, unfolds to the reader. In his aim to alert the Polish underground in Warsaw, and subsequently the Allies, about the reality of what was taking place in Auschwitz, Pilecki turned to prisoners destined for early release to smuggle out information. Those who planned their escape from the camp were also entrusted with important information, statistics and in some cases written reports to pass on to underground state officials in Warsaw. Witnessing the horrors of the camp, Pilecki urged the Allies to bomb the camp, as he believed this would give the prisoners the best chance of staging an uprising. He was aware that staging an uprising with no support from the Allies would only end in mass casualties and risked reprisal against all the prisoners. However, these requests were repeatedly ignored and dismissed by the Allies.
Despite the fact that at every moment there was a risk of being beaten by a Kapo or even just killed for the entertainment of an SS officer, Pilecki managed to build up a network of cells across the camp which were able to collate information on the role of the camp in the wider German war plan. This included information on the crematorium death toll, reporting on the arrival and extermination of Soviet prisoners, the beginning of experiments on prisoners, the building of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the scale of Jewish prisoners to this new section of the camp. Fairweather explains that the numbers were not always accurate in the reports, and a full understanding of the purpose of the camp was not entirely grasped by Pilecki and his men. However what Fairweather does emphasise is that Pilecki understood, from a very early stage, that Auschwitz played a key role in Germany’s ideology and that it was the site where the Nazi’s racism was fully realised.
Another striking aspect of The Volunteer is that the reader is able to trace the development of Auschwitz through the eyes of prisoners who were present from the early days when the camp operated as a place for Polish political prisoners, and where the expectation was that those who were not killed immediately would not survive for longer than six weeks. Through Pilecki’s eyes, the reader follows the expansion of the camp to include prisoners of other neighbouring nations, and finally becoming the core of the Final Solution. In popular discourse Auschwitz is often associated as the site where the Nazi’s enacted the mass extermination of the Jews, and while this is indeed true, Fairweather’s book and Pilecki’s accounts remind us that the camp also included the mass murder and forced labour of many Poles and those coming from other Central Eastern European countries.
Fairweather is also aware that being a political prisoner, and therefore based in Auschwitz I, meant that it was impossible for Pilecki to fathom the extent of the extermination of the Jews taking place in Auschwitz-Birkenau when the Final Solution began in 1942. Receiving reports from camp resistance members who were forced to build the Birkenau barracks, as well as handling and sorting possessions belonging to the new Jewish arrivals, with time it became more apparent to Pilecki that the systematic killing of Jewish prisoners surpassed any evil he had seen at the camp thus far. This only fuelled his determination to harness the Allies’ attention to bomb Auschwitz and support a prisoner uprising.
A man leading a team
What really demonstrates Fairweather’s meticulous research is the way he succeeds in realising just how many individuals were involved in Pilecki’s underground resistance. In the Polish discourse on Pilecki, he is hailed as a single hero, recognised for his outstanding bravery, dedication and patriotism. While this is true, the popular discourse often forgets that Pilecki could not have achieved so much on his own. Fairweather illustrates this by not just telling Pilecki’s story, but also the stories of those who were integral to his mission. The initial idea of a resistance movement within the camp may have been Pilecki’s, but it needed a team of dedicated and trustworthy individuals in order to carry out acts of small sabotage, help weaker prisoners survive, as well as smuggle information out of the camp.
The book contains a diagram displaying Pilecki’s camp connections from 1942. They include connections ranging from the camp hospital, to the SS headquarters, to the Sonderkommando unit which had the closest contact with the horrors taking place in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Moreover, Fairweather finds space to write about the couriers who were integral in getting the information to the necessary people, and smuggling reports out of Poland; much of this information was for the Polish Government in Exile in London and the Allies. The book is thus a testament and a tribute to the power of human co-operation in the face of evil – in a place which sought to strip everybody of their respect to others.
Fairweather’s book comes at an important and crucial time. In Poland, the figure of Captain Witold Pilecki is now widely known and recognised; he has become a national hero, and is painted as an example to Polish youth. However under the current Law and Justice government, it also means that his history is vulnerable to politicisation, with him being characterised as one of the main faces of the “Cursed Soldiers”, those who were involved in the post-war anti-communist underground movement. While Pilecki continued to work within an underground resistance movement after the war, it is difficult to place him into the same category as those who were part of the anti-communist partisan movements in the late 1940s and early 50s, those who have a more chequered reputation. There is a risk Pilecki’s story will become one of historical myth which does not truly reflect his version of events, but one that the government wants to be part of the national narrative. At the same time, a worldwide recognition of Pilecki’s role in attempting to inform the Western Allied powers about the reality of Auschwitz is long overdue. This is where Fairweather’s book fits perfectly to present Pilecki’s story, reflecting an accurate historical account of a man who was not led by the need for recognition and glory, but a quest for truth and fighting evil.
Maria Suchcitz recently gained a Master’s degree in Central and Eastern European Studies from the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. She is currently an intern at the British Embassy in Warsaw, and in her free time writes on topics including Polish history, culture and politics of memory.