The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero who Infiltrated Auschwitz by Jack Fairweather

Easter 2013. Hubby had entered a golf competition at his golf club, meaning he would potentially be playing golf every single day across the whole weekend: one round on Good Friday, two on Easter Saturday, one on Easter Sunday, two on Easter Monday. This was the third year running and I’ll admit, I saw my arse. I told him marriage was supposed to be give and take and he should enter the competition every other year; I told him I didn’t know why he’d got married if he never wanted to spend time with his wife; I probably told him a bunch of other things before winding up telling him Easter was OFF, I was going away for Easter weekend. BY MYSELF.

A direct flight from Liverpool and nice flight times would have influenced my decision to choose Krakow. Everything was booked: airport parking, flight, pick-up, five star hotel on the Vistula, tour of Auschwitz. Then Hubby said he’d like to go with me after all. It was a hassle re-booking everything for two, but I didn’t mind; I was pleased he’d had a change of heart. (Later I discovered his golf partner had backed out of the Comp., so I regret not making him change the bookings himself – but I was still pleased to have him with me.)

The photograph we took at the gateway to Auschwitz isn’t great. Some of the letters on the iron trellis are obscured by poor light or trees, so you can’t see whole words but I remember them: ARBEIT MACHT FREI. (In English: WORK SETS YOU FREE.)

There are so many things from that trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau that I’ll never forget. The photographs of blank-eyed inmates in prison stripes, jackets buttoned up to the neck.  Rooms full of shoes, hair, teeth (Auschwitz was a very efficient recycling plant, says our guide, the problem was they were recycling people). A house only just beyond the perimeter where an SS officer lived with his wife and children, a family man on one side of the fence, a cold-blooded murderer on the other.

Standing in a claustrophobic basement room, the camp’s gas chamber (new arrivals went willingly, they were told they were taking a shower, or waiting to be assigned work duties, says the guide, indicating we should enter while he would stay outside) with the nagging, irrational thought:  how do we know it isn’t still a gas chamber?

If I was told about Witold Pilecki, then I’ve forgotten.  Witold, a gentleman farmer in rural Poland who once aspired to be a painter, joined the army to defend Poland from the Nazi invasion. When Warsaw fell he joined the resistance, volunteering to be captured and imprisoned in Auschwitz in order to gather intelligence to pass back to the underground leadership. Yes, Witold Pilecki volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz. The Volunteer is his biography.

The book made it onto my reading list by dint of winning the 2019 Costa Book of the Year, then languished in my “to read” pile for almost a year before I could bring myself to open it. I’m not a big reader of biography and I’d not long finished The Cut Out Girl by Bart Van Es, also a biography.  That book won the 2018 Costa Book of the Year and is about a Jewish girl in Nazi-occupied Holland. Another WW2 “true story” just didn’t appeal.

When I finally picked up Fairweather’s book, I wish I’d started sooner. He describes Witold as a “hero”, a word that is often misused.  Not here. Witold deliberately got himself arrested and sent to Auschwitz. He set up a resistance movement inside the camp and succeeded in gathering and smuggling out intelligence. He even managed to escape. If a hero is “a man of distinguished bravery” (Chambers Dictionary definition), that would surely cover Witold.

Britain received Witold’s first batch of intelligence about the gassing of Soviet POWs in Auschwitz (via the Polish exile government) as early as 1941. With each new batch of intelligence, there was a “collective failure of the British Government to grapple with the evidence”. Witold’s request for the bombing of Auschwitz was dismissed (as were his subsequent requests to bomb the place).

In 1942, mass exterminations began in earnest. By the time they stopped in 1944, around 1.1m had died there, most in the gas chambers, the rest from starvation, disease, execution, beatings, or medical experimentation. Britain’s continuing failure to recognise and act on repeated intelligence seems incredible, criminal even. Perhaps the “sheer magnitude” of the crime that was unfolding made it impossible to comprehend.

My interest waned in the last few chapters as Witold’s “links to the camp frayed” following his escape. In 1944 the war was drawing to a close, although for the Poles it would turn out they were only five years into a fifty year fight for a free Poland, following Britain’s “disgraceful and immoral betrayal” of agreeing to cede most of eastern Poland to Russia. Witold joined an anti-Soviet cell swearing to fight to the death.  Given that Poland remained under Soviet control until 1989, you can probably guess that didn’t end well.

However the book is not a hagiography; Witold is a hero but he is a man, not a saint. He had a wife and children when he volunteered. He didn’t prioritise his family, not seeing them for years at a time; they were marked by Poland’s communist government as enemies of the state because of him.

And he wasn’t a humanist but a fierce patriot, focused on the survival of Poland and the Polish people.  Today such patriotism tends to be associated with the far right – though he firmly rejected nationalist rhetoric.

Yet Witold’s story serves to remind us “no matter how gruesome the subject, no matter how difficult our circumstances, that we never stop trying to understand the plight of others”. Amen to that.

Rating: ** Worth reading

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