The Volunteer: One Man, an Underground Army, and the Secret Mission to Destroy Auschwitz
“Few books have enthralled, incensed, and haunted me as The Volunteer has,” said Neal Bascomb in The Wall Street Journal. Its subject, Witold Pilecki, was a Polish resistance fighter who in 1940 volunteered to enter Auschwitz as a prisoner so he could alert the world to the slaughter and torture the Nazis were committing inside the camp. Pilecki’s unfathomable heroism might have saved a million lives had the detailed reports he produced been heeded, but Allied leaders instead did nothing. Only decades after the war did details of Pilecki’s efforts emerge, and we are fortunate that former Washington Post war correspondent Jack Fairweather dug in further. “This is a story that has deserved a robust, faithful telling, and he has delivered it.”
This book is “not for the fainthearted,” said Giles Milton in The Sunday Times (U.K.). In his first hours in the camp, Pilecki saw guards gun down a line of men as they stepped off a train, and there is “scarcely a page” of Fairweather’s account that passes without a new atrocity. Pilecki’s first dispatches reached Poland’s government-in-exile in London, then Winston Churchill, by December 1940; later Pilecki’s reports described the construction of gas chambers and put numbers on the total victims, by then most of them Jewish. But his calls for bombing the camp were rejected in London and Washington. Some officials deemed the reports propaganda. Anti-Semitism also played a role; no one wanted it thought that the war was being fought on behalf of Jews.
Pilecki escaped Auschwitz in 1943, but even after the Nazis’ defeat, his work wasn’t celebrated, said The Economist. In 1947, he turned to gathering evidence of Soviet atrocities in Poland, leading to his arrest and 1948 execution. Fairweather’s biography does more than honor one of the war’s great unsung heroes. It reminds us that too many of us see history only through the lens of our own national dramas. “Then, as now, non-Western stories and viewpoints are all too often overlooked.” ■