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"The Volunteer" author Jack Fairweather

“The Volunteer: One Man, An Underground Army, And The Secret Mission To Destroy Auschwitz” by Jack Fairweather
Review/Interview by Martin Zeilig
“When God created the human being, God had in mind that we should all be like Captain Witold Pilecki, of blessed memory.” Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich.
“Witold Pilecki volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz,” writes author Jack Fairweather in the introduction to “The Volunteer”.

 

 

 

 

 

"The Volunteer" cover

The reason he did so was to help organize an underground resistance movement in the then still under construction concentration camp set up on Polish soil by the Nazi German invaders.
“The Volunteer: One Man, An Underground Army, And The Secret Mission To Destroy Auschwitz” is the astounding account of this (at the time of his capture) 30-year-old-Polish resistance fighter’s two and a half years in the camp and his eventual escape to alert the Allies of the horrors being committed by the German occupiers, as well as to continue the fight as a member of the Polish resistance.
Jack Fairweather, who lives in Charlotte, Vermont, has been a war reporter for the Washington Post and the Daily Telegraph, where he was the paper’s Baghdad bureau chief, notes his bio. He is the author of two other books: “A War of Choice” and “The Good War”.
Polish ambassador to the USA Ryszard Schnepf described Pilecki as a “diamond among Poland’s heroes” and “the highest example of Polish patriotism” at the commemoration event of International Holocaust Remembrance Day held in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum on January 27, 2013, notes online historical information about Pilecki.
“We have strayed, my friends, we have strayed dreadfully... we are a whole level of hell worse than animals,” Pilecki writes in The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery (2012), an English translation of Pilecki’s own brief report which he wrote shortly after having escaped from Auschwitz in April 1943, and which he expanded in 1945.
His intelligence reports, smuggled out in 1941, were among the first eyewitness accounts of Auschwitz atrocities: the extermination of Soviet POWs, its function as a camp for Polish political prisoners, and the “final solution” for Jews, notes an online summary of Pilecki’s book.

Fairweather has added to Pilecki’s account.. He contextualizes it by adding insightful personal details of Pilecki’s background, and the people in his life - both within and outside Auschwitz– which later became the death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. There are photographs and drawings, including those done by fellow prisoners, too.
He shows how Pilecki, a captain in the Polish army, “forged an underground army” within Auschwitz that “sabotaged facilities, assassinated Nazi informants and officers, and amassed evidence of shocking abuse and mass murder.”
Intelligence about the mass murder of innocents– first Soviet prisoners of war, then Jews, and others – that was smuggled out while Pilecki was still a prisoner made its way to the British and Americans.
But, it was largely ignored or dismissed by the allies.
One wonders how many lives could have been saved if the death camp, or the railway lines leading to it, had been bombed.

Wladyslaw Sikorski, the Polish soldier and statesman who led Poland’s government in exile during the Second World War, used information smuggled out of Auschwitz to compose a report requesting a bombing mission of the camp.
‘“I think you will agree that, apart from any political considerations, an attack on the Polish concentration camp at Owicim is an undesirable diversion and unlikely to achieve its purpose,” wrote Charles Portal, Marshal of the Royal Air Force. “The weight of bombs that could be carried to a target at this distance with the limited force available would be very unlikely to cause enough damage to enable prisoners to escape.”’
“Portal’s assessment was accurate, and if anything he underplayed the extreme difficulty of hitting the camp,” Fairweather says. “But he failed to appreciate that an attack on Auschwitz in 1940 would have alerted the world to the camp, and that by declining to bomb the facility he was spurning an opportunity for the British to make a political declaration against Nazi atrocities, thus setting a precedent for non-intervention.”

Pilecki’s story was repressed for half a century after his 1948 arrest by the Polish Communist regime as a “Western spy.” He was executed with a shot from a pistol in the back of the head and erased from Polish history.
“Auschwitz was just a game compared to this,” Pilecki said to his wife, Maria, and sister-in-law, Eleonora Ostrowska, who was his point of contact during his time in Auschwitz, during a break in his show trial in Warsaw in March 1948.
“Witold’s story demonstrates the courage needed to distinguish new evils from old, to name injustice, and to implicate ourselves in the plight of others,” the author writes. “But, I think it’s important to observe that there were limits to how far Witold’s empathy could reach. Witold never came to see the Holocaust as the defining acts of World War ll or the suffering of Jews as a symbol of humanity. He never let go of Polishness or his sense of national struggle. At times in his 1945 report he is brutally frank about the difficulty he felt in identifying with the gassing of Jews, as his focus was on survival of his country, his men, himself.
“Patriotism of this strength can seem outdated or worrisomely like the preserve of a far right rising on a tide of nationalism. But we must also reckon with the fact that Witold’s patriotism furnished him with a sense of service and a moral compass that sustained his mission in the camp. (H)e suggests in his final writings that we must come to understand our limits, even as he exhorts us to see past them.
“Above all he asks us to trust one another. Witold’s defining quality was his ability to place his faith in other people. In the camp, where the SS sought to break the prisoners down and strip them of their values, the idea of trust had revolutionary potential. So long as the prisoners could believe in the greater good, they were not defeated. Witold’s men perished in many terrible and excruciating ways, but they did so with a dignity that Nazism failed to destroy.
“Witold died knowing that he had failed to deliver his message. My hope is that this book will help us hear him.”
It does so, and in a most compelling manner.

The author agreed to an email interview with this newspaper.
JP&N: Why did you decide to write this book?
Jack Fairweather: I only heard of Witold Pilecki’s story by chance. In 2011, I met a friend with whom I’d covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We were trying to make sense of what we’d witnessed. He had travelled to Auschwitz and learned about Pilecki’s two-and-a-half-year mission to the camp. The idea of resisting the Nazis from the centre of their greatest crime felt shocking. I thought of the camp as the ultimate symbol of suffering and victimhood. Who would voluntarily expose themselves to such horror, I wondered, and what could such a man’s story tell me about confronting evil today?
Then I discovered another remarkable fact about Pilecki: Next to nothing had been written about him outside Poland. I managed to glean a little online. He had gone on to fight Poland’s Communist regime at the end of World War II, been captured, executed, and all trace of his wartime record locked away in military archives until the collapse of the Soviet Union. It wasn’t until 2012 that one of Pilecki’s reports was finally translated into English. I remember eagerly reading the report upon publication only to find it deepening the mystery. Names were hidden to protect colleagues, events obscured or omitted.
The report left unanswered the crucial questions: What happened to the intelligence he had risked his life in Auschwitz to gather? Why were his calls for action unheeded? How many lives might have been saved had the world listened? I also felt personally challenged by the story – I was the same age as Pilecki when the war began, I also had a two kids, and a home. What would make Pilecki risk everything on a such a mission and what was it about this act of volunteering that spoke so powerfully to me? Those were the questions I set out to answer.

JP&N: How long did it take to write?
JF: Three years, with a research team of four, that took me to archives in Auschwitz, Warsaw, London, New York, Stanford, Tel Aviv, Grodno (Belarus) and Geneva.

JP&N: What can we learn from the example set by Witold Pilecki?
JF: Pilecki’s reporting from Auschwitz gave the Allies the information they needed to take action against the camp. The fact the Allies didn’t act reflects their failure rather than Pilecki’s. My hope is that his story can remind us of the need to stay vigilant and to speak out against the evil around us. There are surely Pileckis out there today trying to call out new crimes. Are we listening?

JP&N: What was your reaction to finding out that Great Britain and the USA ignored, or seemed to ignore, the information Pilecki and his underground associates provided about what was happening to Jews and others in Auschwitz?
JF: I think the only response is anger. Early on in the war, a mission to bomb Auschwitz would have stretched the capacity of RAF bombers to the limit. Later on, when bombers could more easily reach the camp, Allied officials argued that they couldn’t divert resources from the war effort. Both arguments had a rationale.
But it was also the case that most officials didn’t grapple with the scale of the crimes or really accept that they were happening. As a result, Pilecki’s reports and those of other first responders were filed away as something to be dealt with after the war. A Dutch theologian, Visser’t Hooft, who worked on rescue efforts during the war, later accused these officials of lacking the imagination and the courage to take action.

JP&N: What else do you want to say about this remarkable man?
JF: Pilecki was brave, resourceful, creative, tenacious, for sure. But those I spoke to who knew the man highlighted another quality of his: the rare ability to trust the people. In a place like Auschwitz, designed to tear apart the bonds between prisoners, his faith in others had a revolutionary potential. When he recruited a prisoner he was placing not just the secret of the underground in his hands, but his own life. People responded to that trust because they needed to believe that something greater than themselves could endure in the camp. And it worked.

 

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