When the roundup began in a Warsaw neighborhood on the morning of September 19, 1940, Witold Pilecki made no attempt to flee from the Nazis. While others tried to hide, this gentleman farmer waited calmly for the Germans to capture him. Even stranger, his fervent hope was that they would transport him to the Auschwitz concentration camp, some 320 kilometers (200 miles) to the south in Nazi-occupied Poland.
It was the start of a daring mission, one in which the 39-year-old would set up resistance cells at Auschwitz, gather intelligence on Nazi crimes and alert the Allies to the camp’s horrors – in the process chronicling its quick metamorphosis from brutal prison to the heart of the Germans’ killing machine.
His story is recounted in stunning, shocking detail in Jack Fairweather’s award-winning book “The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero who Infiltrated Auschwitz,” out now in paperback in the United States.
Fairweather, 41, draws on Pilecki’s own writings and hundreds of prisoner testimonies to tell a story like no other, one he himself first heard at a Long Island dinner party in 2011. It would consume him for half a decade, eventually producing a unique record of a truly remarkable man whose courage had long gone unheralded, even in his native land. (Much of Pilecki’s writing had been locked away in the Polish state archive for over 40 years, only seeing the light of day in 1991.)
Yet as the author explains in his introduction to the book, as World War II began, there was nothing remarkable about Pilecki, who owned some 550 acres of land in rural eastern Poland and had a wife and two young children. This understanding prompted a question from Fairweather: “What would drive this apparently ordinary man to expand his moral capacity to piece together, name, and act on the Nazis’ greatest crimes when others looked away?”
Setting back the clock
There’s another huge question at the heart of the book: Why didn’t the Allies act upon the information that Pilecki (and others) delivered to them about the death camp and try to blow up the infernal place?
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“I think Pilecki’s story sets back the clock on what the Allies knew, and when,” says Fairweather, speaking to Haaretz in a Zoom chat from his home in Charlotte, Vermont (the Wales-born writer divides his time between the United States and Britain). “It’s impossible not to be horrified by the lack of action as the evidence that Pilecki and others are sending to the West mounts up. What I wanted to do in the book, though, was to as much as possible present the Allied point of view.
“I feel personally that it’s damning in its own way, but as a journalist you always want to tell the other side of the story [as well]. And I think in general with Holocaust-related material, you want to try and explain rather than condemn – because that’s how we’re going to learn our lessons: by really understanding why action wasn’t taken and seeing that reflected in our own day, rather than reaching for outrage now.”
The book is full of brilliantly researched passages about how information was smuggled out of Auschwitz and eventually reached the Allies, highlighting the often overlooked fact that there were plenty of unsung Polish heroes trying to raise the alarm. Fairweather relates how Pilecki’s first report, smuggled from the camp by a released prisoner, was found through a chance lead in Warsaw that produced a single name: Dembinski. This led him and a researcher to a dusty file in a Polish archive in London.
“In it was the whole story of what happened to Pilecki’s report: How it was smuggled across occupied Europe and how it got to London, and how it was shared with the British High Command,” Fairweather relays. “It was a real ‘goose bump moment,’ because one of the reasons Pilecki’s reports hadn’t been found hitherto was that many of them were oral. He had his messengers memorize word-for-word what he had to say and, incredibly, in this Dembinski folder were those very words.
“My researcher, Marta [Goljan], read them over the phone and we were ‘hearing’ Pilecki’s voice, rediscovering it after all these years – the same message that Pilecki had whispered to his courier under the noses of the Nazi guards in the worst possible conditions imaginable. And what he had to say was just mind-boggling: He called on the Allies to bomb Auschwitz because he already felt that what was happening there was so terrible, it was worth his life and everyone else’s if they could stop it. And that was in October 1940.”
Pilecki would eventually spend over two-and-a-half years in Auschwitz as one of the “red star” Polish political prisoners, a time Fairweather recounts in grueling but necessary detail: the daily beatings and murders; the kapos brutalizing prisoners in order to cling onto their privileges; the inhumane actions of the doctors conducting experiments on detainees; Pilecki’s successful efforts to establish resistance cells to chronicle the horrors and, occasionally, fight back: Most remarkable is a story about how the prisoners managed to turn vials of infected lice into a biological weapon that would give some of their captors typhus.
What’s especially fascinating about “The Volunteer” is that although it’s about the place that above all others embodies the evils of the Holocaust, the Jewish experience is not actually at the center of this particular Shoah story. Yes, Pilecki is a witness to the atrocities, but it’s almost as if they’re happening out of the corner of his eye.
“That’s why his story is quite different and so historically important,” Fairweather says. “He takes us on this journey by which we see how the Nazis conceive of and then implement their steps toward mass murder on an industrial scale. That for me was really eye-opening because, like lots of people, it’s so difficult to get your head around the Holocaust, Auschwitz’s end point, and to really understand how it was possible. Pilecki shows us that it’s by these small steps – and that’s a real warning to history.”
There’s a refreshing honesty to the book, too – for instance, Pilecki recognizes the numbing effect that even mass murder can generate if you see it enough times. “He writes that the first time he had witnessed people being gassed, that had an effect on him. But by the third or fourth or fifth time – that lessens,” Fairweather says. “And he struggled to keep that sense of outrage and horror fresh for himself, because he recognized that by becoming indifferent, he would just become another cog in the machine.”
What is abundantly clear from “The Volunteer” is that Pilecki conquered any hint of indifference to Jewish prisoners’ fates. Indeed, his breathtaking escape from the death camp in April 1943 was born of a desperate desire to get the truth out about what he had witnessed. Yet, as Fairweather notes, Pilecki was never truly able to escape Auschwitz in what would be a tragically brief life – cut short by the communist regime Stalin imposed on Poland after the war, which Pilecki fought on against, only to be captured, found guilty of treason and executed in May 1948.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum is itself a site Fairweather – who is neither Polish nor Jewish – has become very familiar with in recent years, having made over a dozen visits. He even took his young children (11 and 9) there for a short visit last summer.
“I don’t think there’s ever a trip where something doesn’t give you that sense of the horror of what happened there,” he reflects. “It’s different each time – there’s always some new facet of the camp that I find striking. I remember being taken into the museum’s collections department, usually closed to the public, on an early trip. I’d been struggling in Birkenau, looking at the ruined crematoria, to really get a sense of what happened there. In the collections department were the remains of one of the gas chamber doors. I hadn’t been expecting to see them, and having that tangible connection really cut through.”
Something else that resonated with Fairweather were the events marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz last January, specifically seeing how few survivors are now left. “We’re losing that living link to the past and so we have to find new ways to engage with it,” he says. “I hope Pilecki’s story can be a way for some people to approach that history.”
One of the last things Pilecki wrote as a free man, before being arrested by the communist regime in May 1947, was a short paper about Auschwitz “that is just him trying to get his head around how such evil was possible,” Fairweather says.
Although it was a rather surreal text, Pilecki did manage to hone in on one particular scene “in which he talks about his memories of sitting with friends in the camp who knew that they were going to be executed the next day, and that each of those men all had the same reflection or regret: They wished they had given more of themselves to those around them, that they had reached out more, that they had shown more love.”
It was a message Fairweather – a former war correspondent who himself had to readjust to normal life after reporting from the front lines of Afghanistan and Iraq – took to heart. “Many of us have times of stress where we find it hard to re-find our balance, and I like to think that Pilecki in that final writing was thinking ahead and maybe recognizing that he needed to find some inner calm,” he says. “He was constantly replaying the camp – which was the experience of so many survivors, of Polish prisoners, Jewish prisoners. Many found it very hard to leave that experience behind, to process it.”
Fairweather picked an interesting time, to put it mildly, to be writing a book about a Polish hero who risked all to chronicle the Holocaust. He was deep in the midst of research for the book when what he describes as “the justified furor” erupted in early 2018 over Poland enacting a law that would bar any mention of involvement by the Polish state, nation or people in Nazi war crimes. The debate was sparked by the widespread use of the term “Polish death camps” – a factual anomaly as such camps were built and operated by the Germans on Polish territory. But by trying to outlaw the phrase, the Polish government appeared to be criminalizing debate about instances in which some Polish nationals were complicit. It sparked a diplomatic row between Poland and Israel that has yet to fully heal.
For his part, Fairweather notes that “as a scholar, as a historian looking at this era of history, the idea that any government would try to legislate how to approach it is completely wrong – and I think the Polish government realized it had made a misstep at a certain point and tried to walk it back. But it was really damaging for some of the bridge-building that had gone on between Polish and Jewish communities, between these quite differing views of the war.
“That for me is why Pilecki’s experience in Auschwitz is so important,” he says. “He is the perfect bridge between different perspectives of World War II. He was a Catholic Polish officer who became the first witness of the Holocaust in Auschwitz, and thus he brings together those two views of the camp. I hope that’s a real takeaway for folks.”
Fairweather returns to the subject of Poland, unprompted, at the end of our interview. “I’ve been really struck by the fact that for so many decades [the Poles] were not able to commemorate their heroes,” he says, wondering “how it would have been had Americans and Brits and others been told for decades that the heroes of D-Day were traitors and enemies of the people; it’s completely mind-boggling.
“There’s so much of the past in Poland that needs to be rediscovered, both the bad stuff and the good stuff,” he adds. “For a lot of people, the idea of a Polish underground is largely unknown and part of the moment we’re in with Polish history is rediscovering it – all aspects of it. Heroes like Pilecki can also help everyone have the courage to embrace the past in all its complexities and darkness.”
Fairweather himself has been attacked by some right-wing Polish commentators who objected to his depiction of Polish antisemitism during the war, “feeling that it besmirches the honor of Poles,” while others have been “challenged” by his portrayal of Pilecki. “I think that’s good: Pilecki was not a fan of politicians; he wrote very little about them and his one great political act was to stand up to his boss in the underground [in Warsaw, prior to volunteering to enter Auschwitz] and tell him not to write a narrowly ethnic manifesto for their group that would divide their country when they needed to be coming together.
“And that for me is what Pilecki is all about, and why his story really resonates today in our own time of disunity and distrust between groups. Here is Pilecki saying, ‘Look, I’m able to reach out to folk in Auschwitz.’ That challenges us to ask if we are doing enough to connect with those we disagree with.”
The writer notes that his most enjoyable public events since the book was first published last summer “have been those that have been [jointly] organized by both Polish groups and Jewish groups.” He recounts how one particular event in Los Angeles featured both Polish and Jewish survivors. “Many said they had not shared their particular experiences between groups before, so it was unbelievably touching to have been, through Pilecki, the means for bringing people together in conversation and recognizing experience.”
“The Volunteer” won one of Britain’s most prestigious literary awards, the Costa Book of the Year, earlier this year, and is being translated into 25 languages, including Hebrew. But Fairweather is now eyeing an arguably even greater prize: getting Pilecki recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to Holocaust victims, located in Jerusalem.
“In the course of my research, I had the great pleasure of meeting a survivor who Pilecki had rescued after his escape from the camp,” Fairweather recounts. “This man, Jarosław Abramow-Newerly, is half-Jewish. His mother was Jewish, his dad was gentile. They lived in an apartment block in Warsaw and the father, Igor Abramow-Newerly, is actually already recognized as one of the Righteous Among the Nations for rescuing Jewish friends and connections until he was denounced and sent to Auschwitz.” Pilecki had met Igor’s wife, Barbara, in the autumn of 1943 while she was being blackmailed by someone threatening to reveal her religion, and Pilecki stepped in to rescue both her and her son.
“I got to meet the son and take down his testimony,” Fairweather says. “We got it notarized, and that’s formed the basis of an application to Yad Vashem. There are particular criteria for being recognized as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, and I hope we’ve supplied that evidence. Of course, I would also make the case more broadly that Pilecki, through risking his life repeatedly in the camp to get out news of the Holocaust, could be recognized for that. But hopefully with all of it together, we’ll get him there.”
“The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero who Infiltrated Auschwitz” is published by Custom House, priced $19.99. Jack Fairweather will be discussing the book in a free Zoom event with the Museum of Jewish Heritage on June 30, in conversation with Robert Jan van Pelt. Those interested should register in advance at the museum's website.