The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero who Infiltrated Auschwitz (2019)

By: Jack Fairweather
Published by: Penguin Books

For the next meeting, rather than choosing a single book, we’ve chosen a topic, or rather a historical figure – Witold Pilecki (1901–1948).

The most recent book about him is Jack Fairweather’s The Volunteer, which won the Costa Prize 2019. Below are details of this, as well as an English edition of Pilecki’s own work, and two Polish-language books about him.

Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery (Aqua Polinica, 2012) by Witold Pilecki

In 1940, the Polish Underground wanted to know what was happening inside the recently opened Auschwitz concentration camp. Polish army officer Witold Pilecki volunteered to be arrested by the Germans and reported from inside the camp. 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. Pilecki received brutal treatment until he escaped in April 1943; soon after, he wrote a brief report. This book is the first English translation of a 1945 expanded version. In the foreword, Poland’s chief rabbi states, If heeded, Pilecki’s early warnings might have changed the course of history.” Pilecki’s story was suppressed for half a century after his 1948 arrest by the Polish Communist regime as a Western spy.” He was executed and expunged from Polish history. Pilecki writes in staccato style but also interjects his observations on humankind’s lack of progress: We have strayed, my friends, we have strayed dreadfully…we are a whole level of hell worse than animals!” These remarkable revelations are amplified by 40 b&w photos, illus., and maps

Rotmistrz Pilecki i jego oprawcy (Capital, 2015) by Tadeusz M. Pluzanski

Rotmistrz Witold Pilecki byl dowódca mojego ojca Tadeusza Pluzanskiego. Razem konspirowali, w tym samym wiezieniu znosili tortury komunistycznych oprawców. Ojca wypuszczono po 9 latach (73 dni przesiedzial w celi smierci), do konca swoich dni nazywal dowódce ,,swietym polskiego patriotyzmu”.

Rotmistrz nigdy sie nie poddal, nie dal sie zlamac w ubeckim sledztwie, pozostal Niezlomny.
Ksiazka odpowiada na wiele pytan dotyczacych sledztwa i procesu:
– Kto torturowal rotmistrza w mokotowskim wiezieniu?
– Czy w momencie wyprowadzania na egzekucje, 25 maja 1948 r., wiezien jeszcze zyl, czy kat Piotr Smietanski strzalem w tyl glowy usmiercil trupa?
– Dlaczego Pilecki podjal gre z szefem wszystkich ubeków Józefem Rózanskim?
– Jakie byly dalsze losy brutalnych funkcjonariuszy aparatu przymusu?
– Jak potoczyly sie kariery morderców sadowych?
– Jak rotmistrz traktowal wspólpracowników?
– Kiedy po latach upokorzen dzieci Witolda beda mogly zapalic lampke na grobie Taty?

Zycie rotmistrza Witolda Pileckiego to gotowy scenariusz na dawno oczekiwany film sensacyjny. Moze ta ksiazka zainteresuje sie Hollywood?

Rotmistrz Witold Pilecki  (AA, 2018) by Joanna Wieliczka-Szarkowa

Fascynujaca opowiesc o rotmistrzu Witoldzie Pileckim, kresowym zagonczyku walczacym z bolszewikami o polskie Wilno i Warszawe w 1920 roku, który wedlug brytyjskiego historyka Michaela Foota byl jednym z szesciu najodwazniejszych zolnierzy drugiej wojny swiatowej! Czlowiek, który na ochotnika dal sie zamknac w niemieckim obozie koncentracyjnym w Auschwitz. Zorganizowal tam konspiracyjny Zwiazek Organizacji Wojskowej skupiajacy ponad sto osób we wszystkich komandach. Przezyl za drutami dwa lata i siedem miesiecy. W tym czasie informowal dowództwo Armii Krajowej o dokonywanym przez Niemców ludobójstwie. Po brawurowej ucieczce, nadal zaangazowany w podziemna walke, napisal szczególowe raporty z Auschwitz, których niezwykle losy zostaly opisane w ksiazce. Walczyl w Powstaniu Warszawskim jako obronca niezdobytej Reduty Witolda. Po wojnie nie opuscil kraju mimo komunistycznego zniewolenia. Zostal aresztowany przez UB, skatowany w sledztwie w mokotowskim wiezieniu, przy którym ,,Oswiecim to byla igraszka”. W pokazowym procesie skazany na kare smierci, jako szpieg gen. Andersa i zamordowany strzalem w tyl glowy, 70 lat temu – 25 maja 1948 roku.

The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero who Infiltrated Auschwitz by Jack Fairweather (Penguin, 2019)

‘Totally gripping’– Simon Sebag Montefiore

‘Pilecki is perhaps one of the greatest unsung heroes of the second world war … this insightful book is likely to be the definitive version of this extraordinary life’ — Economist
Would you sacrifice yourself to save thousands of others?
In the Summer of 1940, after the Nazi occupation of Poland, an underground operative called Witold Pilecki accepted a mission to uncover the fate of thousands of people being interned at a new concentration camp on the border of the Reich.
His mission was to report on Nazi crimes and raise a secret army to stage an uprising. The name of the detention centre — Auschwitz.
It was only after arriving at the camp that he started to discover the Nazi’s terrifying plans. Over the next two and half years, Witold forged an underground army that smuggled evidence of Nazi atrocities out of Auschwitz. His reports from the camp were to shape the Allies response to the Holocaust – yet his story was all but forgotten for decades.
This is the first major account to draw on unpublished family papers, newly released archival documents and exclusive interviews with surviving resistance fighters to show how he brought the fight to the Nazis at the heart of their evil designs.
The result is an enthralling story of resistance and heroism against the most horrific circumstances, and one man’s attempt to change the course of history.

You can read an interview with Jack Fairweather here.

And here is a radio inverview with Pilecki’s great-grandson, in Polish.

Buy online:

Zielony Balonik book club notes:

Our meeting was scheduled to take place during the coronavirus lockdown in the UK, so instead of meeting face-to-face, seven of us met online. Below are some notes on our discussion, followed by a reflection from Krystyna Szumelukowa.

The Volunteer is a tour de force in terms of research (Fairweather credits a ‘research team’ with helping him).

The book tells Pilecki’s untold story. It reads somewhat like a report – dry style, bald narration, everything seen from Pilecki’s point-of-view, and there is an element of derring-do. What’s lacking is  background, interpretation and analysis.

Pilecki’s character is explored. He was a small landowner, happy to take on his father’s estate, with aristocratic views, but principled – broadly Catholic Christian values, though he is not close to the church, nor anti-Semitic. Fairweather avoids his less admirable side, e.g. he has little to say about the effective break-up of his marriage. Pilecki himself felt his work was a failure, in that nothing happened to avert the mass killings. He had first to persuade the Home Army that something needed to be done, and then communicate that to the British, for whom bombing Auschwitz, a difficult but not impossible task, was never a priority. There was a fear among the Allies that actions undertaken to save Jews in German-occupied territories could lead to a rise in anti-Semitism at home. The book rather skates over the anti-Semitism of others within the Home Army, while Karksi’s role is underplayed.

Why did fewer people fight back? They had been traumatised, by their experiences in ghettoes, not to mention the journey by railway to Auschwitz. People faced moral quandries with regard to if and how they co-operated or collaborated with the camp authorities. Outright resistance was, in most cases, suicidal, given the casual and often random violence of the kapos, the guards and the camp authorities. In the camp, trust became subversive. Pilecki wanted food to be shared, even with the weakest. His strategy began to work, and morale in the camp improved.

Auschwitz was the end of a process, that began with the confining by the Germans of large numbers of people within ghettoes. In fact more Jews were killed by SS Einsatzgruppen after the invasion of the USSR than in the camps. These formations had first operated in Poland, seeking to round up and kill Polish officers and intellectuals.

The camp at Auschwitz, originally an army barracks, was too small for the mass killing of Jews; hence the building of Birkenau. Auschwitz has become a kind of icon, with regard to German atrocities, and was set up as a monument by the Communist authorities after the war. Terrible things happened too at Mydanek, but it was used as a camp by the Communists, and not memorialised.

It’s not clearly explained what was going on after the war, and General Anders’ role in Polish politics. While Pilecki seems to feel forced into returning to Poland (just as, to an extent, he had been fitted up to go into Auschwitz), he takes on the role as he feels his honour demands it.

Is Fairweather’s book a worthy winner of the Costa Prize? Certainly it brings welcome publicity to a relatively unknown figure.

At the level of a general, whatever choices you make, make you complicit in the suffering and death of others. For others, there are various levels of guilt, from participating in crimes, failing to halt others committing them, down to ‘metaphysical guilt’, simply surviving when so many others have died. One cannot remain morally pure in an impure world.


In 1986 I visited the Majdanek camp on the outskirts of Lublin. It was an experience beyond words and emotion even though it was four decades after the end of the Second World War and immaculately preserved as a memorial. In 1988 I visited Kraków for the first time, but it was not until 2002 and many visits in between that I finally went to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the memory of Majdanek having remained raw. I experienced the same senses of desolation, haunting silence and the smell of evil and death. Therefore, I began to read The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather with some trepidation.

However, I must pay tribute to the monumental research effort by the author and the many listed in his acknowledgments to produce this biography of Witold Pilecki, an extraordinary man in extraordinary times. The quality of the research is evidenced in the notes and the selected bibliography which will no doubt become an invaluable reference for the historical record and a legacy for future reflection.

The quality of the research drew me into absorbing the determination of a man volunteering to infiltrate Auschwitz to gather intelligence for the resistance. The courage and ingenuity needed not only stay alive but also to create a trusted intelligence network capable of delivering information to the outside world is detailed against a background of trauma and unspeakable horror. Violence against individuals evolved into mass violence against the many. What we now know as the holocaust was described by Winston Churchill in 1941 as a “crime without a name.”

The inner motivations of Witold Pilecki to choose to be a volunteer and carry his task through and then continue with resistance after escaping, occasionally come to the surface. His primary motivation was to help the weakest survive the camp which would seem a hopeless aim, but his belief was that this was the only way to strengthen the resistance.

The price he paid was separation from his family and eventual trial and execution in 1948 by the Communist Government. In his own mind he had already paid the price of failure. The information provided to the outside world had not persuaded the allies to destroy the camp and thousands has died in the camp over the years.

The characters in Witold’s world are no less fascinating despite the camp photographs emphasising the intention to reduce human beings to a number. For example, Wladyslaw Dering was pivotal throughout and the exploits of Napoleon Segieda, as a courier of intelligence across Europe, are story lines in themselves. The list of characters is helpful.

For those readers who have not visited Auschwitz-Birkenau or one of the other concentration camps, then the narrative is written in such a style that it is possible to appreciate the detail with a certain detachment from the trauma. To those who have seen more or know more from personal experience, I would say that it is possible to read the book without fear. I am pleased that I did not avoid the opportunity.

Krystyna Szumelukowa

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