THE VOLUNTEER, by Jack Fairweather, is a well-researched and documented story of the exploits of Witold Pilecki, a man who did the unthinkable – he volunteered to clandestinely enter Auschwitz.
Fairweather’s compelling narrative engages the reader to join the dauntless Pilecki, a Polish underground operative, on his self-appointed mission to uncover the fate of those imprisoned in Auschwitz. As a new arrival to the camp, Witold quickly learned that the old hands did not try to comfort new arrivals; rather they tried to teach them to adapt. He soon realized, to stay alive, he would have to grow what the still surviving souls referred to as ‘camp skin’.
It was not long after his arrival that he confided in his fellow prisoners that he snuck into the camp in order to unearth and expose the criminal activities being committed behind the imprisoning barbed wired fences. The other prisoners considered him either the biggest fool or the most courageous of men.
Arbeit Macht Frei, the iconic, cruel and mocking sign adorned the entrance to life’s exit for those who passed beneath it. The continually rising column of ash disgorging from the camp’s smokestack clouded the sky making clear the genocidal aims of the Third Reich. Theirs was a war against the Jews of Europe and other innocents who opposed the aims of that depraved regime. It soon became apparent to Witold that the term ‘concentration camp’ should more accurately be named ‘extermination camp’. Witold’s discovery drove him to organize a resistance movement within the camp whose purpose was to escape from their oppressors’ clutches, expose their crimes and demonstrate to the world that humanity can prevail over such evil.
In time, the steady trickle of leaked reports which were smuggled out of the camp by eyewitnesses to the horrors reached Warsaw, London and Washington. A cynical US State Department official, after receiving reports of the genocide, dismissed them as wild rumors based on Jewish fears. The Daily Telegraph and London Times published firsthand reports of the atrocities while The New York Times saw fit to initially bury the barbarities in a one line the story at the bottom of page 10. When the reports of atrocities flooded Churchill’s desk he was to have purportedly said, “We are in the presence of a crime without a name”. Eventually history gave it a name: THE HOLOCAUST. Witold was sure that in the face of such compelling evidence the shared humanity of the allies would compel them to bomb the camp. He was wrong – no attacks came – because the world chose to look away.
Eventually Witold managed to escape Auschwitz and made his way back to Warsaw but it was not the same city as when he left. Nothing was. Witold’s story interlaces strands of survival, faithfulness, betrayal, resourcefulness and courage. His is a story which needs to be told – and never forgotten.