[Review] The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero who Infiltrated Auschwitz by Jack Fairweather

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How do you keep fighting in the face of unimaginable horror?

This is untold story of one of the greatest heroes of the Second World War.

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 interred 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 designs. Over the next two and half years, Witold forged an underground army that smuggled evidence of Nazi atrocities to the West, culminating in the mass murder of over a million Jews. 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major account of his amazing journey, drawing on exclusive family papers and recently declassified files as well as unpublished accounts from the camp’s fighters to show how he saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

The result is a enthralling story of resistance and heroism against the most horrific circumstances, and one man’s attempt to change the course of history.

It’s not very often that you finish a book and then sit there for a moment before breathing out the word “s**t”. And let me tell you, in the case of ‘The Volunteer’, that exclamation is definitely not meant in a bad way at all. If I’m being brutally honest with myself, I can’t remember the last time that a book struck me so hard, that had me brought close to tears on way too many occasions to count. But this book, by Jack Fairweather, has done that. It has brought me to tears on many an occasion, parts of it turned my stomach because of the absolute horror yet I couldn’t stop reading this story of complete and utter heroism, of a man who willingly volunteered to set foot in a place that would come to embody the horrors of Hitler’s Final Solution. Much to my embarrassment, I hadn’t heard of Witold Pilecki until just a few days before I picked up this book. An article crossed my facebook page which I decided to read at daft o clock in the morning and my interest was peaked – then, whilst I was at work, I saw an interview on BBC news with Jack Fairweather, the author of an award winning biography on Pilecki. I knew then, that I had to find a copy so after work, off I trotted into town to find it.

This biography tells the story of Witold Pilecki, a Polish cavalry office and Polish resistance leader during the Second World War, a man who willingly volunteered to get himself imprisoned in Auschwitz and put together an underground resistance within the fences of the concentration camp. Once there, Pilecki observed as the camp was turned into a machine of mass murder yet he never once gave up hope – not really – and he built a resistance, placing his own underground operatives throughout the camp and planned to rise up against the Nazi’s who had them all imprisoned. Not only that, but he sent reports to the outside world, detailing the horrors that were taking place.

Fairweather’s writing style is near flawless and the whole book reads like a thriller. It truly is a page turner – and in my opinion this book needs to be turned into a film. Pilecki’s story is one of incomprehensible bravery not only during his time in Auschwitz, but after his escape as well – he was a patriot, he loved his country and was loyal to his friends. He fought hard for what he believed in, only to be arrested in the days following the end of the war and the communist takeover of Poland. Then, this man who had so willingly stepped into hell, had been executed as a traitor.

I would truly recommend this book to anyone with even an inkling of interest in history. It should also be on the reading list of every single history student who studies the Second World War. These days there are so many out there trying to deny that the holocaust even took place and it is so important that we remember the atrocities that happened. This book is a heartrending tale of a man who helped bring the horrors of Auschwitz into the public record and a chilling reminder of the evil that happened because of the Nazi’s ideology. There are moments within the text that are not for the faint of heart – after one paragraph detailing one of the first gassings within the camp, I had to close the book and put it down for a bit because it made me feel physically sick. But that, I feel, is what this book is supposed to be doing.

This book is a must read.

5/5

More information on Jack Fairweather and his work can be found on his website. He is also on twitter.

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