[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major account of his amazing journey, drawing on exclusive family papers and recently declassified files as well as unpublished accounts from the camp’s fighters to show how he saved hundreds of thousands of lives.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.

[Review] The Peasants’ Revolting…Crimes by Terry Deary

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Popular history writer Terry Deary takes us on a light-hearted and often humorous romp through the centuries with Mr & Mrs Peasant, recounting foul and dastardly deeds committed by the underclasses, as well as the punishments meted out by those on the right side’ of the law. Discover tales of arsonists and axe-wielders, grave robbers and garroters, poisoners and prostitutes. Delve into the dark histories of beggars, swindlers, forgers, sheep rustlers and a whole host of other felons from the lower ranks of society who have veered off the straight and narrow. There are stories of highwaymen and hooligans, violent gangs, clashing clans and the witch trials that shocked a nation. Learn too about the impoverished workers who raised a riot opposing crippling taxes and draconian laws, as well as the strikers and machine-smashers who thumped out their grievances against new technologies that threatened their livelihoods. Britain has never been short of those who have been prepared to flout the law of the land for the common good, or for their own despicable purposes. The upper classes have lorded and hoarded their wealth for centuries of British history, often to the disadvantage of the impoverished. Frustration in the face of this has resulted in revolt. Read all about it here! This entertaining book is packed full of revolting acts and acts of revolt, revealing how ordinary folk – from nasty Normans to present-day lawbreakers – have left an extraordinary trail of criminality behind them. The often gruesome penalties exacted in retribution reveal a great deal about some of the most fascinating eras of British history.

When this book arrived from the lovely guys at Pen & Sword, I knew I had to dive on in right away. Growing up I was a massive fan of Deary’s Horrible Histories series so really wanted to see what this would be like – and I wasn’t disappointed. Despite the recent controversy over Deary’s comments on public libraries having ‘had their day’, it can’t be denied that he is a wonderful author who injects humour into his writing. It’s certainly authors like Deary who pull a reader in and kick start their interest in the subject.

This book then is a quick read and it’s chapters are full of short sharp snippets of particularly gruesome stories around the peasant class and the ‘crimes’ that they committed. We read about crimes from the Norman times right through to the Victorians, and there are certainly some very very interesting stories in there. One such example that springs to mind is the idea of ‘mob’ football…which had no rules really. No death allowed was one of the little rules of the game but that often seems to have fallen on deaf ears. We also have stories of witch hunts (Donald Trump could learn a thing or two here), poisonings and the ever so stylish Gentleman Robbers ala Dick Turpin. Except Dick Turpin wasn’t exactly the lovable rogue that legend has made him out to be.

One particular favourite of mine was the story of Murder in the Red Barn – in 1878 a grieving stepmother told the story that she saw the ghost of her daughter pointing to the barn. In the barn, when it was investigated, the body of the daughter was found. She had been murdered by her lover, it seems. But the step mother was also involved, having been involved with the daughters lover herself – she came up with the fantastic ghost tale to get herself off the hook and it worked. The lover was found guilty at trial and died by the hangman’s noose.

The only issue I really had with this book was that it seemed to jump about chronologically in a way that had me wondering what the link was between this story of the Normans and this one of the Georgians. As a reader I am used to big tomes set out chronologically so it took me a little bit of time to get used to the way this book jumped about a bit. This happens more during the early chapters of the book which are set out in more vague themes such as ‘wild women’ so it makes sense to tell stories from multiple eras in one chapter.

Despite that I did thoroughly enjoy this book. It was a quick read and gave a fascinating insight into crimes and punishments throughout history. The snippets of stories were easy to read and chock full of humour that had me, quite often, chuckling out loud. If you want an introduction to crime and punishment throughout history that isn’t a huge, dull tome, then this is certainly the book for you.

A huge thank you to Pen & Sword for sending me a copy of this book to review.

4/5 stars