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major account of his amazing journey, drawing on exclusive family papers and recently declassified files as well as unpublished accounts from the camp’s fighters to show how he saved hundreds of thousands of lives.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

Timeless Season 2 – The Perfect Mix of Sci-Fi & Historical Drama

 

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I discovered NBC’s Timeless thanks to a historian friend of mine on Twitter, who told me to drop everything and watch this ‘silly yet amazing’ TV show. So off I toddled to Netflix and began watching the first episode. Safe to say I was hooked from the get go, and I binged the whole first season in a couple of days. It was the characters that hooked me first and foremost – Lucy Preston, played by the incredibly talented Abigail Spencer, is the main protagonist of the show and I think it was the characters love of history that truly drew me in. Her passion for the subject reminded me of myself in very many ways. And then there’s the character of Rufus, a bit of a nerd who’s in love with his equally as nerdy but exceptionally beautiful colleague Jiya, the is he/isn’t he bad guy Conor Mason, the hard as nails but mother like Agent Denise Christopher, the PTSD suffering Wyatt and the time bandit terrorist, Garcia Flynn (who is my absolute favourite, by the way!) In Season 1 we are introduced to the idea of time travel and the idea of Rittenhouse, an organisation who wants to change time to suit their own ends.

And that’s when we find out the apparent bad guy, Flynn, isn’t really all that bad at all. He just wants to stop Rittenhouse and get his family bad. His family who were brutally murdered by Rittenhouse sleeper agents.

Season 2 continues with this story, expanding on what was introduced in the first season. We see more of just what Rittenhouse are up to with their crazy wish to change history and we learn much more about the characters who were introduced to us. We see Lucy Preston (Abigail Spencer) change from a timid historian into a strong young woman who won’t take no for an answer. We see Connor Mason (Paterson Joseph) turn into a man who stands up for what he believes in. We see Flynn (Goran Visnjic) on a redemption arc. We see Wyatt (Matt Lanter) struggle with getting what he truly wants. We see Rufus (Malcolm Barrett) actually working side by side with a man who once wanted to kill him and we see Jiya (Claudia Doumit) come to terms with something incredibly life changing. And then we see other characters (the bad ones!) sink deeper into themselves. The character of Emma (Annie Wersching) is a prime example of this. Now, I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but the character of Emma is an example of a truly well written villain. She has her good points, and she has her bad points.

In fact, every single character within this show have their good points and bad points. There is no black and white here. There’s always that grey area.

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As in season one, we see our favourite Time Team travel through time using the Lifeboat – a device developed by Mason Industries in order to travel back through time – and during their missions to stop Rittenhouse from causing chaos, they meet some of the most iconic characters from American history including Mrs Sherlock Holmes, Mary Humiston; JFK and Harriet Tubman. What struck me about the times that our heroes travelled back to wasn’t the fact that they were visiting these times, but it was the fact that they were concentrating on parts of history that people tend to just gloss over. And for me, a historian who concentrates mainly on the Italian Renaissance, I found myself garnering an interest in these eras of American History that I truly know very little about. Let’s just say I’ll be scooting about for some books on many of the eras introduced in the second season of this wonderful show.

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What I found particularly impressive about this season was that, along with the epic stories of character development and crazy time travel to stop psycho time travelling terrorists, we are introduced to topics that are very rarely brought up in any sort of programme. Ever. I was particularly taken with Agent Christopher’s  back story and how she believed that she had to marry a man in order to keep her family happy and that she couldn’t go against her faith. In the end it was a happy ending all around (again, I don’t want to spoil it fully) but we saw her embracing her sexuality and taking a stand. This was an incredibly moving piece of television and one that had many fans of the show finding their own strength to come out to their friends and families. Now tell me, how many television shows can do that? The stories that were shared on twitter after the episode was aired were just absolutely inspiring.

Racism and sexism throughout history are also topics that come up throughout the season. Not only do we see the recording of Robert Johnson’s wonderful blues album in 1936 and how people of colour back then had to deal with racism, but we are also shown the work of the suffragette movement in 1919. These subjects are dealt with in a sympathetic and completely expert manner – I truly cannot fault the writers of Timeless for any of their work on not only these episodes, but every single other episode as well.

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The cast of this show are incredibly talented and truly make you either fall in love with their characters or despise them. Yet even if you end up despising a character, there’s a part of you that either loves them or feels sorry for them. Like I said earlier, there are grey areas galore in these characters and that’s only a tiny part of what makes this show so damned good. With a diverse cast who truly live and breathe this show, there is really nothing that Timeless can do wrong. Not only does it introduce eras and people from history who aren’t so well known, but it gets people interested in history and for me that is one of the most important things that this show is doing right now. It has proven that history isn’t just about learning dates and being able to recite them by heart, but that history belongs to all of us. It’s gotten people wanting to learn more which is something I believe every historical drama should be doing – hell, history teachers even show Timeless to their classes and have spoken widely about just how much their students love the show and how it reels them in to a discipline that has long been seen as ‘one for the nerds’.

I highly recommend Timeless to anyone with even an inkling of interest in history. Even if you have no interest in it and are more of a Sci-Fi person, watch it anyway. Or just watch it even if you don’t care about either. I promise you that you will love this show.

Now all we need is for NBC to hurry up and renew this phenomenal television show. We need a season 3 after that EPIC season finale!

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