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


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major account of his amazing journey, drawing on exclusive family papers and recently declassified files as well as unpublished accounts from the camp’s fighters to show how he saved hundreds of thousands of lives.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


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

The Liberation of Auschwitz – 27th January 1945


Tracks leading directly to Crematorium I. Wikimedia Commons

Today marks a very important anniversary in history, and one that we must always remember. Holocaust deniers have come out of the woodwork in recent years, stating that the Nazi’s didn’t murder millions of Jews whilst Influencers say that the Second World War and history of the Holocaust should not be taught to teenagers as it could damage their mental health. It is SO important to remember the atrocities that happened not only during the Second World War but other wars as well – in particular, we must never forget that the Holocaust saw the deaths of millions of not only Jews but other minorities as well, homosexuals, Romani gypsies, disabled people…the list goes on. But on this day in history – 27th January 1945 – the largest of the Nazi’s concentration and extermination camps, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was liberated.

Auschwitz was made up of over 40 concentration and extermination camps with the largest being Auschwitz I. This camp is the one that most people think of when they hear the name Auschwitz and it is here that one can see the infamous gate with it’s slogan of “Arbeit Machy Frei’ (Work sets you free) and the main gatehouse that led directly to the gas chambers. It was Auschwitz I that held the main body of gas chambers and crematoria, whilst other camps in the complex were used for forced labour.

Freight trains delivered hundreds of thousands of people to the camp ranging from those of the Jewish faith to Romani gypsies and more. Many of these were destined for the gas chambers – Adolf Hitler had his ‘Final Solution’ and the main aim of that was to rid Europe of its population of Jews. The death toll was huge. Around 1.3 million people were sent to the camp with 1.1 million losing their lives. Over 900,000 of these were Jews many of whom were sent straight to the gas chambers upon arrival. Those who did not die in the chambers died of starvation, exhaustion, disease or executions. Many were also killed in brutal medical experiments.


Work sets you free. Wikimedia Commons

Each inmate at Auschwitz was tattooed with their prisoner number – this was done by a fellow prisoner known as the Tätowierer. A man by the name of Lale Solokov served as Tätowierer from 1942 up until the liberation of the camp. The story of Lale is told in the novel The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris – it’s an incredibly moving tale and one that captures the awful conditions of life within the camp. Inmates were also marked with coloured triangles according to their ‘category’ Political prisoners wore red triangles, vagrants, prostitutes and Roma wore black whilst Jews had a yellow star, rather than a triangle.

Life in the camp was incredibly difficult for the inmates – their rations were small and they were worked to exhaustion. They were not allowed rest breaks during work times and toilet breaks were timed. Breakfast consisted of a small amount of coffee or herbal tea. No food was given. Lunch was a foul tasting soup and dinner was a small amount of bread – some of which was expected to be kept for breakfast the next day, a little bit of cheese, marmalade and sausage. Showers were only allowed once a week, on a Sunday which was also a non working day. Toilet and washing facilities were disgusting, serving thousands of prisoners – toilets were basically concrete with holes in over an open sewage channel. One can only imagine the smell…

The medical experiments conducted were particularly horrendous. A variety of experiments were carried out including using X-Ray as a method of sterilisation and injecting chemicals directly into a woman’s uterus to glue it shut. Josef Mengele, or the ‘Angel of Death’ is particularly infamous in the history of Auschwitz. This awful human being experimented on identical twins, dwarfs and those with hereditary diseases. Twins were of particular interest to him and he subjected them to x-rays, blood tests and blood transfusions. Then he would have them killed and their bodies dissected.


Thousands of shoes collected from inmates. Wikimedia Commons

As previously mentioned, a huge number of inmates were executed in the gas chambers in Auschwitz. The very first gassings took place in the cellar of block 11 in Auschwitz I, in September 1941. The building proved to be inappropriate so the gassings were moved to Crematorium 1 where more than 700 victims could be killed at once. Crematorium 1 was used until early 1942, when the site of mass executions were moved to two other gas chambers (known as the red and white houses) in Auschwitz II whilst larger crematoria were built. Once they were built, by 1944 the capacity of all crematoria together was well over 20,000 bodies per day. As the victims were led to their end, they were kept calm by being told that they were simply going for a de-lousing and a shower. Of course, they never returned. Victims were selected upon their arrival at the camp – those not fit for work were chosen as were children, women with small children and the elderly.

Those chosen to be gassed were marched inside the chamber, thinking that they were undergoing a simple shower. Many were crammed into these rooms with one former prisoner reporting that up to 3000 people could be pushed inside. Once the doors were shut and locked, Zyklon B pellets were poured through vents. Victims were usually dead within 10 minutes. The panic when the people in these rooms realised what was happening is almost impossible to imagine. The bodies of the dead were then burned in nearby incinerators and the ashes were either buried, thrown in a nearby river or used as fertiliser.

Reports of the atrocious conditions and the mass murders happening at Auschwitz reached the allies early but nothing was done. These early reports were thanks to a man who voluntarily had himself locked within Auschwitz, Captain Witold Pilecki. The British press did not publish any reports on what was happening or, if they did, they were buried within the inside of papers. This was due to a concern from the Foreign Office that the public may pressure the government into helping and offering refuge to the Jews, an action which may have affected their relationship with the Middle East. Although in January 1941 it was proposed that Auschwitz be bombed. This was due to a report coming out of the camp by prisoners that asked the Polish Government to bomb the place. This report was forwarded onto Air Marshal Richard Pierse of the RAF Bomber Command. The bombing never happened, with the Air Marshal stating that it was impossible to do such a thing without harming the prisoners.

In the end it was the Russian Red Army who liberated Auschwitz on 27th January 1945. The SS knew that it was coming and so a number of prisoners were evacuated and forced into a death march towards other camps. Those who could not continue were shot on sight. Less than 9000 were left behind, deemed to be too sick to move. 15000 Jewish prisoners were marched to Bergen Belsen in December 1944. They would be liberated by the British on 15th April 1945. Just days before the Red Army arrived in Auschwitz, the crematoria were blown up and many of the warehouses set on fire.

Auschwitz III was the first to be liberated when a soldier entered the camp at about 9am on Saturday 27th January 1945. Auschwitz 1 was reached by 3pm that same day. 7000 prisoners were found alive in the three main camps whilst over 600 corpses were found. Piles and piles of prisoners belongings were found including 44000 pairs of shoes and 7000kg of human hair. When this hair was forensically examined, it was found to contain traces of Zyklon B.

According to reports from prisoners within Auschwitz, their liberators did not know where to look and described the embarrassment, outrage and shame on the soldiers faces. One soldier, a colonel of the Soviet Army, tried to tell a group of prisoners that they were now free yet they did not understand so he tried in a number of languages. They feared that him at first but it was only when he told them that he was a Jew that their fear melted away and they threw their arms about their liberators. The Red Army’s medical team and the Polish Red Cross looked after 4500 prisoners who were suffering with starvation and disease, whilst local volunteers also helped. Many of the former barrack buildings became makeshift hospitals – once they had been cleaned – and staff worked long shifts to help those they had rescued.


Children at Aucshwitz. Wikimedia Commons

At the time, the liberation of Auschwitz did not receive much in the way of press attention. It was only when the Western Allies liberated other camps such as Bergen Belsen and Dachau that the news received any sort of press coverage.

Only a few of those who had been in charge of Auschwitz were ever tried for their crimes. Rudolf Hoss was tried and executed for his role as Camp Commandant in 1947. Many other camp staff members were tried and executed for their war crimes after the Auschwitz trial in the November of 1947.

Whilst I was at work today, BBC news had the commemorative event for the 75th Anniversary showing on BBC news. I sat there as I was working, listening to the speeches given by the survivors and found myself almost moved to tears. Their stories are important. And their stories have to be told. It has made me want to learn more and to tell the history of this awful chapter in our history but more importantly, it has made me want to tell the stories of those who endured it, those who died and those who survived such a terrible ordeal.

Today it is hard to imagine such atrocities ever taking place. But it did, and there are still people alive who survived imprisonment at this awful place. It may be difficult to think about but this is something that we can never ever forget. No matter which country you are from, your religion or creed, you can never ever forget these atrocities.

And we can all say never again.