German soldiers crossed the border into Poland on September 1, 1939, triggering the beginning of World War II. In response to the German invasion of Poland, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. However, it would be several very long years before Poland would see any kind of relief from Allied action.
The Volunteer: One Man, an Underground Army, and the Secret Mission to Destroy Auschwitz by Jack Fairweather is an almost unfathomable true story of courage and sacrifice. It is a story that would make most of us ask the question of ourselves, “Is there any way I could possibly do what this man did?”
It is an incredible story of a courageous Polish national who volunteered to infiltrate Auschwitz in an attempt to sabotage the camp from the inside, and his extremely dangerous attempt to warn the Allies of Hitler’s “Final Solution.”
Would you volunteer?
In an effort to discover the fate of the thousands of Poles being sent to a mysterious new Nazi “work” camp on the border of the Reich, a thirty-nine-year-old Polish resistance fighter named Witold Pilecki was asked to volunteer for an suicide mission.
That mission involved using a fake identity, intentionally get arrested, and being sent to this new camp. When there, Witold was ordered to report back to the Polish underground on what was really going on within the camp and to organize and execute an uprising from within the camp … where the Germans would least expect it.
The Auschwitz Death Camp
Over the next two and half years, Witold Pilecki established an underground army within the camp called Auschwitz; sabotaging facilities, assassinating Nazi informants and officers, and gathering evidence of the horrific abuse and mass murders. Even as he pieced together the horrifying truth about the camp, Auschwitz began to change; becoming the epicenter for Hitler’s plan to exterminate Europe’s entire Jewish population,.
This was Hitler’s “Final Solution,” a plan organized and overseen by Heinrich Himmler, leader of the SS (Schutzstaffel).
The Allied leaders seemed slow to understand what was happening. This may be partly because they did not believe such horrifying stories could be true. And, partly because they believed the best way to end the horror was simply to defeat Hitler’s forces and end the war. Finally, they didn’t want to give credence to Hitler’s propaganda campaign that the Western Allies were somehow allied with the Jewish people.
There was also clearly evidence of some antisemitic individuals in key positions in Allied governments.
Even Witold was acting to save his home country of Poland. While horrified at the atrocities being committed in Auschwitz against the Jews, his primary motivation was saving Poland. The book notes how he admitted how became desensitized over a period of time, seeing trainload after trainload of Jews from several countries including Holland, France, Poland, and others, and processed through the camp.
During the first 3 years at Auschwitz, 2 million people died; over the next 2 years – 3 million.Witold Pilecki
Witold finally came to understand that, in order to save the lives of those sent to Auschwitz and Birkenau ( a second camp three kilometers away), he would have to risk his men, his life, and his family to warn the West before all was lost. To do so, meant attempting the impossible. Witold had to escape from Auschwitz itself. His escape was successful.
When Stalin’s army assumed control of Poland after Germany’s capitulation, the new communist government of Poland executed Witold Pilecki following a “show trial.” They simply could not allow such a prolific leader of the Polish underground to turn his attention on them in an effort to regain Polish independence.
Witold Pilecki’s amazing story was completely erased from the historical record by Poland’s post-war Communist government. Pilecki’s heroic undertaking remained unknown to the entire world until recently.
Since the break up of the Soviet Union, access to his previously hidden reports, diaries, and other recently declassified documents, as well as his family and other camp survivor accounts, have allowed Jack Fairweather to create an unblinking portrayal of courage, survival, and betrayal during one of mankind’s most darkest hours.
A Failed Mission?
While uncovering the tragic outcome of Witold Pilecki’s mission, the author reveals to us that Pilecki viewed his mission as a failure. However, as I see it, the failure of Witold’s mission was not his fault. The blame, if there is any, rests on the shoulders of those in London and Washington who failed to understand and act. However, I don’t see it as being that simple. There was way too much at play in this to point the finger of blame at any one person or thing.
My thoughts …
This book was a real page turner and I could not put it down. While a true story and well-documented, The Volunteer reads like a WWII action thriller about a Polish hero who infiltrates a death camp, organizes a rebellion, and then quietly escapes. But, it is so much more than that.
This book squarely confronts the reader with the truth about human nature, a truth that hits hard on so many levels.
First, there is the pure evil that very few among us seem willing to face. An evil so unfathomable, that leaders of the free world could not accept that it even existed … until it was almost too late!
Second, that there are those few among us who are willing to sacrifice their lives, risking torture or a painful death, to protect and serve others … even strangers.
Third, that we, as a free and moral people, need to be forever on guard to ensure nothing like this ever happens again. Fascism, radicalism, and totalitarianism is alive and well in our world, often disguising itself under different or misleading banners such as Communism, Socialism, Antifa, Taliban, ISIS, al Qaeda, or even Islam.
And lastly, to those who are holocaust deniers, anti-Semites, “true racists,” and to those who compare people like the President or law enforcement officers to Nazis, and the crisis on our southern border to concentration camps … all I can say is, “shame on you!” You have not a clue.
Captain Witold Pilecki
Witold Pilecki went to his death thinking his mission had been a failure. While he brilliantly established an underground resistance in the camp, survived Auschwitz for over two years, and carefully documented and reported the evil atrocities being committed there, he’d been unable to compel action against the camp by the Allies or successfully destroy the camp from within.
He did, however, save many lives and bring about the assassination of many SS officers and Nazi monsters at Auschwitz.
I would argue that his biggest success, and perhaps the most important success of his mission, is his story; a story that might help us find the courage to recognize and face down pure evil when it arises.
Could I volunteer to do what Witold Pilecki did? I cannot answer that question. And, I admit that I hope I never have to find out. However, if I was ever faced with a similar circumstance or decision, I can now say that here is another example of a courageous man, one I can truly admire, who can show me how it is done.
I highly recommend this book to everyone …