Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Witold Pilecki "The Auschwitz Volunteer"

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"The Auschwitz Volunteer" is the single most extraordinary tale of heroism I have ever read. Next to what Witold Pilecki voluntarily endured at Auschwitz, Sir Ernest Shackleton, the famously gritty Antarctic explorer, was enjoying a day at the beach.

To say that Witold Pilecki was a "man's man" is to understate the case considerably. We don't have words to adequately convey the kind of heroism Pilecki displayed. Language is a common possession and Pilecki was entirely uncommon. Witold Pilecki is one of the greatest heroes our species has produced. You're going to come away from this book wondering why Hollywood has not yet celebrated him. In fact that is a very good question to ask, and the answer reveals much about how stereotypes of Brute Polaks have been used to distort history.

"The Auschwitz Volunteer" belongs on the very short shelf of the classics of Holocaust literature, next to Anne Frank's "Diary of a Young Girl," Elie Wiesel's "Night," Primo Levi's "The Drowned and the Saved" and Tadeusz Borowski's "This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen." Most people, including most teaching courses on the Holocaust at US universities, have never heard of Witold Pilecki. This is a scandal, one Polonia is duty-bound to correct. "The Auschwitz Volunteer" must be on the core syllabus of Holocaust study.

Many readers who should read this book will shrink from it. I want to assure readers that, the entire time you are reading, you know you are in the hands of a heroically good man who endured everything he endured because he was committed to a higher cause: serving humanity, his country, and his God. Indeed, in describing events in 1943, when he had been in Auschwitz since 1940, Pilecki wrote, "Above all, I was a believer." Pilecki described how his belief in God, and his commitment to service to Poland, got him through. Pilecki is proof that as low as humanity has sunk, the light shone in the darkness. When humanity scoured the depths of depravity, it also reached the heights of heroism. In this, Witold Pilecki is like Jan Karski, Maximilian Kolbe, Irena Sendler and thousands of other heroes, who, knowing the risk they were undertaking, defied Nazism.

Captain Witold Pilecki was a forty-something officer in the underground Polish resistance movement during World War II. He was in what would eventually coalesce into the Armia Krajowa, or Home Army. Pilecki came from a long history of Polish resistance: his grandfather had been exiled to Siberia, and Pilecki formed resistance groups as a youth, and fought against the Russians in 1920, being twice decorated. He fought again when the German Nazis invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and again against the Russian Soviets when they invaded Poland on September 17, 1939. When open, armed struggle became impossible, Pilecki co-founded a group that eventually would become part of the Home Army.

In 1940, Pilecki volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz. He did so to serve his country, and humanity. Pilecki was a prisoner in Auschwitz from 1940-43. The entire time he was there, he organized prisoners, gathered information, and planned to work for the Nazi defeat.

Pilecki's report is an eyewitness, journalistic account of everyday life in a concentration camp. The material is highly disturbing, of course, but it is also fascinating. Pilecki describes the tortures the Nazis and their minions resorted to, but he also describes moments when he felt happy because he was able to overcome some obstacle, including the spiritual obstacle of the temptation to succumb to despair. These moments truly are examples of the arguments about human nature that Viktor Frankl, another Auschwitz prisoner, made in his classic, "Man's Search for Meaning."

One objective fact follows another in Pilecki's account: accounts of torture and mass murder, how Auschwitz handled its mail, sewerage, and lice infestations. How male barbers reacted to shaving the bodies of women. How prisoners being sent to their deaths greeted their former comrades they passed on the way to execution.

Pilecki's report was written in 1945, before the world had assimilated the Holocaust, before that word was even widely used, before accurate tallies of the dead had been drawn up, before powerful forces began to dictate the approved World War II narrative. His report was written for military and humanitarian purposes. His style is journalistic. He strives to provide the facts, in an unemotional manner.

His humanity seeps through nevertheless. As Pilecki himself put it, "They have told me, 'The more you stick to the bare facts, the more valuable it all will be.' Well, here I go. But we were not made of stone. It sometimes seemed as if even a stone would have broken out in a sweat."

The book is not crafted to provide the rising suspense, climax, and denouement one gets from reading a modern American bestseller. There is no Hollywood ending.

All these features of Pilecki's report, which some will assess as drawbacks, are actually the great strengths of the book. Pilecki's writing is utterly raw. He writes as someone who is confronted with atrocity first-hand would write, before he had been to grief counseling, before he had been through the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder workshop, before a committee of academics went over his document with a fine-toothed comb in order to make sure that his treatment of demographics and statistics and religions and ethnicities meets the current guidelines of Political Correctness. This is what the Holocaust looked like to an Auschwitz prisoner, on the ground, watching it happen. This is not Hollywood's or even American academia's Holocaust.

Jarek Garlinski's translation of Pilecki's work is peerless. The language is smooth and appropriately idiomatic. Garlinski is himself the son of an Auschwitz survivor. The book contains much supportive material to aid the reader. There are maps, many photographs of Pilecki and his family before, during and after the war, his underground comrades, his fellow prisoners and his Nazi tormentors, and Auschwitz. There are introductions that walk the reader through Pilecki's life story, and several appendices and an excellent index. Aquila Polonica has every reason to feel very, very proud of this book, of its substance, its style, and its unique importance.

Given how important Pilecki is, one must ask, why is he unknown? I think much of the answer can be found in my own book on the importance of the Brute Polak stereotype in Western culture.


  1. Great comments, Danusha! I'd like to contact you re an educational campaign in the US and getting new stuff to the curricula - it's about Karski, but I think it should also include Pilecki. WIll write you an email after the weekend. Best,
    Sebastian Rejak

  2. I got this book, and plan to review it on Amazon in the not-too-distant future.

    Meanwhile, I had read and reviewed an older book, by an English author, that had featured Witold Pilecki. This was about two years ago. Upon checking, I found that Amazon had, for some reason, dropped the review. So I have reposted it, and it can be read by clicking on my name in this specific posting.

  3. SR, of course.

    Jan Peczkis, thanks so much for introducing us to the other book.

    1. My pleasure.

      As for the other Holocaust classics you mention in this blog, among those I have reviewed is Borowski's THIS WAY FOR THE GAS... To read the review, just click on my name in this specific posting.

  4. Danusha, you ask: "Given how important Pilecki is, one must ask, why is he unknown?" And, as you say, you do expose the politics behind it in "Bieganski"...

    Isn't if for the same reasons that the French Resistance is glorified, while the Polish resistance is, for the most part, either ignored or vilified?

    And for the same reasons that, had the tragedy of Anne Frank and her family taken place in Poland rather than in Holland, the emphasis would have changed from being on the bravery of those who hid the family (which is where it should be) to being on the fact that they were betrayed by a local Policeman.

    Its all in the political spin. Us Poles/Polonians are at least getting constant reminders that "the father of the lie" is still running the system of things. The serpent is still in the garden. Though not for much longer. A rescue is well in hand.

  5. I have now reviewed Witold Pilecki's excellent work. To see the review, please click on my name in this specific posting.

  6. If s.o could discover Pilecki in Hollywood and make a move out ot his life (this movie would be AWESOME and inspiring to every human being on the planet! But unfortunately Hollywood is rather interested in movies putting down f.e America or staple comedies). Is there NO one willing to make a Hollywood movie or is there any chance to contact s.o in Hollywood who could be interested? A movie, not just a tv drama like the one about Irena Sendler, no one watches that,unfortunately.
    Also, we have 2 more problems as Poles: 1. Idiots in Poland herself-"left" wing people (like Krytyka Polityczna aficionados) who derive their sense of self-worth by claiming that "Poles are from ciemnogrod,antisemites,rascist ect." but THEIR are sooooo much more enlightened.
    2.The likes of BBC claiming that we are antisemites and rascist. It is not true,neither are Ukrainians vile antisemites or rascist. What do You think we could do about such smears? We had f.e John Godson and the leader of the Jewish Community in Poland standing up, but to no avail...
    After having read Your book I have gotten some more ideas why we Poles (but also Hungarians,Slovaks,Ukrainians ect.) are despised. Could You eventually comment on them? I would love to receive Your input :-)
    1. We have the West is loosing/has lost: A sense of pride in our culture,religious bonds,values. I have been to f.e Marseille,London, Barcelona Suburbs-it does not look like Europe anymore,rather like Arabia or Africa.The West has lost,through wrongly understood multiculturalism, its ability to assimilate extraeuropean newcomers.It is loosing its spirit and culture in the same time.Its maybe a kind of jealousy, a kind of: Yeah, but we are STILL better than you ect. while at the same time seeing the decline in community cohesion.
    2.Polish is the new Jew. Muslim is the new Gay: As antisemitism is a no no, and islamophobia will probably replace antisemitism some time soon as the new danger en vogue s.o must be to blame/shift blame to. Blacks? No, that would be rascism.Asians? No, to much respect,especially for China. So who is left? We,along with Turks and Gypsies.
    3. Germans:I had a very creepy feeling when I was talking with some Germans once and read some articles in German: Its like being angry at the Polish because they (the Germans) had build 6 of their 7 death-camps in Poland, that the Poles did not enough to rescue them (from the Germans themselves) because somehow Poles made the Germans attack them. Maybe I am getting this ideas , because I am a trained psychologies,I know it sounds kind of crazy. I also realized that Poles do NOT at all exist in the mind of the normal German as a freedom fighter/victim/survivor but,really, often as s.o who was a bystander and a helper.
    4. The "left" in Poland: Please have a look what the likes of Krytyka Polityczna/Przekroj/often the Gazeta Wyborcza are writting-They are taking small,singular examples,blowing them out of proportions to "proof" that Poles are unenlighted antisemites,very often the Catholic Church is blamed as well (note: this does NOT happen in f.e France).Thus, many Poles are instilled with shame and guilt (for nothing!!!!).Why? I guess its the way these folks roll-they want to present themselves as the "alternative" to the ciemnogrod.They are not realizing in the least that they want to go the same way the West went (as I have mentioned, we are beginning to see the bad effects day by day)

  7. Hanna made a few good points and I can agree with some of her conclusions.

    I personally like the idea of multiculturalism, and I think it is rather beneficial than harmful. But it is true – it is wrongly implemented and not understood. There are only 2-3 countries where “multi-kulti” is the basic policy that drives law and people’s perception. Still work to be done there, but the idea works. All the rest is so –called “forced assimilation”.
    Germany announced last year that Multi-Kulti did not work. I could not believe what I heard. There is and there was no “multi-kulti” in Germany. But they sold it to the world “we did our best, but the idea itself just does not work”. But the real message should be rather ”we did our best to make them (immigrants) to follow, but these stubborn people did not listen”.

    Nevertheless sometimes I think we could learn from Germans how not to care what others think / say about us and what our ancestors have done or have not done. Then life is easier. They learnt how not to carry any guilt. They have nothing to do with the Nazis. I am not criticizing them for this “indifference”. I am not saying it is right. But it is the way they teach kids. Self-confidence and self-respect are the most important for future success. They efficiently run German historical politics on top level and benefit from new history of WWII re-written by others. Regular German does not have to struggle to prove anything to the world. In case of Poland it is exactly the other way around.

    Dr Goska proves in "Bieganski" that Western World feels they have a mission to teach brute, stupid and catholic Poles how to live in the modern world. In fact they found a scapegoat for its own guilt or indifference.

    The additional problem is that some Poles currently do the same: teach other Poles how to be modern. Attacks on church, tradition, Catholics are on daily news. If you are a Catholic, you MUST BE a racist, homophobe and anti-Semites. This is disgusting. And GW is contributing well to this. When somebody is trying to fight against it - then he/she are ultra-right wings anti-Semites in denial. That is all. No constructive discussion. How can we fight against the stereotype, when some of us claim this is not a stereotype but the truth? But of course they (those who speak) are the exceptions, so they have a right to put all Poles into one basket and say whatever they want. They are the better ones.

  8. P.S. RE: German historical politics. Angela M sent an official letter to the German national soccer team to thank them for visiting Auschwitz some weeks ago (before EURO cup). The world got the message that Germans still “feel” the responsibility. Then I learnt that those who actually visited the Museum (it was voluntary) were: the manager, the coach, and chief of German Football Association (officials) and …… Podolski and Klose (both Polish born)… No other player went. I am not saying they all should have gone. I am saying that this situation shows the reality of how the “regular” German sees these things.

  9. Thank you everyone for your comments. Thank you Hanna for sharing your thoughts, and thank you Malgorzata for responding to Hanna.

    Hanna, I found your post a bit hard to read. Please consider hard returns that introduce white space into your text, and please use standard spellings rather than abbreviations. This will make your post easier to read, and people will more likely respond.

  10. About the larger point -- Poles themselves playing the Bieganski card. Why?

    One answer: we need to acknowledge that there is a larger, anti-Judeo-Christian, anti-Western civilization game afoot. One name for this game is "Marxism" but another might be "nihilism." Just an attitude of "The world is corrupt so we must destroy it in order to usher in a brave, New World."

    We have encountered this anti trend before. An example.

    I am a feminist and proud to be one. Like many, I was astounded when I first noticed that many feminists did nothing to protest gender apartheid in the Muslim world.

    Why? Why were clitoredetomy, child marriage, polygyny, beyond criticism?

    Here's why -- many so-called "feminists" were not feminists at all. They were just women who were part of the "anti" movement. How many people know that Betty Friedan, author of "The Feminine Mystique," was a Stalinist?

    Just so in Poland. Anything traditional must be entirely bad, and must be thrown away.

    Do these Poles who play the Bieganski card really believe that?

    Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe they just want to be popular and hip. There is a blog post about that trend, here:

  11. Sorry for the late answer, but I have been very busy lately.

    Malgorzata and Danusha, I have traveled many countries in Central and Eastern Europe.Basically-they have the exact same problems Poland has.And yes, Polish is the new Jew/scapegoat.

    And Danusha, I agree 100%, the Problem is cultural Marxism. I have realized this quite recently and I am appalled.I have become very pessimistic.What we need is to rebuild a society based on values *btw I am in favour of gay marriage,as a Pole,because I believe monogamous partnerships should be an ideal for everyone we will probably disappear or be taken over by more vibrant societies * that can be observed f.e in Holland or GB like Muslim ones.

    Malgorzata,you wrote> Regular German does not have to struggle to prove anything to the world. In case of Poland it is exactly the other way around.

    I assume You are right,Hitler and Himmler are laughing their axxs of in hell,the Soviets have achieved what they had not.

    Either way, if you don't respect youself no one will. My only hope, as a patriotic left/winger is some kind of revolution.Or s.o like Orban in Hungary.

    1. Hanna, welcome to the team. Have you read Bieganski yet? If not, you must.


Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
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