Monday, November 20, 2023

"The Volunteer" Witold Pilecki; Book Review by Filip Mazurczak

Jack Fairweather's 2019 book The Volunteer: One Man, an Underground Army, and the Secret Mission to Destroy Auschwitz sheds light on one of World War II's great unsung heroes: Witold Pilecki, a leader of the Polish resistance who willingly became an Auschwitz prisoner, only to be executed by the communist regime. While the book's potential educational value, especially outside Poland, is immense, it offers a very limited perspective on its subject.

Witold Pilecki is the only known person to volunteer to be imprisoned at Auschwitz. Wiesław Kielar, a Polish inmate of the notorious death factory, aptly titled his memoir of the camp Anus Mundi, the "anus of the world" in Latin. No one in their right mind would volunteer to go to such a horrible place; as one of Pilecki's earliest collaborators told him upon learning of his mission: "You must be nuts! […] If what you say is true, you're either the greatest hero or the biggest fool" (Fairweather, p. 88).

Pilecki volunteered to go to Auschwitz to gain intel about the camp to inform the Western Allies about atrocities and to create a resistance group there. Why wasn't I taught about Pilecki in high school history class? you might be asking. Why hasn't a $100 million Hollywood blockbuster starring Russell Crowe or Mark Wahlberg been made about Pilecki? The reason is tragically simple: because Pilecki was a member of the Polish Home Army, a simultaneously anti-Nazi and anti-Soviet resistance group in occupied Poland, he was executed by the Stalinist government in 1948.

The communist regime not only physically annihilated Pilecki: it was largely successful in writing him out of history books and the national consciousness. For many years, he was only mentioned in publications by Polish émigré writers, like Józef Garliński, one of Pilecki's collaborators in Auschwitz, and the author of Fighting Auschwitz. It was only around the 2000s that many Poles began to discover Pilecki, who has since become the protagonist of many Polish books, films, and museum exhibits, while a growing number of streets and schools across Poland are named after him, including the Cavalry Captain Witold Pilecki State University of Małopolska in Oświęcim, the Polish town that during the war would be forcibly Germanized and renamed Auschwitz.

Poland's communist regime, in fact, falsely ascribed Pilecki's heroism to the premier Józef Cyrankiewicz (1947-1952), also a prisoner of Auschwitz who was active in the Auschwitz resistance but did not play a leadership role. As head of the communist government, Cyrankiewicz refused to pardon his fellow inmate who had been sentenced to death. Thus, today we have the bizarre situation in which more people outside Poland know of German resisters to Nazism like Dietrich Bonhoeffer than heroes like Witold Pilecki from Poland, the first nation to resist Hitler.

(To me, the most perfect example of this absurd fate of many Polish war heroes is that of Kazimierz Moczarski, a member of the Home Army sentenced to death who shared a cell with the German war criminal Jürgen Stroop, responsible for the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in which 50,000 Polish Jews were murdered; following the Khrushchev-era thaw in 1956, Moczarski was released from prison, and he turned recollections of his death row talks with Stroop into Conversations with an Executioner, one of the best World War II books I have read.)

Jack Fairweather is a well-known war reporter for the Washington Post and Daily Telegraph, and The Volunteer is the first major book on Pilecki published in English by a mainstream publisher (Custom House, an imprint of HarperCollins). The very fact that Fairweather endeavored to write this deserves praise, and I hope that the upcoming Polish-British film about Pilecki will make him better known, if not a household name.

The Volunteer is a riveting read. Apart from a fine overview of Pilecki's wartime heroism, Fairweather presents an intriguing cast of characters. Most interesting is the case of Dr. Władysław Dering, a Polish physician interned at Auschwitz. Dering is famous for having participated in medical experiments on the reproductive organs of Auschwitz inmates, mostly Jews (although, as Fairweather writes, he also castrated a German homosexual prisoner). After World War II, Dering immigrated to Britain, and Poland's communist regime sought his extradition to try him for war crimes. Because Dering is briefly mentioned in Leon Uris' Exodus, a huge success with the American reading public (but not with literary critics as well as a growing number of scholars who deplore Uris' racist depiction of Arabs), the doctor sued the author for libel and was awarded a half-penny in damages; the Dering v. Uris trial received extensive press coverage in the 1960s and was the subject of a made-for-television movie starring Anthony Hopkins (which I haven't seen but apparently is no Silence of the Lambs, just a historically inaccurate mess).

Fairweather introduces a very balanced and novel perspective on Dering, who seems to be neither the monster Uris made him out to be nor the hero Dering claimed he was in court. We learn from Fairweather's account that Dering was a major participant in Pilecki's Auschwitz resistance cell and that he refused to kill inmates by injecting them with phenol. However, Fairweather cites another physician inmate working in the medical block who claims the SS let her refrain from participating in experiments, thus contradicting Dering's court room claims of compulsion. Furthermore, Fairweather notes that Dering (whose surname was originally spelled Dehring) had German ancestry and took advantage of that fact to be released from Auschwitz, which Pilecki's group viewed as treason.

The author's approach reminds us that while amidst the horrors of the Nazi concentration camp system there were a handful of heroes like Pilecki, Maximilian Kolbe, or Janusz Korczak on the one hand and some sadistic guards and kapos on the other, most inmates, like Dering, were in what Primo Levi famously called the "grey zone" of morality.

The Volunteer also presents the history of Auschwitz completely and accurately. Most of Fairweather's American and British readers associate Auschwitz-Birkenau with the Holocaust; given that 90 percent of the camp's victims were Jews, that is only reasonable. However, to understand Pilecki's mission, the beginnings of the camp must also be understood. Auschwitz was initially formed in 1940 to terrorize Poles; if Jewish inmates were imprisoned there before 1942, they ended up there not on account of their ethnicity but because they were affiliated with the Polish resistance, belonged to the nation's elites, or were the victims of street roundups (Pilecki himself used an assumed identity and let himself get caught in a Warsaw roundup).

Fairweather's tracing the history of the camp is crucial not only to understanding how Pilecki ended up in the camp but, more important, how his understanding of the camp's purpose evolved. Once the first gassings of Jews in Auschwitz began, it took Pilecki a while to understand that the German's intentions towards the Jews were more macabre than that of Polish Gentiles: complete annihilation rather than enslavement and partial extermination. Fairweather cites Pilecki and General Stefan Grot-Rowecki, the main commander of the Home Army, as thinking that the first gassings were "just" another pogrom, one of many throughout European history.

While claiming that Rowecki was skeptical of Pilecki's pleas for the Polish underground to attack Auschwitz, Fairweather does not explain why. Antisemitism cannot be a reason, as 150,000 non-Jewish Poles were at various points interned there. I would assume Rowecki's hesitance resulted from the Polish resistance's limited arsenal or fear of repressions, but unfortunately Fairweather does not explore this issue.

The United States and Allies were also informed of what was happening to Europe's Jews. While they had the military capabilities to, for example, attack German cities in retaliation or bomb the railways leading to Auschwitz or the camp's crematoria, they refused to do so. Polish and Jewish resistance groups authored some of the first reports of the Holocaust, and the Polish government-in-exile in London appealed to London and Washington for action. This fact is well-known from classic works of history like Walter Laqueur's The Terrible Secret or David S. Wyman's The Abandonment of the Jews. Yet Fairweather's book shows the perspective of one idealist who wanted to inform the world of genocide. Pilecki seems almost naïve as he smuggles reports on Auschwitz out of the camp through couriers, thinking that Roosevelt and Churchill would care about the tragic fate of millions destined to become ash.

While I recommend The Volunteer to English-speaking readers (I personally preferred Italian historian Marco Patricelli's biography, also titled The Volunteer, but it is available only in Italian and Polish), the book has several major flaws.

First, the book features surprisingly little context. Fairweather's readers in Anglophone countries are taught little about the invasion of Poland in September 1939 (and, likely, are taught myths, such as that the Polish cavalry bravely but stupidly charged at German tanks). Yet the invasion of Poland is the subject of just one short chapter (less than twenty pages) which deals less with the military, diplomatic, and humanitarian contexts and more with Pilecki's experience.

Nonetheless, the reader learns very little about Pilecki's background. The fact that he had a wife and two children is occasionally alluded to, while his participation in the Polish-Bolshevik War of 1919-1921 is also barely mentioned. The Volunteer almost exclusively focuses on Pilecki's mission in Auschwitz, with a little bit about his escape from Auschwitz, participation in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising (which resulted in the city's complete destruction and loss of 150,000 to 200,000 mostly civilian lives), and postwar trial.

Most annoyingly, Fairweather completely omits the fact that Pilecki was a devout Catholic with a strong devotion to the rosary and attachment to Thomas a Kempis' spiritual classic The Imitation of Christ (which influenced many other noble figures, such as the Swedish humanitarian Dag Hammarskjöld – after his death in an airplane crash, a copy was found in his suitcase). Fairweather begins his book with a quote from Thomas a Kempis, but never again alludes to the book. In fact, in 2008 and 2013 groups of Poles sent letters to Popes Benedict XVI and Francis, respectively, asking them to open a cause for Pilecki's canonization.

At one point, Fairweather refers to Adam Sapieha as "Poland's archbishop" (p. 102). No such function exists; Sapieha was archbishop of Krakow. I suppose that one could explain this by the fact that Fairweather is ignorant about Catholicism because he is from Britain, a very secular, traditionally Protestant society where Catholics make up less than a tenth of the population.

Yet although I may not be an expert on Hinduism, if I were commissioned to write a biography of Gandhi I would study the religion, as it is crucial to understanding the Indian leader's approach to non-violence, the sanctity of all life (human and animal alike), and vegetarianism.

Fairweather also asserts that Pilecki "likely held a paternal view toward the local Polish and Belarusian peasants and shared in some of the prevailing anti-Semitic views" (p. 9). I do not deny that there was plenty of endemic antisemitism in twentieth-century Poland. However, Fairweather offers no evidence to support these claims. Such a guilty-by-association approach is contradicted by the author himself at least twice. First, in the very same endnote to this risky assertion on page 9 Fairweather writes that although Pilecki did evict a Jewish tenant from his estate, "[t]here is no evidence to suggest racial animus behind the incident" (p. 412). Elsewhere, Fairweather quotes one of Pilecki's reports from after the war in which the latter comments on the Kielce pogrom in which Poles murdered 38 to 42 Jews (not 37, as Fairweather writes), calling it "a tragedy" (pp. 377-378).

While such flaws make The Volunteer a somewhat frustrating read, Jack Fairweather deserves praise for helping to undo the injustices to the Polish communist regime's egregious history policy and reminding readers that not even the murderous depravity of Auschwitz could quench the Polish fighting spirit.

You can find more of Filip Mazurczak's articles here and here


  1. Great review, really loved it.

    I learnt about Pilecki in THE KEYS TO THIS BLOOD by Malachi Martin, and possibly some World Book material about Poland's World War Two history.

    [in answer to why people don't learn about Pilecki in school].

    And D using his German ancestry to get out of Auschwitz...


  2. Auschwitz was situated in area annexed to Germany proper, there existed a policed border between Germany and General Gouvernment. Polish underground existed mostly in the Northern part of the GG and in the East. A failed assassination of Wilhelm Koppe in Kraków was organised by Warsaw Home Army, five HA soldiers died during and after it.

  3. I myself reviewed Fairweather's book on Pilecki when it first came out, and the review is on my website. I immediately noticed much extraneous material that has absolutely nothing to do with Pilecki or his mission. I identified 23 specific items that are canned Jewish talking points about Poland, moreover presented uncritically, and called out Fairweather on his Pilecki-irrelevant and decidedly tendentious practice. We had a brief exchange about it, and he just smiled and went on his way.


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