A review of The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather
It really is remarkable, the story of The Volunteer. Jack Fairweather’s Costa Award-winning biography, a work of impressive research, portrays the hitherto largely untold life of Witold Pilecki, a leader of the Polish resistance in World War II who in 1940 volunteered to be arrested and sent to Auschwitz. Interned in the camp for the next two and a half years, he built up an extraordinary underground network that extended to every area of camp life, aided prisoner escapes and, crucially, smuggled out reports detailing the atrocities of the camp, which eventually made their way into Allied hands.
While it isn’t a spoiler to say that London – then the ultimate recipient of Witold’s pleas for assistance – did not bomb Auschwitz as requested, how and why a Polish resistance operative came to petition for this drastic action is best told by Fairweather himself. So too is the story of Witold’s life following his escape from the camp in 1942 – in itself a remarkable feat, but one that is almost glossed over in the wake of a long line of daring escape attempts and acts of extraordinary courage. The final part of the book is taken up with the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, an event in which Witold played a key role and one that I knew very little about, and the tragic twist taken by the later part of his life.
Recent years have seen a spate of World War II and Holocaust memoirs – with several more publishing this summer – and there is, I think, a tendency to assume we know the subject. Fairweather tackles this assumption head on and with great skill, not only examining Auschwitz from an unusual angle, but also setting it in the context of the wider war in Europe. Of course he describes life within the camp, portraying its horrors in often shocking and moving detail, but here again he concentrates on the perhaps lesser-known areas that Witold operated in. Hospital life, for example, or the bakeries working round the clock on the fringes of the camp. The first Christmas in Auschwitz; visits from the German leadership; the relationships between normal prisoners and those tasked with overseeing them.
As a Polish prisoner, Witold’s experience of Auschwitz was slightly different to that of most Jewish prisoners, particularly in the early years, and his position almost as an outsider – although very much embroiled in the same fight for survival as everyone else, he never lost sight of his mission to create an underground resistance movement that might eventually have the power to free them all – set him apart even further. This point of view would be compelling enough, but where Fairweather really excels is in allowing us to see the development of Auschwitz from labour camp to death camp, a slow process of change that Witold, as an early prisoner, bore agonising witness to. To paraphrase Fairweather, Witold entered Auschwitz before the world and even the Nazis themselves really knew what the camp was, at a time when ‘the Final Solution’ was yet to be authored, when gas canisters and crematoria were simply the stuff of experiments. And though the reader knows the outcome of those experiments, this sense of unsettling change is palpable throughout the first part of the book. Through Witold’s eyes, we experience the slow dawning of a realisation too horrific to comprehend, steeped in the sickening awareness that for all his hard work in the resistance, perhaps ‘there was nothing to be won here’ after all.
The concept of comprehension is at the heart of this book and is, in the end, what makes The Volunteer so significant and so moving. As well as forcing the reader to recalibrate their view of history by describing how the Allied powers dealt with Witold’s reporting – for a frightening proportion of the war Auschwitz was ‘known but unacknowledged’ – Fairweather lays bare Witold’s own struggle to understand this incomprehension and readjust to life outside the camp. In one of the most heartbreaking sections he describes how Witold sought out fellow former prisoners in Warsaw, broken less by the tortures of the camp than by the fact that ‘people struggled to connect with his story’. Even we, the interested reader, probably struggle to connect on some level too, but Fairweather’s regular return to this strand of the story is an unspoken exhortation for us to try harder. There is much that is not – and probably never will be – known about the Holocaust, but for that very reason it is not something to be consigned to the history books.
Witold Pilecki appears to have been a man of extraordinary purpose and clarity of vision, a manner that Fairweather himself adopts in the writing of his story. Meticulously researched – almost every paragraph contains a footnote – and presented in sharp, sure language that steers clear of overt emotion yet contains serious power, The Volunteer is a clear-sighted portrayal of an unsung hero and an episode of history that has been told often but never enough. Worth reading for the story if nothing else, this is a biography deserving of a place on every bookshelf, a ringing reminder that no matter how difficult it may seem, how far away one human experience might appear from our own, we should – must – never stop trying to comprehend.