There are many awful moments in Jack Fairweather’s monumental work, The Volunteer, but one of the most poignant is when the central figure, Witold Pilecki, sees a group of Jews outside Auschwitz’s crematorium.
Fairweather writes: “He was startled to see a dozen men, women and children standing outside the crematorium. It was cold and the sun had set long ago. Their faces were grey like the road. Witold guessed that they were about to be killed, and they seemed to know it too. Witold tried not to meet their eyes. But he couldn’t help but notice a small boy of perhaps ten, his son Andrzej’s age, looking around expectantly. Then the gate to the crematorium opened and he and the others disappeared inside. Muffled shots followed”.
This is a Holocaust-era work like few others, the real story of how Witold Pilecki, a Polish army officer, was persuaded to enter Auschwitz under an assumed name in order to monitor and bear witness to what was going on in the Nazis’ flagship death camp — and to do whatever he could to transmit that information to the outside world.
Pilecki stayed in the camp, undergoing numerous privations and horrific experiences, for a scarcely believable two years, eventually making a dramatic escape and then rejoining the Polish resistance. Tragically, after the war, he was first persecuted and arrested by Polish Communists, then shot dead after a show trial.
In some hands, The Volunteer could have been a soapy, fictionalised memoir with “Hollywood film script” written all over it. But Fairweather, a British war reporter who has worked in Afghanistan and Iraq, was determined not to put a word on paper which could not be checked out or substantiated. The book comes with a forest’s worth of footnotes, and every minute detail of what took place in Auschwitz is accounted for.
For more than three years, Fairweather and his team of Polish and German translators took immense pains in recounting Pilecki’s extraordinary story, even recreating events where they could, to ensure that what they were saying was correct. On one occasion, having found the apartment in Warsaw from which Pilecki made his heroic voluntary entry to Auschwitz, Fairweather and his group pretended to be Germans raiding the block. Marek Ostrowski, Pilecki’s nephew, was on hand to recall how, with Nazis angrily shouting outside, his uncle had stooped to pick up the little boy’s favourite teddy bear and hand it to him.
The core of The Volunteer is Witold Pilecki’s own account after he escaped from Auschwitz, together with recollections from camp survivors and those who had worked in the resistance with him. Fairweather also tracked down the reports which were, under Pilecki’s aegis, smuggled out of the camp. “I knew it was a great story”, he says, but what he was not prepared for was how swiftly Allied leaders in the West read Pilecki’s reports. In unemotional language Pilecki had detailed the anguish of Auschwitz, together with the transformation of the place into a site for murdering Jews. His hope, of course, was that the Allies would take action and bomb the camp.
The truly horrifying realisation is that the Allies knew what was going on much earlier than is generally supposed. Crucial points in the West’s knowledge of the genocide of European Jews are the Riegner Telegram, in August 1942, and the escape from Auschwitz by Rudolf Vrba in April 1944. Gerhart Riegner, then secretary of the World Jewish Congress, sent his telegram, warning of the Nazi intention to kill Jews in industrial numbers to the WJC’s New York and London offices, based on intelligence from the German businessman Eduard Schultze.
But when authorities in the US initially read Riegner’s warning, they did not believe it. It certainly was not backed up with the facts and figures contained in Pilecki’s material. He had arrived in Auschwitz in September 1940 and had watched it evolve to a full-blown killing machine, complete with inexplicable random cruelties.“I wanted to show in the book how information about Auschwitz as an extermination centre reached the West much sooner than had previously been thought,” says Fairweather.
We first encounter Pilecki before he enters Auschwitz, when he is doing his best to hold together a variety of disparate underground groups in Poland, all ostensibly against the Nazis, but vying with each other for dominance in directing resistance operations.
This internecine warfare led one of Pilecki’s political enemies to bounce him into volunteering to go to Auschwitz. Fairweather carefully lays out the impossible choice facing Pilecki: to leave his wife and young children, or to enter the camp and try to get the truth heard, outside its barbed wire and murderous violence.
Once in the camp, Pilecki had to build a network of like-minded prisoners, almost entirely Polish nationals but occasionally helped by Jewish inmates.
One of the most notorious of these was the doctor Wladyslaw Dering, whom Pilecki had known pre-Auschwitz. In 1964, Dering became embroiled in a notorious court case in London against the author Leon Uris, who had referred to him in a footnote in his novel Exodus as someone who collaborated with the Nazis by performing experiments on prisoners. Dering said his life would have been in danger if he had not complied. The jury found in his favour, awarding just a halfpenny in damages.
Fairweather records a number of occasions on which Dering helped Pilecki, and when he saved other prisoners’ lives. But, gradually, he “slid down the moral pole”, until Pilecki and his team could no longer trust him. Pilecki escaped from the camp before Dering began full co-operation with the Nazis.
On the other hand, there was the wonderfully-named Napoleon Segieda, a Polish national recruited by Pilecki to act as a courier and smuggle his reports out of Auschwitz. Napoleon was quite plainly a hero and even today, says Fairweather, there are old men in his village who remember him.
After Pilecki’s escape from Auschwitz and before he was shot dead by the Polish Communists, his children would often see him holding a piece of bread in his pocket, a symbolic legacy of his time without food. But they never knew how much of a hero their father had been, until Andrzej succeeded in getting his papers from the Polish state archives in 1991.
Pilecki never told his wife Maria what he had done in Auschwitz. It’s taken years, but with The Volunteer, Jack Fairweather has finally set the record straight.
The Volunteer is published by W H Allen £20 It will be reviewed in a forthcoming edition of the JC