Review of The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather


Witold Pilecki was a patriotic Polish farmer in 1939, and an officer in the cavalry reserves. Pilecki lost most of his men in their first battle. He and another Polish officer, Jan Wlodarkiewicz, decided to form an underground resistance cell. The underground mainly did “hit-and-run” warfare against Soviet troops.

Pilecki and Wlodarkiewicz started out as good friends, but Pilecki started to distance himself when Wlodarkiewicz began incorporating anti-Semitic sentiment into his leadership of the resistance cell. Eventually Wlodarkiewicz proposed that Pilecki allow himself to be captured and sent to Auschwitz to start an underground within the camp and to report on conditions within the camp.

Pilecki accepted the dangerous assignment. If you have read horrific accounts of Auschwitz before, this is no different. Pilecki could have been killed at any time, just randomly. Upon arriving and disembarking from the train, soldiers were shoving the men with their gun butts, beating or shooting them if they didn’t move fast enough.

One group of soldiers told a prisoner to run toward the fence. When he did, he was shot for trying to escape, while the soldiers laughed.

Then there was the gas chamber, crematorium, lice, typhus, starvation, lethal injections in the camp hospital, and more random killing from the guards. Some days prisoners’ numbers were read out and they were marched to a wall where they were shot.

I won’t say if Pilecki ever got out of Auschwitz alive, if he was able to send any messages to the underground outside the prison, or if he was able to establish a working underground resistance within the prison.

The Volunteer is a well researched, riveting read. Because of the content it may not be an easy read for some. I have read a few books about Auschwitz this year and the cumulative effect is causing warning bells inside my head to go off. I need to give this graphic history a break.

But if you haven’t reached your quota of explicit wartime violence, this is an important read to preserve history, and hopefully teach us which path of evil to avoid.


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