For all the years I’ve been doing Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I’ve always tried to include a book representing Poland. With the exception of last year’s true account of a Cold War-era Polish Colonel who secretly spied for the CIA the books I chose all delt with the World War II and Holocaust. In 2016 it was Matthew Brzezinski’s Isaac’s Army: A Story of Courage and Survival in Nazi-Occupied Poland, the year before that it was Gwen Edelman’s novel The Train to Warsaw, and in 2013 it was Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story.
In keeping with tradition, this year’s selection for Poland is Jack Fairweather’s The Volunteer: One Man’s Mission to Lead an Underground Army Inside Auschwitz and Stop the Holocaust. When I found a copy one Saturday on the New Books shelf at the public library the moment I picked it up I knew The Volunteer was for me. I went to work reading it almost immediately. Yes, it’s gut-wrenching at times but in the end I couldn’t put it down.
The Volunteer, unique among most, if not all of the Holocaust books I’ve read in that the historical personality profiled, or fictional character depicted is not Jewish. Not long after Poland was defeated by Nazi Germany, Witold Pilecki, a thirty-nine-year-old Polish Army officer allowed himself to be captured and imprisoned in Auschwitz under an alias in hopes of gathering valuable intelligence on the Nazi’s newest concentration camp for the Polish underground . When Pilecki entered Auschwitz, its inmates were mostly political prisoners and members of the Polish resistance. His first priority was to find out what was happening in the camp and check on the fate of his fellow resistance fighters. After that, he would help orchestrate plans take down the camp from within and/or organize a mass break-out.
Sadly, before long Pilecki realized his chances of subverting the camp from the inside were slim to none. Once inside he witnessed inmates being systematically worked and starved to death. At first periodically, then regularly, the sick and injured were being murdered. As the death toll climbed, the Nazis repurposed the facility to exterminate those deemed sub-human and thus a threat to the Reich like Jews, Gypsies and Slavs. Pilecki, by this time was forced to escape and pass along the details of the horrors he witnessed to the underground and the Allies.
The Volunteer is well-written, well-researched and for such a grim book damn near impossible to put down. Rest assured if it doesn’t make 2019’s Favorite Nonfiction list it’s definitely an honorable mention.