Jack Fairweather: The Volunteer

Reading Time: 4 minutes

It is hard to believe that someone might voluntarily go to Auschwitz, a place where 1.1 million people were brutally killed by the Nazi regime. Yet Witold Pilecki did, and, despite his immense bravery, his story was all but lost for a decade. I had the privilege of interviewing Jack Fairweather, who penned a remarkable book – The Volunteer –  recounting Pilecki’s extraordinary tale.

Low: Pilecki is most known for his heroism in the Second World War, but what was his early life like?

Fairweather: Pilecki grew up in family of minor gentry in an area on the eastern fringe of Poland known as the Kresy. His upbringing was not lavish. His family was impoverished since they had taken part in uprisings against their Russian occupiers which had been crushed. Poland had been partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Austria-Hungary in the late 18th century and was only resurrected by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

But Pilecki was not dissuaded from continuing the fight. As a teenager, he was involved in fighting off Russian forces in 1919-20. His courage was exemplary, and he won two decorations. However, he felt it hard to re-orientate himself to normal life after the euphoria of Poland’s liberation. In his writings, he expresses a slight dissatisfaction with everyday life. This is perhaps important for understanding his major adventure. I read some of my own experiences into this: when I went off to Iraq as a war correspondent at young age, I found it hard to recalibrate myself to the day-to-day. 

In short, his upbringing was conservative, Catholic and patriotic. His transition from the ordinary life to the truly extraordinary was such a compelling part of this tale.

Low: After Hitler’s invasion of Poland, he soon set about rounding up political prisoners who were then taken to some of the first concentration camps, one of which was Auschwitz. Although not the death camp it would later become, the conditions were truly barbaric. As a leading member of the Polish resistance, Pilecki was asked if he would volunteer to infiltrate it, and in the process leave behind a wife and two children. What made him accept the mission?

Fairweather: Pilecki was absolutely driven by his patriotism and his faith. He was distraught at being defeated by the Germans, as he had fought to liberate Poland just 20 years earlier. He would stop at nothing to reclaim Poland’s independence. That’s not to say that he took the decision to go there lightly. He had just been reunited with his family, who had endured a harrowing escape from the hands of the Soviet secret police. He had a very close bond with the men he had recruited for the underground in Warsaw, so didn’t want to leave them behind. Ultimately, however, he could not turn his back on the call to duty for his country that a mission from the head of the underground movement presented.

Low: His remit was to create an underground movement in the camp and then potentially stage an uprising. However the conditions in the camp were brutal that there was no chance of rebellion. Considering this, what did he achieve while he was in Auschwitz?

Fairweather: Well, survival was a major achievement. 

His ability, while struggling for his life, to reach out to others and to inspire them to resist is extraordinary. For me this is one of the main takeaway of the story for us today. What are we doing to look beyond ourselves? If he could do so, even in a place like Auschwitz, surely we can reach out to engage with the suffering around us.

His reports were vital. The book makes clear that Pilecki was a central figure in the history of Auschwitz. The missives smuggled out under the noses of the Nazi guards show how he was the first to get the word out about the horrors of Auschwitz. The Allies got wind of these reports far earlier than we commonly think. Whether the Allies would have been able to do any damage to the camp if they had bombed it, as Pilecki asked them to, is a contentious issue, but it’s one of the great “what ifs”. 

Low: Pilecki was one of roughly 200 lucky people to escape the camp. After two-and-a-half harrowing years, he staged his breakout. Why did he decide to leave then?

Fairweather: Pilecki was coming to grips with the idea that his mission to Auschwitz had failed. He had just got word that his reports to Warsaw had had no effect on the Allies or on the Warsaw resistance – they would not liberate the camp. This presented Pilecki with a moral problem. He struggled to justify his survival and he was stricken with guilt. A particularly poignant episode, when he watched a 10-year-old boy being led to his death, crystallised this remorse. But, instead of putting it out of his mind, he used it spur him on to a final act of bravery in the camp: his escape. He would then try to persuade the Warsaw resistance to change their mind but to no avail.

Low: For all his heroism, few people who haven’t read The Volunteer know Witold Pilecki’s name, and this is largely due to his post-Auschwitz career. In 1944, he fought in the Warsaw Uprising with typical distinction, and then worked tirelessly to subvert the communist regime in Poland. He was caught, executed and his name was expunged from the records by the secret police – to the extent his own children didn’t know of his bravery until the 1990s. After all the horrors he experienced at Auschwitz, why did he choose to take further risks?

Fairweather: On some level, it was a manifestation of the guilt at his perceived failure in Auschwitz. He wrestled with why other people hadn’t responded to Auschwitz in the same way he had, and became increasingly disappointed, and at times embittered, with those he met outside the camp. Other camp survivors seemed to be the only people capable of understanding the horrors of that dreadful place.

Coming out of the camp, his family ties were in tatters. He once visited them, but his children barely recognised him. In the introduction to his memoirs, he recounts a time when he spoke to some men condemned to death for the next day and they all had the same regret: that they hadn’t spent enough time with their loved ones. It is hard not to read into that anecdote some of Pilecki’s own experiences.

Low: Yesterday was of course Holocaust Memorial Day –  how important would you say Pilecki’s story is for our understanding of the Holocaust today?
Fairweather: That’s a great question. One of the most compelling aspects of Pilecki’s story is his struggle while in the camp to understand what the Nazis were doing. Today we think of Auschwitz as this death factory for Europe’s Jews. However, it did not start that way: it got there by a series of small steps. They built up the technical capacities and moral logic for industrial slaughter over some time. Pilecki had to call out each of those steps and make assumptions, which were often wrong. This carries an important lesson: evil does not just present itself in easy to spot phenomena.

More than just the Holocaust, Pilecki’s story should help us stop new Holocausts in their tracks. There are Pileckis out there, calling out atrocities. But are we listening?

I would like to thank Mr Fairweather for taking the time to speak with me. It was a great opportunity to learn more about such a remarkable man from an expert. The Volunteer is a Costa Book Prize winner – and I highly recommend anyone interested in this period should read it.