The Auschwitz Volunteer by Witold Pilecki

It seems everyone online is writing their best books of 2012 list and I hope that electronic babel of voices won’t water down my saying that The Auschwitz Volunteer is the best book I read in 2012. 

If you’re a reader of history, WWII, Poland, the Holocaust, or spy novels go & buy this book or buy it for someone you know who is into these subjects. You won’t regret it.

Pilecki’s story is astonishing. He was a military man and member of the Polish resistance who volunteered to be taken in a round-up to the new Nazi concentration camp: Auschwitz. The camp was established in May 1940. On the 19th of September 1940 at 6 am, Pilecki stepped into what would be the second group of inmates taken from Warsaw to the camp. If you’re jaded, you might think, “Oh, well, they didn’t really know what to expect, so maybe it was just like any volunteer assignment during wartime.” Well, you could think that, but then consider the fact that Pilecki stayed in the camp for almost three years (he estimated 947 days). THREE YEARS he voluntarily stayed in Auschwitz to continue his mission which was to gather intelligence and set up a network of resistance within the camp. “Beyond Bravery,” indeed.

I’m sure no one would have condemned him had he chosen to escape sooner, but Pilecki was a man who took his duty to his country seriously. He was also motivated by his Catholic faith and so saw both the Nazis and the Communists as threats not only to his country, but to his spiritual life as well.

Witold Pilecki in 1930s

Pilecki’s account is a bare bones military report, but it reads beautifully, if I may use such a descriptor for this horrific subject. His story has such a big impact perhaps precisely because he doesn’t go into great detail. Like a good Cather or Hemingway novel, we’re left to fill in our own details which makes “the story” that much more powerful. Much credit, of course, goes to the translator, Jarek Garlinski. There is also the fact that in 2012 we might not need much detail to round things out for ourselves after having seen movies and read other books about Nazi concentration camps.

But even if you’ve read many accounts of the concentration camps, I doubt you’ve ever read anything like this. Because Pilecki is reporting, because he’s there with a mission, he sees things and talks about seemingly familiar behavior and situations in a way that makes them seem new–you see how shocking the behavior of the guards is and how tactics change as the mission of the camp itself changes. You see the development and evolution of Auschwitz as it unfolds. This is a strictly chronological report so you’re taken from the early days of the camp when extreme violence and cruelty were the norm to the more “mature” camp of the final solution’s extreme dehumanizing systematization. Along the way is a lot of fascinating information about how the inmates ran the camp.

As a kid I would have liked to have known the story of Witold Pilecki and I hope someone writes a book for kids based on his experience (this book is intended, of course, for mature audiences). My Dad was Polish and I grew up in a predominantly Polish neighborhood in Cicero, IL which butts up to the west side of Chicago. On the other hand, my Mom is from Germany. (My parents met in Germany in the late 1950s when my dad was stationed there.) It wasn’t until I was in high school and became a student of history that I realized why people sometimes said my parents were an interesting combination.

The version of history I learned in school was that Nazi Germany rolled over Poland and there was no resistance. And the version of concentration camps that I learned is that they were set up to eradicate Jews and that the world didn’t know about them prior to 1945. Pilecki’s story offers a new narrative to counter these old simplified stories as well as bringing to light the horrors that Poles faced after the war (stories that were not necessarily intentionally “wrong,” but that didn’t have a multitude of contributing voices, the benefit of decades of research, or new information coming out of the former Soviet Union).

One of the reasons we in the West haven’t heard of Pilecki’s bravery is what happened to him after Word War II ended:
After Pilecki’s escape from Auschwitz he continued to work in the Polish resistance. At war‘s end he worked against the communist regime in Poland. He was captured and tortured by the Polish secret police and tried by a military court that found him guilty of “spying and preparing armed attacks on members of the Polish secret police,” charges he denied. Pilecki was executed by the Polish communist government on May 25, 1948.

Pilecki was fully exonerated in the 1990s and is now considered a hero in modern Poland.  The publication of The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery is the first time his story is being shared with the English speaking world and I hope it finds a wide audience.

As Norman Davies writes in the introduction to The Auschwitz Volunteer, “If ever there was an Allied hero who deserved to be remembered and celebrated, this was a person with few peers” (xiii). 

Click here to watch the book trailer (note: for mature audience).

The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery
Captain Witold Pilecki
Translated by Jarek Garlinski
Aquila Polonica, 2012
ISBN: 978-1607720102 
Source: review copy (I follow a couple Polish heritage/cultural sites and this summer saw the book advertised on one of them and immediately requested a copy from the publisher, which they graciously sent me and for which I thank them.)


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