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Excerpt from The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Volunteer

One Man, an Underground Army, and the Secret Mission to Destroy Auschwitz

by Jack Fairweather

The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather X
The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather
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    Jun 2019, 416 pages

    Jun 2020, 528 pages


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Chapter 1



AUGUST 26, 1939

Witold stood on the manor house steps and watched the car kick up a trail of dust as it drove down the lime tree avenue toward the yard and came to a stop in a white cloud beside the gnarled chestnut. The summer had been so dry that the peasants talked about pouring water on the grave of a drowned man, or harnessing a maiden to the plow to make it rain—such were the customs of the Kresy, Poland's eastern borderlands. A vast electrical storm had finally come only to flatten what was left of the harvest and lift the storks' nests off their posts. But that August Witold wasn't worrying about grain for the winter.

The radio waves crackled with news of German troops massing on the border and Adolf Hitler's threat to reclaim territory ceded to Poland at the end of World War I. Hitler believed the German people were locked in a brutal contest for resources with other races. It was only by the "annihilation of Poland and its vital forces," he had told officers at his mountain retreat in Obersalzburg on August 22, that the German race could expand. The next day Hitler signed a secret nonaggression pact with Josef Stalin that granted Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union and most of Poland to Germany. If the Germans succeeded in their plans, Witold's home and his land would be taken and Poland reduced to a vassal state or destroyed entirely.

A soldier stepped out of the dusty car with orders for Witold to gather his men. Poland had ordered a mass mobilization of half a million reservists. Witold, a second lieutenant in the cavalry reserves and member of the local gentry, had forty-eight hours to deliver his unit to the barracks in the nearby town of Lida for loading onto troop transports bound west. He had done his best to train ninety volunteers through the summer, but most of his men were peasants who had never seen action or fired a gun in anger. Several didn't own horses and planned to fight the Germans on bicycle. At least Witold had been able to arm them with Lebel 8 mm bolt-action carbines.

Witold hurried into his uniform and riding boots and grabbed his Vis handgun from a pail in the old smoke room, where he'd hidden it after catching his eight-year-old son, Andrzej, waving it at his little sister earlier in the summer. His wife, Maria, had taken the children to visit her mother near Warsaw. He'd need to summon them home. They'd be safer in the east away from Hitler's line of attack.

Witold heard the stable boy readying his favorite horse, Bajka, in the yard and took a moment to adjust his khaki uniform in one of the mirrors that hung in the hallway beside the faded prints depicting the glorious but doomed uprisings his ancestors had fought in. He was thirty-eight years old, of medium build and handsome in an understated way, with pale blue eyes, dark blond hair brushed back from his high forehead, and a set to his lips that gave him a constant half smile. Noting his reserve and capacity to listen, people sometimes mistook him for a priest or a well-meaning bureaucrat. He could be warm and effusive, but more often gave the impression of holding something back. He held exacting standards for himself and could be demanding of others, but he never pushed too far. He trusted people, and his quiet confidence inspired others to place their trust in him.

As a young man he'd wanted to be an artist and had studied painting at university in the city of Wilno, only to abandon his schooling in the tumultuous years after World War I. Poland declared independence in 1918 out of the wreckage of the Russian, German, and Austro-Hungarian empires but was almost immediately invaded by Soviet Russia. Witold skirmished against the Bolsheviks with his scout troop and fought on the streets of Wilno. In the heady days that followed victory, Witold didn't feel like picking up his paintbrushes. He clerked for a while at a military supply depot and a farmers' union. Then in 1924 his father fell ill and he was honor bound to take on his family's dilapidated estate, Sukurcze, with its crumbling manor house, overgrown orchards, and 550 acres of rolling wheat fields.

Excerpted from The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather. Copyright © 2019 by Jack Fairweather. Excerpted by permission of Custom House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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