BookBrowse Reviews The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather

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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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  • First Published:
    Jun 2019, 416 pages
    Jun 2020, 528 pages


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About this Book



Winner of the Costa Book of the Year Award. A fascinating and well-researched account of a heroic Polish soldier who willingly entered Auschwitz as a prisoner on an intelligence-seeking mission.

Though many found The Volunteer a challenging read, First Impressions responses were overwhelmingly positive. The book received an average rating of 4.5 out of 5 stars from our 25 member-reviewers.

What it's about:
Witold Pilecki, a second lieutenant in the Polish cavalry reserves, answered his country's call to bring his troop of 90 trained volunteers to defend Poland when the Resistance learned that Hitler had signed a pact with Stalin. In order to learn what the Germans were doing once they had total control of Poland, the Resistance needed someone to infiltrate Auschwitz, Germany's first concentration camp. Witold volunteered to allow himself to be captured. Once inside, he studied the layout of the camp and sought out prisoners he could trust to become part of the network of resisters (Janis H).

Readers were impressed with the depth of the historical content:
Pilecki's memoir and private papers, which have recently been translated into English, serve as one of the main sources for this well-written and riveting book (Emily C). I have read many WWII books, both fiction and non-fiction, and this is one of the best. Kudos to Mr. Fairweather (Joanne V). This was quite a piece of work. Mr. Fairweather used an original source, hidden to the larger world until 1989 – the journals of Witold Pilecki...It was fascinating to read a firsthand account of Auschwitz - horrible and painful and inhumane, yet essential to try to understand human beings and our capacities (Molly B).

Many readers described the book as a cautionary tale about human cruelty:
This book is a stunning tale of the depths to which men sink in times of war and the heights that some reach to save others (Peggy K). The author's often harrowing account helped me see clearly how arrogance can make us look down upon our fellow human beings and see them as inhuman objects (Sandra H). This is not a feel good story of heroics - it is a depressing but necessary tale of one man and his compatriots who idealistically sought to make a difference in the world against the horrors of man's inhumanity to man...This book is not for the faint-hearted (Suzette P). At this time in our nation's history, it serves as a reminder that human beings have the capacity for unimaginable cruelty to each other, when we are unconscious, thirsty for power, and when we blindly follow an ignorant, narcissistic and immoral leader (Molly B). It is said that if we don't learn from history we are doomed to repeat it. A sobering thought indeed (Florence K).

Some found the author's depiction of the violent subject matter too visceral:
I'm giving it only 4 stars because of the relentless way in which the author narrates, page after page after page, the most minute details of the Nazis' brutality. It was so traumatizing to read that I could barely focus on the story. We should never grow numb to these horrors, but the graphic presentation of them can easily overwhelm all other narratives (Jeanne B). The presentation of the violence was unrelenting. I realize it is the unvarnished, detailed truth, but as a reader it was too painful and psychologically tormenting for me (Thom J).

However, most would recommend the book wholeheartedly, including to book groups and young people:
This is an inspiring and suspenseful read. I highly recommend it to all who are students of World War II history and the horrors of the Holocaust (Emily C). This important book should be discussed in more places than just book clubs. High school and college students should read this, as it is a first-hand account of what happened in Eastern Europe and in this death camp. What about atrocities in the world now? Would eyewitnesses be believed today? Would these kinds of "camps" be allowed to exist today? What would you do in such a situation? These are great discussion topics for younger people...We must never forget (Chris W). This is a book that should be read by everyone, especially today's youth. Book clubs will be able to find so many questions to discuss about this book and the time it represents (Peggy K).

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in July 2019, and has been updated for the July 2020 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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