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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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Sandra H. (St. Cloud, MN)

A Stark Reminder
That anyone would actually volunteer to be imprisoned by the Nazis stretches the imagination but in a Auschwitz? That is what Witold Pilicki did in order to expose the seemingly preposterous truth about Nazi atrocities. His often harrowing account helped me,who has read much about the Nazis experience from a safe distance, see clearly how arrogance can make us look down upon our fellow human beings and see them as inhuman objects. Had I not known this was a true account, I would have had seen it as another harrowing fictional account.
This is a book that should definitely be read in college lit classes and, yes, in junior or senior high school classes , to help the young who live in an open and safe--yes safe in so many ways--country. I strongly recommend this for book groups as a way of reminding us of what man is capable of doing to man.
Florence K. (Northridge, CA)

The Volunteer
This is an amazing true story that should be read by everyone interested in World War II history, except for the squeamish or faint-hearted. The Volunteer depicts the horrors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps through the prism of a heroic Pole, Witold Pelecki, who has himself shipped to Auschwitz to work toward destroying it The ghastly methods of exterminating Poles, Catholics, enemies of the state and of course the Jews are shown in detail. As for me, after reading this book I am far more aware of and concerned about the genocides in so many foreign lands as well as the rapid rise of anti-Semitism worldwide. It is said that if we don't learn from history we are doomed to repeat it. A sobering thought indeed.
Lynn D. (Kingston, NY)

A True Hero
This is a very compelling true story of an ordinary Polish citizen who commits to resisting the Nazi, and later Communist, takeover of Poland. The story begins, "Witold Pilecki volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz." We know we are embarking on an extraordinary journey.

From inside the concentration camp, which transitioned to a death camp while he was there, Pilecki devoted himself to helping his fellow prisoners, and to getting the truth of the camps out, through the underground system he organized, to the Allies. He believed that the Allies would then act to end the atrocities. We know from history that it took a long time for the world to understand the reality of the camps. But Pilecki never lost faith in his mission.

Fairweather has written a very readable, suspenseful narrative, including information from many sources, as well as maps and photos of the major characters. While the subject is difficult, Pileck is a true and inspiring hero. Don't we all need more heroes to face the challenges of our generation?
Molly B. (Longmont, CO)

A Timely Warning
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, a Polish nationalist who volunteered to be captured and imprisoned in order to report back on the mysteries of Auschwitz. 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. I was reminded that people can do good things for very different reasons. Most importantly at this time in our nation's history, this books 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.
Erin J. (Milwaukie, OR)

Thoroughly researched
History buffs looking to learn more about Auschwitz and how it evolved from a brutal concentration camp for Polish prisoners to the efficient genocide machine that murdered millions of Jewish men, women, and children will find The Volunteer fascinating. Witold's widespread resistance network accomplished astonishing feats and suffered painful setbacks. It's a difficult book to read, both for the subject matter and the density (the confusing array of characters alone rates more than a dozen pages in a supplemental section at the end of the book), but book clubs will find plenty to discuss, particularly when comparing political climates then and now, as well as recent revelations about similar camps and practices currently in use in China against the Uyghurs.

The author's meticulous and extensive research is evident on every page and in the thick End Notes and Bibliography sections. It's a compelling story that sometimes moves along quite quickly and other times feels like the book lasts as long as the war, with the timeline a bit of a muddle, despite the author's best efforts to keep the myriad details organized.
Jeanne B. (Albuquerque, NM)

The Volunteer
The Volunteer is the most difficult book I've ever reviewed for BookBrowse. It is a vitally important piece of history about Auschwitz and the Polish resistance during WWII, which has been meticulously rescued from the cobwebs of time by author Jack Fairweather. His recounting of this bright bit of humanity during the most inhumane of times is as compelling as any work of fiction and certainly deserves to be remembered. I'm giving it only 4 stars because of the relentless way in which he narrates, page after page after page, the most minute details of the Nazi's 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. That was the case for me with this book. I would highly recommend it, but only with that caveat.
Mary Jane D. (Arlington Heights, IL)

Suppressed History
The Volunteer is a good nonfiction account of a brave Polish man who volunteers to be arrested and sent to Auschwitz. As part of the Polish underground he journals the atrocities at the camp and has them smuggled out hoping to draw the world's attention. Sadly no one takes notice. Jack Fairweather has done an excellent job of researching and writing a cohesive story of Withold's experiences and making disturbing and complicated history readable. How sad it took so long for the world to acknowledge and react.

Those interested and knowledgeable about this period in history will probably learn some new insights.
Janis H. (Willow Street, PA)

A Voice for Witold Pilecki
Witold Pilecki, a second lieutenant in the Polish calvary reserves, answered his country's call to bring his troop of 90 trained volunteers to defend Poland when the resistance learned that Hitler signed a pact with Stalin that would eventually destroy his country. 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 as well as the prisoners whom he could trust to become a part of the network of resistors.

The horrific acts of the SS officers are hard to read. As his network grew and more and more trains delivered Poles to their deaths, Witold sent many reports of the atrocities to the underground headquarters in Warsaw who then through many underground contacts forwarded them to the exiled Polish government in London. He and the other leaders planned an uprising with the help from the Allies to facilitate the destruction of Auchwitz. The British and Americans could not believe the statistics of the number of victims. One Brit admitted that they exaggerated some atrocities of WW I to garner more world attention.

Despite the fear and starvation under which the prisoners lived, Witold united them to fight and disrupt the German's plans. After several years in captivity and no response from the outside world, he escaped. Without offering any spoilers as to what happens to him at the end of his life, his frustration in knowing that the world had not listened must have been devastating. How many lives could he have saved? What is most memorable to me is that Witold stayed true to his convictions to the end. Some might call it stubbornness, some heroism, and others blind patriotism.

I feel grateful to Fairweather for telling his brave story which amid all of the secrecy of the Soviet Union's occupation of Poland and the Cold War that followed could easily have been buried along with the millions who were massacred during World War II.
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