Summary and book reviews of The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather

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
    Paperback:
    Jun 2020, 528 pages

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About this Book

Book Summary

Winner of the Costa Book of the Year Award. The incredible true story of a Polish resistance fighter's infiltration of Auschwitz to sabotage the camp from within, and his daring escape to warn the Allies about the Nazis' true plans for a "Final Solution."

To uncover the fate of the thousands being interred at a mysterious Nazi camp on the border of the Reich, a young Polish resistance fighter named Witold Pilecki volunteered for an audacious mission: intentionally get captured and transported to the new camp to report back on what was going on there. But gathering information was not his only task: he was to execute an attack from inside' - where the Germans would least expect it. 

The name of the camp was Auschwitz.

Over the next two and half years, Pilecki forged an underground army within Auschwitz that sabotaged facilities, assassinated Nazi informants and officers, and smuggled out evidence of terrifying abuse and mass murder. But as the annihilation of innocents accelerated, Pilecki realized he would have to attempt another perilous mission: escape Auschwitz and somehow - with more than 900 miles of Nazi-occupied territory in the way - deliver his alert to London before all was lost...

Completely erased from the historical record by Poland's Communist government, Pilecki remains almost unknown to the world. Now, with exclusive access to previously hidden diaries, family and camp survivor accounts and recently declassified files, Jack Fairweather reveals Witold's exploits with vivid, cinematic bravura. He also uncovers the tragic outcome of Pilecki's mission, in which the ultimate betrayal came not on the Continent, but England.

Chapter 1

Invasion

KRUPA, EASTERN POLAND

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 ...

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  • award image

    Costa Book Awards
    2019

Reviews

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I have read many WWII books both fiction and non-fiction and this is one of the best. Kudos to Mr. Fairweather (Joanne V). 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 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)...continued

Full Review (697 words).

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Media Reviews

Wall Street Journal - Neal Bascomb
Years ago, I considered writing about this little-known Polish hero. After researching and chronicling the hunt for Adolf Eichmann, I couldn’t withstand another foray into the Holocaust. I am glad that such a fine writer and indefatigable researcher as Mr. Fairweather took on the job. This is a story that has long deserved a robust, faithful telling, and he has delivered it.

The Economist
Witold Pilecki is one of the great?perhaps the greatest?unsung heroes of the second world war...Jack Fairweather’s meticulous and insightful book is likely to be the definitive version of this extraordinary life.

The Guardian
Journalist Jack Fairweather’s account of Pilecki’s bravery, endurance and humanity is the well deserved winner of the 2019 Costa biography award. As he says, Pilecki’s story is “essential for our understanding of how Auschwitz came into being”. The concentration camp was transformed into a death factory before Pilecki’s eyes. During nearly three years in Auschwitz, he risked his life to reveal the camp’s true horror. His heroic attempts to alert the world to what was happening were only fully revealed after the fall of the Soviet Union and the opening of the Polish state archives.

Publishers Weekly
Fairweather tells this tragic tale in gripping fashion, bringing a new angle to the literature of the Holocaust.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Fairweather shines a powerful spotlight on a courageous man and his impressive accomplishments in the face of unspeakable evil. An inspiring story beautifully told.

Booklist (starred review)
Drawing Pilecki’s witnessing of appalling crimes into a forceful narrative with unstoppable reading momentum, Fairweather has created an insightful biography of a covert war hero and an extraordinary contribution to the history of the Holocaust.

Author Blurb Sebastian Junger, bestselling author of The Perfect Storm and Tribe
Superbly written and breathtakingly researched, The Volunteer smuggles us into Auschwitz and shows us—as if watching a movie—the story of a Polish agent who infiltrated the infamous camp, organized a rebellion, and then snuck back out. We are squarely confronted with the other human truth: ordinary people will happily risk their lives to help others. Fairweather has dug up a story of incalculable value and delivered it to us in the most compelling prose I have read in a long time.

Reader Reviews

Lisa O. (Brewster, 10509)

The Volunteer
I really enjoy reading about unsung heroes so this book about Witold Pilecki seemed right up my alley. "The Volunteer" did not disappoint. I found the account of Pilecki's infiltration of Auschwitz interesting, informative, heartbreaking, and ...   Read More

Joanne V. (Towanda, PA)

Witold Pilecki, an unknown hero
Mr. Fairweather has produced an awesome book about a little known Polish hero who endured the horrors of Auschwitz - how and why he comes to be there and what happens to him after WWII is both compelling and disturbing. This book should be required ...   Read More

Mary Anne R. (Towson, MD)

The Story of Witold Pilecki
This book is the history of Witold Pilecki's heroic efforts to let the world know of the evil of Auschwitz. I embraced the brave work of Witold and the many heroes I met in this book. The author includes a list of characters in the back of the book. ...   Read More

Emily C. (Naples, FL)

Witold Pilecki's Heroism Defying the Nazi Regime
As a former history teacher, I am always fascinated with newly published accounts of historical events unknown to me. It is for that reason that the reading of Jack Fairweather's THE VOLUNTEER absorbed me for days and nights on end. Fairweather, ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Auschwitz-Birkenau Today

Coat with a Star of David patch on display at the Auschwitz MuseumThe Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp (the setting of Jack Fairweather's riveting history The Volunteer) was liberated by the Soviet Army on January 27, 1945. In 1946, Poland's Ministry of Culture and Art recognized the need to preserve the site of so much horror for memorial and educational purposes, and set to work on a museum. Delegates from the Jewish Historical Commission advised, and the facility, while still under construction, began admitting the public in June of 1947.

Today, the museum and memorial at Auschwitz (which encompasses both Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, situated just under two miles from one another) serves a vital role in educating the public about the atrocities of the Nazis—a stark reminder of ...

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