Would you volunteer to go to Auschwitz? Not as in for a visit as a tourist nowadays, but if this is 1940, would you willfully volunteer to be arrested by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz? This sounds utterly crazy, but one man in Poland faced this question in 1940, and his answer was yes.
His name was Witold Pilecki, a gentleman farmer who was a cavalry officer in the Polish army, and later became one of the underground resistance operatives in Warsaw. Author Jack Fairweather presents this real-life hero whom many of us have never heard of in his new book, The Volunteer: One Man, an Underground Army, and the Secret Mission to Destroy Auschwitz.
The book is nonfiction that is beautifully illustrated and delivered, and the story of Witold is so remarkable that the book reads and feels like a thriller. I finished reading it in a round-trip cross-country flight.
Country Over Family
In 1940, Auschwitz was a mystery to many outsiders, as well as Poland’s underground resistance. Leaders of the resistance decided that they need someone to volunteer to infiltrate Auschwitz to gain intelligence, organize resistance to Nazis from inside the camp, and even potentially orchestrate a prison breakout.
When Witold was asked if he would volunteer, he was a 39-year-old father of two, and a husband to a beautiful wife. Going to Auschwitz meant abandoning his family to danger. Witold struggled with an answer for a while. But eventually, as the book notes, “His patriotism furnished him with a sense of service.” Witold chose country over family.
It wasn’t too difficult to get himself arrested by Nazis. Witold arrived in Auschwitz on September 21st, 1940. He witnessed violence almost immediately: SS guards ordered a prisoner to run over to a fence, and shot him on the spot. The guards then “dragged ten more men from the crowd and shot them, too. This was “‘Collective responsibility for the escape,’ one of the Germans announced.”
Kapos, German-speaking Polish prisoners whom the Nazi Guard promoted to manage prisoners, singled out Jews and other prisoners who were considered as educated, such as lawyers, doctors, and professors from the new arrivals, for violent beatings in front of other prisoners, often resulting in death.
A young SS officer told the prisoners, “Let none of you imagine that he will ever leave this place alive. The rations have been calculated so that you will only survive six weeks. Anyone who lives longer must be stealing, and anyone stealing will be sent to the penal company, where you won’t live very long.” What followed the speech were more beatings imposed on selected victims.
This illustrated only the opening scene of Witold’s first day in Auschwitz. Inconceivably, it gets worse from there.
The book gave vivid descriptions of the atrocities that took place inside the camp, which had “a way of stripping away pretensions to reveal a man’s true personality,” Fairweather wrote. “Some slithered into a moral swamp while others chiseled themselves a character of finest crystal.”
Witold was one of the latter. He had close encounters with death several times, and on other occasions, he was on the verge of giving up. In the end, he survived disease, hunger, hard labor, and gruesome beatings, partly due to his luck, partly due to the generosity of others, and partly due to his unshakable commitment to his mission.
Witold developed a resistance inside the camp which, at one point, consisted of more than several hundred members. He collected intelligence data on the total number of prisoners, new arrivals, and number of deaths. He also documented the various crimes against humanity committed by the Kapos and Nazi guards. By doing so, “Witold staked his life on bringing the camp’s horror to light.”
From time to time, a non-Jewish Polish prisoner would be released after his family paid a big bribe to German authorities. In the camp, Witold would make the soon-to-be released prisoner memorize his report and upon release, find a way to deliver the report to the underground resistance in Warsaw.
Through this method, Witold’s first report on Auschwitz reached Warsaw by October 1940. The underground resistance relayed it to the Polish exile government in London, which then passed it on to the British government. Unfortunately, the British government didn’t take his report seriously. Many government officials had never heard of Auschwitz, and thought that the atrocities described in Witold’s report were exaggerated.
Witold eventually managed to escape from Auschwitz in April 1943. He spent three years in the death factory of a concentration camp, and managed to smuggle out at least 10 reports, each with more unimaginable atrocities piled on top of each other, and each with a more urgent and dire request for help. However, the Allies had a collective failure of recognizing the horrors in Auschwitz to take decisive actions, until it was too late.
Witold’s dream for an independent Poland quickly vanished as Joseph Stalin annexed large territories of Poland and controlled the rest through the Polish Communist government. The Communist government initiated campaigns of mass persecution, arresting and torturing 80,000 people. Some were murdered, and others were sent to labor camps.
Witold was among those arrested by the secret police of the Communist government, and was charged with treason on May 12th, 1947. He was tortured, interrogated, and isolated. The last time he saw his wife Maria was when he was put on his show trial on March 3rd, 1948. He told her, “Auschwitz was just a game compared to this.”
The resilient and commendable individual who survived Auschwitz was murdered by communist government in cold blood on May 25, 1948. His heroic actions and resistance in World War II were also concealed by the regime.
In the introduction of the book, Fairweather expresses that he tried to understand what qualities set Witold apart from the rest of us. The more he got to know Witold, the more he was convinced that Witold was not superhuman. On paper, he seemed rather ordinary and not so different from you and me, yet he was also extraordinary because, as Fairweather described, “this average man expanded his moral capacity to piece together, name, and act on the Nazis’ greatest crimes when others looked away.”
A book about historical events sometimes isn’t only about the past, but also serves as a mirror through which we see our own time and our own reflection. There are still crimes against humanity being committed every day.
Exhibit A today is Communist China’s mistreatment towards its Uighur Muslim minorities. More than 1 million of them are currently detained in labor camps. The ones not detained are put under unprecedented surveillance and forced into involuntary cultural assimilation with the Hans, the majority ethnic group in China. The world declared “never again” and said it would not forget the Holocaust, yet every news report about the Uighurs has only received a collective yawn.
Most governments, from Western democracies to Muslim countries, have remained silent. They are only all too happy to be receiving Chinese investments while looking the other way. Same goes for many western companies such as Apple and Google. They present themselves as defenders of freedom on their home turf, but are only too eager to comply with Chinese authorities’ demand in order to gain access to China’s colossal market.
I encourage all of us to read The Volunteer, because, as Fairweather observes, Witold’s story “demonstrates the courage needed to distinguish new evils from old, to name injustice, and to implicate ourselves in the plight of others.” We can only stop evil if we actively seek to expand our moral capacity and do not look away.