The Volunteer: One Man, An Underground Army, And The Secret Mission To Destroy Auschwitz
By Jack Fairweather
Custom House; hardcover; $28.99
The Auschwitz concentration camp was the epicenter of Hitler’s Final Solution, and it was a living horror. Incredibly, one unsung Polish patriot orchestrated his own arrest and incarceration in the death camp in order to establish a resistance network against the Nazis.
Award-winning journalist Jack Fairweather, in his new book The Volunteer, reconstructs the remarkable, little-known story of Witold Pilecki, who spent nearly three years in the camp clandestinely working to undermine the Germans and inform the Allies of Nazi crimes, all while trying to survive.
Pilecki’s exploits were suppressed for decades after the war by Poland’s Communist government, but with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and he opening of the archives in Warsaw, the story of his heroic mission slowly emerged.
Fairweather has drawn on Pilecki’s own accounts, including previously uncovered writings, hundreds of prisoners testimonies and exclusive interviews with those who knew him and fought beside him, to paint a compelling, nuanced portrait of a hero who risked everything to bring Auschwitz’s horrors to light.
When the Germans overran Poland in September 1939, Witold Pilecki, a second lieutenant in the Polish cavalry reserves and a member of the local gantry, led his men against the invaders. With his country’s swift defeat, Pilecki, separated from his family, joined the developing resistance movement in Warsaw, where he was tasked with infiltrating the new Auschwitz concentration camp by becoming one of its prisoners. Once incarcerated, Pilecki witnessed, and himself suffered, the sadistic mistreatment of inmates by Nazis. He set to work creating a secret network of likeminded Polish prisoners who were determined to fight back against subterfuge.
In this excerpt from The Volunteer, Fairweather writes of when Pilecki dangerously smuggled the first missives about the atrocities to the exiled Polish government in London:
WARSAW – NOVEMBER 1941
The underground leader Stefan Rowecki received Witold’s reports on the gassing of Soviet POWs that autumn. He, like Witold, was unsure what to make of this development. It certainly contravened international law. But Rowecki didn’t connect the Nazis’ capacity to kill to their brutal project in Warsaw. By contrast, the policy toward Jews was murderous. The Germans had packed the city’s four-hundred-thousand-strong Jewish community into the cramped streets of the ghetto, where thousands died each month due to shortages of food and medical care. What’s more, Rowecki’s men were reporting that Germans – and some Polish collaborators – were committing mass shootings of Jews in what was now German-occupied Poland. But Rowecki saw these incidents as isolated Nazi pogroms and not as the start of a campaign of mass murder. (footnote 1 – Szarota, Okupowanjej, p. 267; Bartoszewski, 1859, p. 291; Bernstein, Rutkowski, “Liczba,” p. 84; Ringelblum, Notes, loc. 3484; Zimmerman, The Polish, p. 95.)
The gassing in Auschwitz seemed to be a one-off, and Rowecki’s colleagues theorized that the gas was a new weapon being tested for use at the front. The news that the camp was to become a major holding facility for Soviet POWs suggested that the Nazis wanted to use the Soviets as slave labor like the Poles. (2- A couple of stories appeared that October in Informacia biezqua, the underground newspaper, with sparse descriptions of the killings in a special bunker in the camp. One of the articles concluded that the gas was being tested for use on the eastern front. Informacia biezqua 21, 202/III-7, p. 12, in Marczewska, Wazniewski et al., Zesztyty (1968), p. 14; 202/III-28, p. 447, in Marczewska, Wazniewski et al., Zesztyty (1968), p. 11.)
Rowecki had Witold’s reports written up and gave them to his best courier, Sven Norrman, a staid fifty-four-year-old Swede who ran the Polish branch of a Swedish electrical engineering firm in Warsaw. Norman despised what the Nazis were doing to his adopted city and believed that as an outsider he had a duty to share what he saw. Sweden’s neutrality in the war meant he could travel between Poland and Stockholm, making him the ideal courier. Rowecki regularly met Norrman at U Elny Gistedt in the city center, where they could be assured of the hostess’s discretion, a decent meal of black market fare, and beer served secretly in paper cups. (3- Lewandowki, Swedish, pp. 45-49; Thorsell, Warszawasvenskarna, p. 167; Gistedt, Od operetki, pp. 88-102.)
Norrman left for Berlin in mid-November carrying a report that contained the news of the gassings on a roll of 16 mm or 35 mm microfilm hidden in a false-bottomed suitcase. Microfilm had been developed before the war to preserve newspapers. A single roll, produced using a camera fitted with a microscopic lens, could contain 2,400 pages of reports and had the virtue of being unreadable to the naked eye, buying time in the event of capture. (4- Wyczasnki, Mikrofilm, p. 25.)
Norrman loudly professed his admiration for National Socialism to his companions on the train and passed through Berlin’s Tempelhof airport without problems to board a Douglas plane to Stockholm. Despite German pressure, the Poles had kept open their legation in the Swedish capital. Norrman probably handed over the microfilm there so that it could be sent on the clandestine mail run that the British operated around the northern tip of Norway to the Leuchars air base, near St. Andrews on the Scottish coast. From there, the report was delivered to London for vetting by the British authorities before finally reaching the Polish leader, Wladyslaw Sikorski, at his Rubens hotel headquarters by the end of November. (5- Korbonski, Fighting, p. 157; Thorsell, Warszawasvenskarna, p. 134; Lewandowski, Swedish, p. 62; Thurgutt, [Lis], November 19, 1941, PISM, A.9.III.4/14; Siudak, [Lis], December 29, 1941, PISM, A.9.III.4/14; Garlinski, Fighting, p. 58.)
The report reached London as British officials were developing their own understanding of German atrocities in the Soviet Union. The immediate threat of an invasion of Britain had abated, and though the Luftwaffe continued to strike at British cities, the Blitz was less intense. Londoners talked quietly about the passing of the storm, but Churchill knew the war hung in the balance.
“Every week [Hiter’s] firing parties are busy in a dozen lands,” Churchill told radio listeners on May 3, 1941. “Mondays he shoots Dutchmen. Tuesdays, Norwegians. Wednesday, French or Belgians stand against the wall. Thursdays it is Czechs who must suffer, and now there are the Serbs and the Greeks to fill his repulsive bill of executions. But always, all the days, there are the Poles.” (6- Roberts, Churchill, p. 651.)
Such public statements by Churchill fit within the established narrative of German brutality and were mainly intended to remind British listeners of the need to keep fighting Hitler. But Churchill also knew that the start of the German offensive against the Soviet Union in June 1941 marked a disturbing shift in the nature of Nazi atrocities. British cryptographers at Bletchley Park had been listening in on some of the signals the Germans sent via so-called Enigma machines, a device that used rotors to mechanically scramble letters. The Germans were so confident that the Enigma could not be cracked that they rarely changed their codes, but Polish intelligence had made a secret replica of an early version of the machine and had passe it on to the British in 1939. In late June 1941, the cryptographers started picking up intercepted radio messages sent by the Orpo militarized police units to Berlin listing the huge numbers of Jews they had shot alongside so-called partisans and Communist sympathizers. (7- Roberts, Churchill, p. 652; Breitman, Official, pp. 89-92.)
The numbers were so shockingly high that at first, British analysts puzzled over the decoded lists.
“Whether all those executed as ‘Jews’ are indeed such is of course doubtful,” wrote one analyst. “Many no doubt were not Jews; but the fact that this heading invariably produces the biggest figures shows that this is the ground for killing most acceptable to the Higher Authorities.” (8- Terry, “Conflicting,” p. 364.)
By the end of August 1941, Churchill understood that the Nazi campaign against the Jews was murderous and unprecedented in scale. But like Rowecki in Warsaw, he too failed to identify it as genocidal. He knew of prewar Nazi policy targeting German Jews and that Hitler had threatened to make all Jews pay for the war, but he doesn’t appear to have connected Nazi dogma with the details emerging from Russia.