The horrors of Auschwitz remain uniquely shocking. The screams and silence of the gas chambers; the stench of the burning bodies; the limitless violence, sexual torture and medical experimentation; the selections for death from each new train entering the camp; corpses stacked under a Christmas tree as an SS “joke”; the unfathomable figure of more than one million people (the vast majority Jewish) murdered in an industrial system of killing. There has perhaps never been anywhere closer to hell on Earth.
The idea, then, that someone volunteered to enter such a place seems incredible. Yet that is exactly what Polish cavalry officer Witold Pilecki did in 1940, seeking to gather intelligence for the Resistance and foment a prisoner uprising against the occupying Nazis. While Pilecki’s story has in recent years become better known in Poland, he has often been ignored in the English-speaking world, something remedied by this meticulously researched book by British war correspondent Jack Fairweather, this year’s Costa Book of the Year.
“Look there, at the chimney. Look!” a Nazi commandant ordered Pilecki and his fellow prisoners when they arrived at the concentration camp near the southern Polish town of Oswiecim. “This is the crematory. Three thousand degrees of heat. The chimney is your only way to freedom.” Auschwitz was not yet an “extermination camp”, but the “monstrous” cruelty Pilecki witnessed – particularly towards Jewish prisoners – shocked him and, amid the torture and death, he set about organising an underground intelligence network that eventually included hundreds. When he told a potential recruit that he had deliberately allowed himself to be arrested in order to come to the camp, the prisoner told him he was “either the greatest hero or the biggest fool”.
Fairweather’s career has taken him from Kolkata to Kuwait, Iraq to Afghanistan, and he rigorously and imaginatively reconstructs Pilecki’s work. The extensive notes and references to sources in Polish and German are testament to his research team and reflect the range of skills necessary for complex non-fiction. While the transformation of Pilecki’s own words into Fairweather’s authorial voice at times leaves one wanting a more direct insight into the man and his character, the narrative approach is compelling.
As Auschwitz expanded, Pilecki began to realise that what was happening was not just an extension of Nazi political repression and war crimes, but instead a terrifying new departure for the whole of humanity. “We have strayed dreadfully,” he wrote. “I would say that we have become animals . . . but no, we are a whole level of hell worse than animals.” As mass shootings gave way to gas chambers in 1941 and 1942, Pilecki’s smuggled reports sought to emphasise that, “the most important thing is the mass killing of Jews”, brought from all over Europe “like a herd of animals to the slaughter”.
Polish Resistance pleas for the Allies to bomb Auschwitz continually fell on deaf ears, a tragic result of indifference, military prioritisation, and a failure to grasp the camp’s emerging importance as “the epicentre of a vast, mechanised genocide unparalleled in human history”. By 1943 the scale of the killing and the lack of action convinced Pilecki that he needed to escape and agitate for intervention from the outside. On Easter Monday, taking advantage of the guards’ hangovers, he escaped with some accomplices through the camp bakery, using a cast of a lock made from an impression in a ball of dough.
After walking more than 100 miles on foot and surviving being shot by Nazi soldiers, Pilecki rejoined his Resistance comrades. He was dismayed at the limited appetite for an attack on the camp, and at the attitudes of some right-wing nationalists in the diverse underground movement; Fairweather notes that its “leadership generally avoided confronting the anti-Semitic elements . . . for fear of upsetting the fragile alliance it felt was necessary to reclaim Poland’s independence”.
Despite mounting evidence of an accelerating genocide against the entire Jewish people, the Allies continued to resist calls to intervene, arguing that military victory over the Nazis was the only way to stop their crimes. After fighting heroically in the failed Warsaw Uprising in 1944, Pilecki was sent to a prison camp in Bavaria, where he was eventually liberated by the advancing Americans. He joined the Polish Corps fighting in Italy, where he wrote his most comprehensive report on Auschwitz.
Fairweather is guided by Pilecki’s own wish in those writings that “nothing should be ‘overdone’” in his story, as “even the smallest fib would profane the memory” of Auschwitz’s victims. He unquestionably emerges as an extraordinary hero not a fool, but Fairweather also wisely notes that “there were limits to how far Witold’s empathy could reach”, limits to how much he could “come to terms with the Holocaust even as the camp was transformed into a death factory before his eyes”. Auschwitz remained incomprehensible, a visit back in 1946 leaving Pilecki with ever more questions.
During Soviet occupation, Pilecki continued to file intelligence reports to the Polish government-in-exile, including on the “tragedy” of the 1946 Kielce pogrom, where dozens of Jews were murdered by Polish soldiers, police and a civilian mob. After Soviet-backed communists fully seized power in 1947, Pilecki was arrested and tortured as a “traitor” in the pay of the West, and paraded at one of the new regime’s first show trials. Having somehow survived one totalitarian regime, he became the victim of another, condemned to death and shot in the back of the head.
Pilecki was officially forgotten by communist Poland, but he has been rehabilitated since the return of democracy and the discovery of his reports. The history of the war and the Holocaust, however, remain controversial. Against protests from historians, the populist right-wing government intervened in the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk (outside which stands a statue of Pilecki), attempted to criminalise statements that might associate Poland with what it calls “German” extermination camps, and accused Polish historian Jan Gross of “libel” for his research on wartime anti-Semitic crimes. History has been repurposed for nationalist political purposes.
Yet Fairweather’s book illustrates the universal nature of the issues that Auschwitz forces us to confront, not least the indifference towards genocide that still blights our collective conscience. Witold Pilecki’s tragic and heroic story is a remarkable light shining out from one of the darkest places in human history.
Dr Christopher Kissane is an editorial fellow at History Workshop