The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather: the hero who first exposed the Holocaust

The Costa Book of the Year compellingly tells how Witold Pilecki infiltrated Auschwitz

Witold Pilecki (1901-1948): founder of the Secret Polish Army resistance group in Nazi-occupied Poland. Photograph: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty

Witold Pilecki (1901-1948): founder of the Secret Polish Army resistance group in Nazi-occupied Poland. Photograph: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty

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.

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