A Rebel in Auschwitz: The True Sto­ry of the Resis­tance Hero who Fought the Nazis from Inside the Camp

  • Review
By – September 6, 2021

Jack Fair­weath­er has adapt­ed his book about Pol­ish resis­tance fight­er Witold Pilec­ki, The Vol­un­teer, for young adult read­ers. A Chris­t­ian Pol­ish patri­ot who was deeply com­mit­ted to the inde­pen­dence of his coun­try, Pilec­ki posi­tioned him­self to be impris­oned in Auschwitz in order to smug­gle infor­ma­tion to the out­side world about the hor­rors per­pe­trat­ed there. He was active­ly involved in foment­ing sub­ver­sive activ­i­ties and, ulti­mate­ly, rebel­lion in the noto­ri­ous camp. When he final­ly escaped, he par­tic­i­pat­ed in the doomed attempt by Poles to lib­er­ate their city in the War­saw Upris­ing of 1944. (This event was dis­tinct from the upris­ing led by Jews in the War­saw Ghet­to). Fair­weath­er recounts in detail how Pilec­ki and his fel­low polit­i­cal pris­on­ers man­aged, against all odds, to help some to sur­vive and escape the camp, although his hope that the Allies would inter­vene to help them end­ed in dis­ap­point­ment. Many read­ers are unfa­mil­iar with the actu­al devel­op­ment of the Final Solu­tion to the Jew­ish Ques­tion,” and this book reveals how that hor­rif­ic process unfolded.

Auschwitz con­cen­tra­tion camp was not orig­i­nal­ly con­struct­ed as an exter­mi­na­tion camp for Jews, but as a prison for Poles and polit­i­cal dis­si­dents. From ear­ly on, many inmates were bru­tal­ly tor­tured and even­tu­al­ly exe­cut­ed, but it was not until 1942 that the camp’s prin­ci­pal pur­pose became the total elim­i­na­tion of Europe’s Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion. Ini­tial­ly, Pilec­ki him­self, who was sub­ject to slave labor, had dif­fi­cul­ty grasp­ing that gassing thou­sands of Jews imme­di­ate­ly upon their arrival had become part of an encom­pass­ing sys­tem of anni­hi­la­tion. An under­ground net­work of Pol­ish patri­ots had fought against Sovi­et aggres­sion after World War I and then Ger­man occu­pa­tion from 1939.

In 1940, as part of his resis­tance activ­i­ties, Pilec­ki vol­un­tar­i­ly placed him­self in a sit­u­a­tion lead­ing to his arrest and sub­se­quent intern­ment in Auschwitz. From that point on, Fair­weath­er describes the hell­ish con­di­tions of the camp and Pilecki’s focused per­sis­tence on his goals. From con­struct­ing a clan­des­tine radio to keep­ing metic­u­lous records of the atroc­i­ties that he wit­nessed, Pilec­ki and his asso­ciates oper­at­ed under the opti­mistic assump­tion that the Allies, once they knew exact­ly what the Nazis were inflict­ing on Auschwitz’s inmates, would pri­or­i­tize destroy­ing the camp.

Fair­weath­er exam­ines Pilecki’s char­ac­ter and psy­cho­log­i­cal moti­va­tions in a broad and gen­er­al way, as some­one so com­mit­ted to the lib­er­a­tion of his home­land that he is will­ing to sep­a­rate him­self from his fam­i­ly and even to risk his life. In con­trast, the book ana­lyzes in an almost clin­i­cal way the cal­cu­lat­ed and method­i­cal cru­el­ty of the Nazis. The author con­vinces read­ers of the bizarre dichoto­my between ordi­nary human behav­ior and Nazi bar­bar­i­ty, as when Pilec­ki observes that Out­side the camp, this offi­cer appeared to be a respectable man, but once he crossed its gate, he became a sadis­tic mur­der­er. That he could inhab­it both worlds at once seemed most mon­strous of all.” One of the sig­na­ture achieve­ments of this book is to present con­crete­ly this idea, per­haps under­stood by young read­ers only in an abstract way. Even if this hor­ren­dous trans­for­ma­tion, from ordi­nary human to mon­ster, can nev­er be ful­ly under­stood, read­ers will gain a more com­plete view of how the process became an accept­ed norm dur­ing the Nazi era.

One of the more admirable aspects of Fairweather’s book is his con­sis­tent acknowl­edge­ment of an impor­tant para­dox: many mem­bers of the Pol­ish resis­tance har­bored either casu­al or vehe­ment anti­se­mit­ic beliefs. The author even asserts that Pilec­ki him­self shared some of these prej­u­dices, although he nev­er gives spe­cif­ic exam­ples, only stat­ing that he was a man of his time and social class.” Even in the after­word, hav­ing con­clud­ed the book with Pilecki’s tor­ture and exe­cu­tion by the total­i­tar­i­an pro-Sovi­et Pol­ish gov­ern­ment, Fair­weath­er reminds read­ers that the sub­ject of his book had lim­its” to his empa­thy. Witold nev­er came to see the Holo­caust as the defin­ing act of World War II,” he writes, cau­tion­ing read­ers against ide­al­iz­ing even a man whose extra­or­di­nary deeds would seem to speak for them­selves. Read­ers will leave the book with many fur­ther ques­tions, and will make their own informed judg­ment about the moral fiber of this excep­tion­al leader.

A Rebel in Auschwitz is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed and includes a list of major fig­ures in Pilecki’s life and a bibliography.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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