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 Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.