The Auschwitz Vol­un­teer: Beyond Bravery

Cap­tain Witold Pilec­ki; Jarek Gar­lin­s­ki, trans.
  • Review
By – September 7, 2012

Hav­ing attend­ed Wagner’s Ring Cycle this pre­vi­ous win­ter helps me real­ize that in every gen­er­a­tion heroes and hero­ines walk among us. These are the res­cuers who endan­ger them­selves and fam­i­ly, and most assured­ly, ruin their careers, in doing the noble thing. Among them walked a man named Cap­tain Witold Pilec­ki. The Auschwitz Vol­un­teer is a trans­la­tion of Pilecki’s account of his almost three years in Auschwitz, sup­pressed by the post­war Pol­ish com­mu­nist regime for near­ly fifty years, pub­lished in Eng­lish for the first time.

A Pol­ish army offi­cer in the Resis­tance, Pilec­ki walked into a Nazi Ger­man street round-up and, using an assumed name, became Auschwitz pris­on­er num­ber 4859. He was on a secret mis­sion for the Pol­ish gov­ern­ment to send out intel­li­gence about this new Ger­man con­cen­tra­tion camp and to build a Resis­tance Orga­ni­za­tion among the pris­on­ers.

In the begin­ning, the camp was used for the Pol­ish intel­li­gentsia and high-rank­ing Poles; and at first, he report­ed that pris­on­ers were being released for var­i­ous rea­sons. Soon after, pris­on­ers were goad­ed to run and then shot ran­dom­ly like ani­mals pur­sued in the hunt. The type of pris­on­ers changed from eth­nic Poles to Jews and the camp became the ghet­to. He wit­nessed the cre­ma­to­ria being built and the last step was its des­ti­na­tion as a killing camp and a camp for Russ­ian sol­diers. He was lucky not to be killed but claimed that although he could have died from ill­ness, death was just a mat­ter of chance. As he orga­nized the Poles, and remained in the camp a longer time, his longevi­ty per­mit­ted him to be part of a work group that was allowed to work out­side the camp and that is how he final­ly planned his escape. In the mean­time, he had accom­plished what he set out to do: orga­nized a Resis­tance and report­ed on dai­ly life inside the camp. Ulti­mate­ly, he met his death as a spy on behalf of Poland. Appen­dices; black and white pho­tos, illus­tra­tions, and maps; glos­sary; select­ed high­lights of the report.

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Mar­cia W. Pos­ner, Ph.D., of the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty, is the library and pro­gram direc­tor. An author and play­wright her­self, she loves review­ing for JBW and read­ing all the oth­er reviews and arti­cles in this mar­velous periodical.

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