The Vol­un­teer: One Man, an Under­ground Army, and the Secret Mis­sion to Destroy Auschwitz

  • Review
By – September 23, 2019

This well-researched, detailed, and fas­ci­nat­ing non-fic­tion work describes the hero­ic efforts of Witold Pilec­ki — a gen­tle­man farmer, Pol­ish cav­al­ry offi­cer, and under­ground oper­a­tive and orga­niz­er. The book recounts how, begin­ning in 1940 until his escape in 1943, Pilec­ki vol­un­tar­i­ly became an inmate in Auschwitz in order to gath­er intel­li­gence about the camp’s expan­sion and its evolv­ing hor­rif­ic role as the cen­tral death camp for Euro­pean Jews, Russ­ian pris­on­ers of war, and Pol­ish polit­i­cal prisoners.

The Vol­un­teer doc­u­ments the sig­nif­i­cant risks Pilec­ki took when send­ing reports via var­i­ous couri­ers about the occur­rences in Auschwitz to the Pol­ish under­ground and the Allied Com­mand. Yet, much to his cha­grin, when they first called for bomb­ing the camp, the camp’s inmates were pre­pared to par­tic­i­pate in an upris­ing only if a diver­sion­ary attack could be orches­trat­ed from with­out. These requests were either repeat­ed­ly ignored or sim­ply refused by the pow­ers-that-be. All sorts of excus­es, includ­ing mil­i­tary logis­ti­cal prob­lems, unwill­ing­ness to dis­tract” from the gen­er­al war effort, con­cern that Pol­ish inde­pen­dence remain on the world agen­da, indif­fer­ence on the part of the civil­ian pub­lic to depress­ing news” of mass killings, and not wish­ing to stir up” feel­ings of anti­semitism frus­trat­ed Pilec­ki and his network’s efforts. The mur­der­ous bru­tal­i­ty of war and per­se­cu­tion informs much of this book.

The per­son­al com­plex­i­ties that beset Pilec­ki are sum­ma­rized by Jack Fairweather:

Witold dis­liked pol­i­tics and the way politi­cians exploit­ed differences…He was a man of his time and his social class. He like­ly held a pater­nal view toward the local Pol­ish and Belaru­sian peas­ants and shared some of the pre­vail­ing anti-Semit­ic views. But ulti­mate­ly his sense of patri­o­tism extend­ed to any group or eth­nic­i­ty that took up Poland’s cause. They would all need to unite now to repel the Nazi threat…”

Despite the fact that the over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of those who were killed at Auschwitz were Jews, this Chris­t­ian indi­vid­ual did not allow his prej­u­dice to get the best of him. He pro­ceed­ed to dis­play remark­able com­pas­sion for all vic­tims and courage in try­ing to make oth­ers aware of the Auschwitz inmates’ dire plight. Fair­weath­er con­tends that under­stand­ing Pilecki’s motives con­sti­tutes one of his major rea­sons for research­ing and writ­ing this book.

Although Pilecki’s aspi­ra­tions were thwart­ed in the end by bureau­cra­cy and pol­i­tics, his exam­ple and per­son­al hero­ism are deeply thought-pro­vok­ing and inspiring.

Yaakov (Jack) Biel­er was the found­ing Rab­bi of the Kemp Mill Syn­a­gogue in Sil­ver Spring, MD until his retire­ment in 2015. He has been asso­ci­at­ed with Jew­ish day school edu­ca­tion for over thir­ty years. R. Biel­er served as a men­tor for the Bar Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty Look­stein Cen­ter Prin­ci­pals’ Sem­i­nar and he has pub­lished and lec­tured exten­sive­ly on the phi­los­o­phy of Mod­ern Ortho­dox education.

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