Lead book review

The tragic story of Witold Pilecki, whose reports from Auschwitz fell on deaf ears

13 July 2019

9:00 AM

13 July 2019

9:00 AM

On 14 October 1942, the 23 Swiss members of the International Committee of the Red Cross met in Geneva to decide whether or not to go public with what they then knew about Auschwitz and the Nazis’ extermination plans. When they emerged two hours later they had voted, almost unanimously, to remain silent. As did the US state department, the British government and the Vatican — all in possession of the same evidence of mass murder across German-occupied Europe.

The reasons given ranged from the danger of reprisals against Allied PoWs to the need to focus on military targets, and thus shorten the war. And, most importantly, because of a profound unwillingness to believe what they had been told. It was not until late December that public statements of condemnation were made, and Anthony Eden told the House of Commons that the Nazis were ‘pursuing a bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination’. Even then, no action was taken.

Exactly who knew what when about the Holocaust has been the subject of countless books, debates, reports and articles since the end of the second world war. Jack Fairweather, a former war correspondent for the Washington Post, has now unearthed remarkable, long-neglected material about the early days of Auschwitz, and how, from the camp’s very beginnings in 1940, information was emerging regularly about its murderous purpose.

In 2011 Fairweather learned about a band of Polish resisters who had repeatedly risked death to get accurate documentation about the killings in Auschwitz to the underground in Warsaw and from there to the Allies in London. A report by a man called Witold Pilecki had come to light in the 1960s, but it was some time before its coded entries were deciphered and not until after the collapse of the Soviet Union that more material was discovered buried in Poland’s state archives. It was only then that Pilecki’s son Andrzej obtained a large briefcase containing not just his father’s files but his codes. The story they tell is extraordinary.

At the time of the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, Pilecki was living as a small landowner near the border between East Prussia and Lithuania, and was married with two children. Having been mobilised to fight a doomed war against the invaders, he helped set up an information network on German atrocities. As news reached him of a camp being established at Auschwitz, where prisoners were dying at an alarming rate, Pilecki decided to get himself arrested and sent there to gather intelligence.

Between September 1941 and April 1943, when he escaped in order to convey himself the news of what was happening, Pilecki, who as a Polish prisoner was employed in a variety of labouring jobs, sent out report after report via couriers, other brave men who often died for their efforts. Full of statistics, they detailed the number of deaths, as well as facts about the arrival of Jewish families, the trains, the typhus, the starvation, the crematorium and the gas chambers, though it took Pilecki a long time to comprehend that Auschwitz was in fact the epicentre for the Nazi programme of extermination.

These reports, received by the Warsaw underground and got out to London and Washington, were for the most part dismissed as rumours. Whether bombing the camp (something Pilecki urged, on the grounds that it might, at the very least, give a number of prisoners a chance to escape) would in fact have changed anything is hard to say, and the Allies were in any case hard pressed militarily. But as Fairweather shows, there was no desire to believe them, particularly as the horrific killings were often watered down in the telling. ‘Poles,’ observed one man at the foreign office, ‘are being very irritating over this.’ An American official spoke of the documentation as being ‘too Semitic’. It was not until April 1944, when two Slovak Jewish prisoners escaped from Auschwitz with very precise  descriptions of the gas chambers, that the world finally took notice — though still nothing was done. But, as Fairweather convincingly notes, it was Pilecki and his group of brave and tenacious friends who laid the groundwork.

Pilecki’s own story is tragic, and Fairweather tells it well. A man of exceptional courage, he spent the rest of the war fighting with the Polish underground, took part in the Warsaw uprising against the Germans and was eventually accused of treason and put on trial in 1948 by the Polish communists and shot. Since 2000, when an account of his life was published in Poland, he has been considered a national hero.

What distinguishes The Volunteer is Fairweather’s meticulous attention to accuracy. He spent five years in the archives in Poland, the UK, the USA, Israel and Germany unearthing more family papers and interviewing the surviving men who had fought with Pilecki. His notes and bibliography run to almost 100 pages, and he uses speculation only very sparingly and when the facts seem irrefutable.

The fascination of his book lies not just in the story of Witold Pilecki and his brave friends, nor in its punctilious chronicle of the information reaching the Allies, but the light it throws on Auschwitz’s early days, before it turned into a mass-killing centre for Europe’s Jews. If it sometimes seems as though there is nothing left to uncover about the Holocaust, Fairweather’s gripping book proves otherwise.

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