Review of the Volunteer: One Man, an Underground Army, and the Secret Mission to Destroy Auschwitz by Jack Fairweather Rating **** 1/2
Not too many people would volunteer to be imprisoned in a German prison camp. A member of the Polish underground, Witold Pilecki, did just that. His goal was to learn what was happening at Auschwitz, report his findings to the outside world, and then form a rebellion within the camp. It turned out that getting into Auschwitz was not that hard. The other parts of his plan, however, proved more difficult.
The one thing about the holocaust that is hard to wrap your head around is that it required the participation of so many people. It wasn’t just Hitler and a handful of racist officers. There were thousands of lower-ranking people who were equally complicit. How does someone become so depraved that their only excuse for assisting with the killings of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children is that they were just following orders?
Once Witold learns the true purpose of Auschwitz, he makes numerous attempts to notify Polish authorities. He sees trainloads of women and children routinely marched into gas chambers on a daily basis. The outside world, however, is preoccupied with other war concerns. Witold asks to have the camp bombed. He argues that even if it results in the deaths of some inmates, the cost of not acting is too great.
There are plans for an uprising from within the camp, but those plans run into difficulties due to the killings of some of the major planners, the general weakness of the men, and a lack of resources.
Even when Witold successfully escapes Auschwitz, he finds the outside world unwilling to take action. He attempts to form his own assault group but fails in that endeavor as well. Meanwhile, the Germans are building new gas chambers and crematoriums to accommodate the influx of people they intend to kill.
It’s a depressing tale but one worth learning about.