Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery Paperback – 15 Jun 2012
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Extraordinary. Maclean s (Canada)"
From the Inside Flap
Soldier, Patriot Husband, Father Hero Captain Witold Pilecki the only man who volunteered to be captured and imprisoned in Auschwitz to bring out the story of the camp. September 1940. With calm deliberation, Polish Army officer Witold Pilecki walked into a Nazi German street round-up in Warsaw and became Auschwitz Prisoner No. 4859. Pilecki had volunteered for a potentially suicidal secret undercover mission for the Polish Underground: smuggle out intelligence about this new German concentration camp, and build a resistance organization among the prisoners. Barely surviving nearly three years of hunger, disease and brutality, Pilecki accomplished his mission before escaping in April 1943. His clandestine intelligence reports from Auschwitz, received by the Allies beginning in 1941, were among the earliest, including the full horrors of daily life inside the camp, the killing of Soviet soldiers taken as prisoners of war, the building of the gas chambers and mass extermination of the Jews brought to the camp. Pilecki s most comprehensive report on Auschwitz, written for his Polish Army superiors in 1945, is being published here in English for the first time. A shining example of heroism that transcends religion, race and time. Rabbi Michael Schudrich, Chief Rabbi of Poland" --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.See all Product Description
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To say that Witold Pilecki was a "man's man" is to understate the case considerably. We don't have words to adequately convey the kind of heroism Pilecki displayed. Language is a common possession and Pilecki was entirely uncommon. Witold Pilecki is one of the greatest heroes our species has produced. You're going to come away from this book wondering why Hollywood has not yet celebrated him. In fact that is a very good question to ask, and the answer reveals much about how stereotypes of Brute Polaks have been used to distort history.
"The Auschwitz Volunteer" belongs on the very short shelf of the classics of Holocaust literature, next to Anne Frank's "Diary of a Young Girl," Elie Wiesel's "Night," Primo Levi's "The Drowned and the Saved" and Tadeusz Borowski's "This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen." Most people, including most teaching courses on the Holocaust at US universities, have never heard of Witold Pilecki. This is a scandal, one Polonia is duty-bound to correct. "The Auschwitz Volunteer" must be on the core syllabus of Holocaust study.
Many readers who should read this book will shrink from it. I want to assure readers that, the entire time you are reading, you know you are in the hands of a heroically good man who endured everything he endured because he was committed to a higher cause: serving humanity, his country, and his God. Indeed, in describing events in 1943, when he had been in Auschwitz since 1940, Pilecki wrote, "Above all, I was a believer." Pilecki described how his belief in God, and his commitment to service to Poland, got him through. Pilecki is proof that as low as humanity has sunk, the light shone in the darkness. When humanity scoured the depths of depravity, it also reached the heights of heroism. In this, Witold Pilecki is like Jan Karski, Maximilian Kolbe, Irena Sendler and thousands of other heroes, who, knowing the risk they were undertaking, defied Nazism.
Captain Witold Pilecki was a forty-something officer in the underground Polish resistance movement during World War II. He was in what would eventually coalesce into the Armia Krajowa, or Home Army. Pilecki came from a long history of Polish resistance: his grandfather had been exiled to Siberia, and Pilecki formed resistance groups as a youth, and fought against the Russians in 1920, being twice decorated. He fought again when the German Nazis invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and again against the Russian Soviets when they invaded Poland on September 17, 1939. When open, armed struggle became impossible, Pilecki co-founded a group that eventually would become part of the Home Army.
In 1940, Pilecki volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz. He did so to serve his country, and humanity. Pilecki was a prisoner in Auschwitz from 1940-43. The entire time he was there, he organized prisoners, gathered information, and planned to work for the Nazi defeat.
Pilecki's report is an eyewitness, journalistic account of everyday life in a concentration camp. The material is highly disturbing, of course, but it is also fascinating. Pilecki describes the tortures the Nazis and their minions resorted to, but he also describes moments when he felt happy because he was able to overcome some obstacle, including the spiritual obstacle of the temptation to succumb to despair. These moments truly are examples of the arguments about human nature that Viktor Frankl, another Auschwitz prisoner, made in his classic, "Man's Search for Meaning."
One objective fact follows another in Pilecki's account: accounts of torture and mass murder, how Auschwitz handled its mail, sewerage, and lice infestations. How male barbers reacted to shaving the bodies of women. How prisoners being sent to their deaths greeted their former comrades they passed on the way to execution.
Pilecki's report was written in 1945, before the world had assimilated the Holocaust, before that word was even widely used, before accurate tallies of the dead had been drawn up, before powerful forces began to dictate the approved World War II narrative. His report was written for military and humanitarian purposes. His style is journalistic. He strives to provide the facts, in an unemotional manner.
His humanity seeps through nevertheless. As Pilecki himself put it, "They have told me, 'The more you stick to the bare facts, the more valuable it all will be.' Well, here I go. But we were not made of stone. It sometimes seemed as if even a stone would have broken out in a sweat."
The book is not crafted to provide the rising suspense, climax, and denouement one gets from reading a modern American bestseller. There is no Hollywood ending.
All these features of Pilecki's report, which some will assess as drawbacks, are actually the great strengths of the book. Pilecki's writing is utterly raw. He writes as someone who is confronted with atrocity first-hand would write, before he had been to grief counseling, before he had been through the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder workshop, before a committee of academics went over his document with a fine-toothed comb in order to make sure that his treatment of demographics and statistics and religions and ethnicities meets the current guidelines of Political Correctness. This is what the Holocaust looked like to an Auschwitz prisoner, on the ground, watching it happen. This is not Hollywood's or even American academia's Holocaust.
Jarek Garlinski's translation of Pilecki's work is peerless. The language is smooth and appropriately idiomatic. Garlinski is himself the son of an Auschwitz survivor. The book contains much supportive material to aid the reader. There are maps, many photographs of Pilecki and his family before, during and after the war, his underground comrades, his fellow prisoners and his Nazi tormentors, and Auschwitz. There are introductions that walk the reader through Pilecki's life story, and several appendices and an excellent index. Aquila Polonica has every reason to feel very, very proud of this book, of its substance, its style, and its unique importance.
Given how important Pilecki is, one must ask, why is he unknown? I think much of the answer can be found in my own book on the importance of the Brute Polak stereotype in Western culture.
_The Auschwitz Volunteer_ is a curious book in some ways - first of all there is quite a bit of introductory material before you get to his own story. The style can seem little off - I don't know if it's the translation or his own writing, but once you get into the meat of the story, it becomes part of the personality of the author. Pilecki has a wry way with understatement; the events he describes are often so stunning that I had to stop and think about them for a bit before continuing. I could not put this book down for long though.
Pilecki had an extraordinary perspective on Auschwitz, from being there so long (from 1940 until 1943), from running a network that he tried to infiltrate into every corner of the camp, and from his obsessing with reporting and witnessing on an intelligence level. He was at Auschwitz while it was still "only" a concentration camp, but the early regime was so harsh that it was clear extermination was the informal intent, by typhus or malnutrition or individual abuse. The inmates were given huge senseless make-work projects: moving bricks from one end of a building site to another, then the next day, moving them back.
Pilecki also coldly describes what it took to survive in Auschwitz, and how he selected people to be part of his underground network. Because he had the mission of providing intelligence to the Resistance cells outside, he had a sense of the evolution of the camp as it grew and as its purpose changed. He documents appearance and subsequent murder of Russian POWs beginning in August 1940, and the Jews and Gypsies beginning in January 1942, and how the roving killers of the camp were drawn into the selection and extermination process. The reports from Pilecki's organization within Auschwitz were sent out beginning in October 1940, eventually reaching the Polish Government in Exile in London and the Allies. He advocated an attack on the camp from the outside, but one never came.
The end of the book is a bit sudden and left me with 'wait, then what?' but Pilecki was writing in a hurry, about to ship out to Soviet occupied Poland. Pilecki specifically wanted to document his experience of Auschwitz for the record and so there is almost nothing about his family outside or his activities after his successful escape. It's the only reason I gave this book 4-stars instead of 5 ... it would have been wonderful to have more about his work in occupied Poland from 1943 on.
Witold Pilecki is now regarded as a Polish hero by his countrymen but his story is one that anyone interested in modern history would find inspiring and educational.
The reader must know something about the function of Auschwitz in order to appreciate this work. Major aids for the reader include a glossary of German terms (pp. 335-344) and especially the detailed chronology of Pilecki's experiences. (pp. 355-on).
Nowadays, Poles murdered by the Germans during WWII are commonly belittled as common wartime incidents, and merely a German drive to intimidate Poles into submission and to destroy their ability to resist. In actuality, the Germans were conducting long-term genocide on the Poles, beginning with the intelligentsia. Even when Poles were arrested for unrelated reasons, such as part of random mass arrests, they were still screened for intelligentsia. Pilecki comments how arrivals at Auschwitz were asked by the Germans for their occupation: "Replying priest, judge, lawyer, at that time meant being beaten to death...So, they were going out of their way to kill the professional classes." (pp. 17-18).
The author describes how the Germans tortured their victims. This included turning dogs on victims. Some bodies about to be cremated had been clearly mutilated. (p. 174). The starvation rations meant that the best occupation at Auschwitz was to take care of the pigs, which got better food than the inmates did. (p. 113). Being sent to the hospital meant almost certain death.
One of the diversions of the inmates was boxing with Germans. Poles usually beat the Germans, just as they had earlier in football (soccer). (pp. 205-206).
Passive resistance included the adding of numbers (tattoos) of the sick unto the bodies of the dead. (p. 182). Many inmates died of typhus. Interestingly, Poles turned this disease against the Germans by cultivating typhus-infected lice and then releasing them unto the coats of passing SS men. (p. 159). Typhus thus infected many SS men. (p. 186).
One of the nationalities mentioned by Pilecki is the Silesians. Once commonly reckoning themselves as Poles, they now turned back on their Polish nationality, considered themselves a Germanic tribe, and aspired to become block chiefs at Auschwitz. (p. 69).
The author alludes to the Germans' genocidal "Operation Zamosc". Over a hundred thousand Polish villagers from the Lublin region were eventually deported, and replaced with German colonists. Such Poles arriving at Auschwitz were gassed. Pilecki found Polish peasant shoes, clothing, and rosaries among the mountains of clothing of the Jewish victims. (p. 231). He also encountered some teenage boys who the Germans later killed with phenol injections into their hearts, instead of being gassed, for some reason. (p. 232).
Pilecki describes the mass gassings of Russians. (p. 135). He then narrates the same fate of the Jews in considerable detail. In common with Jewish survivors, Pilecki overestimates the number of Auschwitz victims as 2 million up to the time of his escape (p. 328), and 5 million by those Poles who had survived until its end. (p. 329). [The currently accepted total is about 1.5 million.] Obviously, the grossly inflated death toll at Auschwitz, often quoted as 4 million for some time after the war, was a survivors' exaggeration. It was not (as sometimes alleged) some kind of postwar Polish invention designed to hide the Jewishness of most of the victims.
Jan T. Gross and his neo-Stalinist friends have argued that Poles should have been more willing to risk their lives by hiding Jews since they already risked their lives in Underground activity--implying that Polish fears of German reprisals were selective and that Jews were of little importance to Poles. This is nonsense. Pilecki makes it clear that the German-imposed death penalty had been an all-around deterrent: "Our population in Warsaw had very willingly provided help to people in the underground movement, especially during the initial phases when people had not yet been terrified by dreadful descriptions of concentration camps, or of the Aleja Szucha. Later, finding `safe houses' would be harder..." (p. 152).
Pilecki's escape from Auschwitz is elaborated in spellbinding detail. He was surprised to find other escapees, from German concentration camps, in Warsaw. Years later, when imprisoned (and soon thereafter murdered) by the Communists, Pilecki was quoted as saying that his stay at Auschwitz had been "child's play" compared with his tortures under the Communist authorities. (p. liv).
This remarkable book is about 400 pages long and includes a valuable glossary including both German and Pollish slang and acronyms, worth the price of the book itself. There is also a useful explanation of German terms describing the ranks and positions within the camps. Run by SS, these terms are separate and distinct from the ranks used by the rest of the Wehrmacht. Both of the translator's parents served in the Polish underground during the war and were familiar with these otherwise obscure distinctions. Pilecki's original report used code numbers and letters for some people and places described by the report. This is standard field-craft for such operations, but can be frustrating for subsequent generations of readers. That problem is remedied by an appendix which explains the coded references in Captain Pilecki's original report.
All of this treasure trove of information is thoroughly indexed and there are even discussion questions added for class discussions of Pilecki's report. This is appropriate for post-secondary level seminars on the Holocaust and would be quite helpful, in my opinion.
The book includes maps, charts, and photographs as needed. Captain Pilecki survived under terrible conditions, escaped and completed his report informing the civilized world of the new Dark Age inside the huge Nazi death camp of Auschwitz.
As the war ground to its tragic, bloody end in 1945, Captain Pilecki again volunteered to leave his beloved wife and two children and return to the chaos of his homeland as the Communists consolidated their hold on power. The dauntless patriot was captured, tortured and executed by the Communists in 1948 as a capitalist spy.
Today, he is honored as one of Poland's greatest heroes. He was a remarkable officer and his service was truly "beyond bravery," as suggested by the title.
If you're interested in military history, Poland, the Holocaust, or true adventure against hopeless odds, you'll find a lot to like in THE AUSCHWITZ VOLUNTEER. I liked it and gave it five stars.