The Volunteer is not the first account of Auschwitz that I have been read- at school we were assigned short stories by Tadeusz Borowski- and I also read bits of Laurence Rees’s Auschwitz.
This book focuses on a subject not many people like to talk about – the lack of response of the international community to the horrors committed during World War II.
How does one evaluate the struggle of Witold Pilecki who smuggled his intelligence reports out of Auschwitz, risking his and his companions lives daily – only to be met with the complete indifference of the Allies- and often a cold reception from his own countrymen?
One reads with terror his plea for the Allies to bomb the place – even if prisoners were killed, it would be an improvement on their suffering.
This plea was written before the mass murders were even started.
Soon, Pilecki was providing information about the crematoria, trying to calculate the number of people being killed every day, desperately asking for support for an uprising. Support which never came.
Why, if America and the UK were aware of the genocide being committed in Auschwitz – did they not bomb the place? Why did the Polish resistance leaders not give orders for an uprising in the camp itself, which Pilecki asked for?
All this is narrated with the pace of a thriller. It is hard to stop turning the pages, even as one struggles to absorb the horror that is described in them.
And after all this, we have an ending that reminds one of both of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim and Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamond. The futility of Pilecki’s death is devastating.
Pilecki is not idealized in this narrative. He is a man of time- with his own prejudices- but with the ability of seeing past them. Susceptible to nationalist rhetoric, he soon realizes that the Nazis were using it to foster internal divisions in the resistance.
This is not a story of a hero. This is a story of a man who did the best he could. We need more like him.