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From the JFR Library – November 2012

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This month The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous (JFR) recommends The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery, by Witold Pilecki. The book was reviewed by Timothy Snyder for The New York Times.

Image of book "The Auschwitz Volunteer"“One man volunteered for Ausch­witz, and now we have his story. In September 1940 the 39-year-old Polish cavalry officer Witold Pilecki deliberately walked into a German roundup in Warsaw, and was sent by train to the new German camp. His astounding choice was made within, and for, Poland’s anti-Nazi underground…

…The first transport from Warsaw, in August 1940, had included two of Pilecki’s comrades. He went to Ausch­witz to discover what had become of them, and what the camp meant for Poland and the world. This he learned and conveyed.

Pilecki’s report on Ausch­witz, unpublishable for decades in Communist Poland and now translated into English under the title “The Ausch­witz Volunteer,” is a historical document of the greatest importance. Pilecki was able to smuggle out several brief reports from Ausch­witz in 1940, 1941 and 1942, and wrote two shorter reports after his escape in 1943. The long report that constitutes this book dates from 1945 and summarizes what he noted along the way: the brutality of Ausch­witz as a German concentration camp for Poles in 1940 and 1941, and its transformation into something worse over the course of the war…

…Pilecki had no difficulty seeing that the persecution of Poles, horrible though it was, was an event of a different order from the German policy of exterminating Jews from throughout Europe. He describes his own entrance to Ausch­witz in 1940, when it was a camp for Poles, as the moment when he “bade farewell to everything I had hitherto known on this earth and entered something seemingly no longer of it.” The mass gassing of Jews, which began in 1942, provokes reflections of a still more radical kind…

…Pilecki was a sympathetic though precise observer of the fate of others; his report, skillfully translated, stands somewhere between the precious few diaries we have of camp inmates (one by the Dutch Jew David Koker has just been published as “At the Edge of the Abyss”) and the great works of memory and literature by Primo Levi and Tadeusz Borowski. But Pilecki’s own sustaining obsession was Polish nationhood. He insists on understanding Ausch­witz as a trial of the Polish nation, where “a man was seen and valued for what he really was.”

Pilecki’s definition of Polish identity was one of honor and dishonor. There is nothing of the ethnic nationalism that flourished in his own homeland in the 1930s nor of the zoological nationalism of the Germans who occupied that homeland. The coherence of his report lies in his concern for his comrades in the camp. “To be honest, can I write that someone was ‘much missed’?” he says of one dead friend. “I missed them all.”…

…Volunteering for Ausch­witz and ­remaining there for almost three years was the most courageous thing Pilecki ever did, perhaps one of the most courageous things anyone has ever done. But it was not his only deed of bravery, and not the one that killed him. At war’s end in 1945, Pilecki made for Italy, to report to the command of a Polish Army that had helped the Americans and the British defeat the Germans. He then accepted what would turn out to be his final mission.

The Soviet re-entrance into Poland brought with it the progressive installation of a Communist regime. Pilecki returned to his homeland in October 1945 to report on the takeover, but in 1947 the Polish Communist secret police arrested him. He was given a show trial and executed as an imperialist spy in 1948. His Ausch­witz heroism counted for nothing with the Communists, who prosecuted a number of heroic individuals who had reported on the Holocaust or tried to aid its victims. Though Pilecki had been tortured before his trial, he maintained his dignity in court; his defense was that he was doing his duty.

“The Ausch­witz Volunteer,” the document we are now so fortunate to have, was composed in haste in Italy, just before his return to Poland, because he suspected that he would not survive. We thus owe his lucid presentation of the fate of the victims of Nazi criminality to his equally lucid anticipation of his own fate under Communism.”

— Timothy Snyder, The New York Times

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