‘The Auschwitz Volunteer,’ by Witold Pilecki

Reviewed by Timothy Snyder in the New York Times Book Review:

ScreenHunter_04 Jun. 23 14.26One 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.

Poland had been destroyed a year earlier by its two powerful neighbors: eastern Poland had been annexed by the Soviet Union; the western half, including Warsaw, was taken by Nazi Germany. The Soviets overwhelmed Polish attempts at resistance in their zone, but under the Germans, officers like Pilecki managed to establish confidential networks that would come to be known as the Underground State and the Home Army. Ausch­witz was set up to render Polish opposition to German rule impossible, and 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for decades in Communist Poland and now translated into English under the title “The Ausch­witz Volunteer,” is a historical document of the greatest importance.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.

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