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The Volunteer
Cover of The Volunteer
The Volunteer
One Man, an Underground Army, and the Secret Mission to Destroy Auschwitz
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COSTA BOOK AWARD WINNER: BOOK OF THE YEAR#1 SUNDAY TIMES (UK) BESTSELLER

"Superbly written and breathtakingly researched, The Volunteer smuggles us into Auschwitz and shows us—as if watching a movie—the story of a Polish agent who infiltrated the infamous camp, organized a rebellion, and then snuck back out. ... Fairweather has dug up a story of incalculable value and delivered it to us in the most compelling prose I have read in a long time." —Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm and Tribe

The incredible true story of a Polish resistance fighter's infiltration of Auschwitz to sabotage the camp from within, and his death-defying attempt to warn the Allies about the Nazis' plans for a "Final Solution" before it was too late.

To uncover the fate of the thousands being interred at a mysterious Nazi camp on the border of the Reich, a thirty-nine-year-old Polish resistance fighter named Witold Pilecki volunteered for an audacious mission: assume a fake identity, intentionally get captured and sent to the new camp, and then report back to the underground on what had happened to his compatriots there. But gathering information was not his only task: he was to execute an attack from inside—where the Germans would least expect it.

The name of the camp was Auschwitz.

Over the next two and half years, Pilecki forged an underground army within Auschwitz that sabotaged facilities, assassinated Nazi informants and officers, and gathered evidence of terrifying abuse and mass murder. But as he pieced together the horrifying truth that the camp was to become the epicenter of Nazi plans to exterminate Europe's Jews, Pilecki realized he would have to risk his men, his life, and his family to warn the West before all was lost. To do so, meant attempting the impossible—an escape from Auschwitz itself.

Completely erased from the historical record by Poland's post-war Communist government, Pilecki remains almost unknown to the world. Now, with exclusive access to previously hidden diaries, family and camp survivor accounts, and recently declassified files, Jack Fairweather offers an unflinching portrayal of survival, revenge and betrayal in mankind's darkest hour. And in uncovering the tragic outcome of Pilecki's mission, he reveals that its ultimate defeat originated not in Auschwitz or Berlin, but in London and Washington.

COSTA BOOK AWARD WINNER: BOOK OF THE YEAR#1 SUNDAY TIMES (UK) BESTSELLER

"Superbly written and breathtakingly researched, The Volunteer smuggles us into Auschwitz and shows us—as if watching a movie—the story of a Polish agent who infiltrated the infamous camp, organized a rebellion, and then snuck back out. ... Fairweather has dug up a story of incalculable value and delivered it to us in the most compelling prose I have read in a long time." —Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm and Tribe

The incredible true story of a Polish resistance fighter's infiltration of Auschwitz to sabotage the camp from within, and his death-defying attempt to warn the Allies about the Nazis' plans for a "Final Solution" before it was too late.

To uncover the fate of the thousands being interred at a mysterious Nazi camp on the border of the Reich, a thirty-nine-year-old Polish resistance fighter named Witold Pilecki volunteered for an audacious mission: assume a fake identity, intentionally get captured and sent to the new camp, and then report back to the underground on what had happened to his compatriots there. But gathering information was not his only task: he was to execute an attack from inside—where the Germans would least expect it.

The name of the camp was Auschwitz.

Over the next two and half years, Pilecki forged an underground army within Auschwitz that sabotaged facilities, assassinated Nazi informants and officers, and gathered evidence of terrifying abuse and mass murder. But as he pieced together the horrifying truth that the camp was to become the epicenter of Nazi plans to exterminate Europe's Jews, Pilecki realized he would have to risk his men, his life, and his family to warn the West before all was lost. To do so, meant attempting the impossible—an escape from Auschwitz itself.

Completely erased from the historical record by Poland's post-war Communist government, Pilecki remains almost unknown to the world. Now, with exclusive access to previously hidden diaries, family and camp survivor accounts, and recently declassified files, Jack Fairweather offers an unflinching portrayal of survival, revenge and betrayal in mankind's darkest hour. And in uncovering the tragic outcome of Pilecki's mission, he reveals that its ultimate defeat originated not in Auschwitz or Berlin, but in London and Washington.

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About the Author-
  • Jack Fairweather has been a correspondent for the Washington Post and the Daily Telegraph, where he served as the Baghdad and Persian Gulf bureau chief. His reporting during the Iraq War earned him Britain's top press award. The author of A War of Choice and The Good War, he splits his time between the UK and Vermont.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    April 29, 2019
    “Witold Pilecki volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz,” writes former war correspondent Fairweather in this immaculately detailed history, and rather than being heralded as a hero, he was tried, executed, and “effectively deleted from history” by his country. Fairweather mines letters, coded diaries, and personal interviews to tell the story of how Pilecki, a gentleman farmer and Polish cavalry officer, left his family, assumed a false identity, and handed himself over to the Gestapo for imprisonment at Auschwitz along with all the other military-age men in Warsaw. For two and a half years, he endured torture, starvation, and disease, witnessing Jewish families being led to the gas chambers and choking on the fumes from burning bodies, all the while risking his life to collect information on death tolls and building plans for death chambers and crematoriums that would be smuggled out by released upper-class prisoners. Pilecki was devastated when the Polish resistance and the Allies refused to believe that Auschwitz had become the center of the “final solution.” After escaping on his own, Pilecki returned to a Poland decimated by the fleeing Germans and seized by the encroaching Communist forces, which labeled him a traitor for opposing them and executed him. Fairweather tells this tragic tale in gripping fashion, bringing a new angle to the literature of the Holocaust. Illus. Agent: Larry Weissman, Larry Weissman Literary.

  • Kirkus

    Starred review from May 1, 2019
    One man's remarkable heroism in the face of Nazi terror. Nothing about Auschwitz is pleasant reading. Thankfully, Fairweather (The Good War: Why We Couldn't Win the War or the Peace in Afghanistan, 2014), a former correspondent for the Washington Post and the Daily Telegraph, delivers a well-written, riveting work. The protagonist is Polish resistance fighter Witold Pilecki (1901-1948), part of Poland's cavalry reserves, much of which was decimated by the blitzkrieg's main panzer thrust. With Warsaw surrounded, most military leaders left the country, but Pilecki and another officer banded together and organized the remaining soldiers. During this time, Germany continued to pit ethnic groups against each other and, mostly, against the Jews. Nationalism was flourishing, and attacks on Jews escalated. When Pilecki tried to fuse their group with the mainstream underground, his partner asked him to form a new group--in Auschwitz, to fight from the inside. Once inside, a Polish work foreman got him a builder's job, which allowed him to start developing resistance cells among prisoners. In addition to some brave locals, newly released prisoners passed on his reports to Warsaw and then to London. The camp doctor saved Pilecki's life more than once, but in many of his messages, Pilecki begged to have the camp, arsenals, and railways bombed. Despite his messages, the Allies made excuses, claiming that winning the war was the only way to control the camps. Based on the reports from Pilecki, they certainly knew that Auschwitz had become a death camp. Using myriad sources to paint the pictures of the camp's horrors, including the prime source, Pilecki's memoir, which has only recently been translated, Fairweather shines a powerful spotlight on a courageous man and his impressive accomplishments in the face of unspeakable evil. An inspiring story beautifully told.

    COPYRIGHT(2019) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Booklist

    Starred review from June 1, 2019
    Following the German conquest of Poland in 1939, officers of the defeated country's army coalesced into an underground resistance organization. When they learned of a mysterious camp in which the Nazis imprisoned their compatriots, they decided to collect intelligence by infiltrating the place with an operative. Witold Pilecki volunteered and contrived to be arrested and sent to Auschwitz. When he arrived in late 1940, it was not yet a murder factory, though its expansion into such a hideous facility is hinted at in various reports that Pilecki smuggled out to the Polish underground. Of more immediate importance to Pilecki was preparing his fellow Poles for a breakout and documenting Nazi atrocities inside the camp. Only a few Poles escaped, including Pilecki, and they then fought in the tragic Warsaw uprising of 1944. Pilecki survived, continued an underground life of resistance in postwar Poland, wrote a memoir about his experiences in Auschwitz, and was arrested by the communist regime, which put him to death in 1948. Drawing Pilecki's witnessing of appalling crimes into a forceful narrative with unstoppable reading momentum, Fairweather has created an insightful biography of a covert war hero and an extraordinary contribution to the history of the Holocaust.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2019, American Library Association.)

  • The Spectator "Superbly written and breathtakingly researched...Fairweather has dug up a story of incalculable value and delivered it to us in the most compelling prose I have read in a long time."
  • Andrew Roberts, bestselling author of Churchill: Walking with Destiny "Such an amazing story, it would be impossible to believe if it were not so meticulously researched and clearly told. The book succeeds as a page-turner, a remarkable inside view of the Holocaust, and also as a testament to all that is best in the human spirit."
  • Simon Sebag Montefiore, bestselling author of The Romanovs

    "This is a riveting account of human heroism in the face of overwhelming odds, and Fairweather's storytelling is simply masterful."
  • Kirkus Reviews (starred review) "As riveting as any page-turner and as profound as any great work of literature as it reveals humanity's capacity for both courage and savagery."
  • The Guardian “Fairweather tells this tragic tale in gripping fashion, bringing a new angle to the literature of the Holocaust.”
  • The Economist “An inspiring story beautifully told.”
  • Publishers Weekly “Drawing Pilecki's witnessing of appalling crimes into a forceful narrative with unstoppable reading momentum, Fairweather has created an insightful biography of a covert war hero and an extraordinary contribution to the history of the Holocaust.”
  • Elliot Ackerman, author of Places and Names and Waiting for Eden “Hours of reading passed in what felt like moments ... This is a story that has long deserved a robust, faithful telling, and he has delivered it.”
  • Telegraph (UK) “An extraordinary story.”
  • Sunday Times (London) “What distinguishes The Volunteer is Fairweather's meticulous attention to accuracy ... if it sometimes seems as though there is nothing left to uncover about the Holocaust, Fairweather's gripping book proves otherwise.”
  • Jon Lee Anderson, New Yorker writer and author of The Lion’s Grave: Dispatches from Afghanistan "A searing account ... a fitting memorial to one of Poland's greatest war heroes and a shaming indictment of the western allies' failure to act."
  • Booklist (starred review) "Witold Pilecki is one of the great―perhaps the greatest―unsung heroes of the second world war ... Jack Fairweather's meticulous and insightful book is likely to be the definitive version of this extraordinary life."
  • Wall Street Journal "Well-researched, well-written and searingly memorable, Jack Fairweather's book reminds us of the capacity for nobility in the human soul in times of unimaginable peril."
  • Mark Bowden, bestselling author of Black Hawk Down and Killing Pablo "Combines the verve of a thriller with the detailed evidence of the sober, hideous truth."
  • Sebastian Junger, bestselling author of The Perfect Storm and Tribe "Journalist Jack Fairweather's account of Pilecki's bravery, endurance and humanity is the well deserved winner of the 2019 Costa biography award. As he says, Pilecki's story is 'essential for our understanding of how Auschwitz came into being.'"
  • The Times (UK) "Recognition of the brilliance of Fairweather's book seems not just timely but essential...His brilliance in bringing Pilecki gloriously to life and rescuing this almost unparalleled act of courage from oblivion feels like one more small victory against the Twentieth Century's most evil regimes."
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One Man, an Underground Army, and the Secret Mission to Destroy Auschwitz
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