The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery

The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery

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by Captain Witold Pilecki

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September 1940. With calm deliberation, Polish Army officer Witold Pilecki walked into a Nazi German street roundup in Warsaw... and became Auschwitz Prisoner No. 4859.


September 1940. With calm deliberation, Polish Army officer Witold Pilecki walked into a Nazi German street roundup in Warsaw... and became Auschwitz Prisoner No. 4859.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In 1940, the Polish Underground wanted to know what was happening inside the recently opened Auschwitz concentration camp. Polish army officer Witold Pilecki volunteered to be arrested by the Germans and reported from inside the camp. His intelligence reports, smuggled out in 1941, were among the first eyewitness accounts of Auschwitz atrocities: the extermination of Soviet POWs, its function as a camp for Polish political prisoners, and the “final solution” for Jews. Pilecki received brutal treatment until he escaped in April 1943; soon after, he wrote a brief report. This book is the first English translation of a 1945 expanded version. In the foreword, Poland’s chief rabbi states, “If heeded, Pilecki’s early warnings might have changed the course of history.” Pilecki’s story was suppressed for half a century after his 1948 arrest by the Polish Communist regime as a “Western spy.” He was executed and expunged from Polish history. Pilecki writes in staccato style but also interjects his observations on humankind’s lack of progress: “We have strayed, my friends, we have strayed dreadfully... we are a whole level of hell worse than animals!” These remarkable revelations are amplified by 40 b&w photos, illus., and maps. (Apr.)
From the Publisher
“Earthshaking. A book which I hope will be widely read.” — Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Center for Strategic & International Studies

“A shining example of heroism that transcends religion, race and time…This book is essential reading for anyone interested in the Holocaust.” — Rabbi Michael Schudrich, Chief Rabbi of Poland

“A real contribution to our understanding of the history of Poland under Nazi occupation.” — Antony Polonsky, the Albert Abramson Professor of Holocaust Studies at Brandeis University

“An Allied hero who deserved to be remembered and celebrated.” — Professor Norman Davies, historian and author (Vanished Kingdoms)

“This remarkable book...may shock but will surely enlighten. Here is a portion of the Auschwitz story that needed to be told.” — Gerhard L. Weinberg, the William Rand Kenan, Jr. Professor Emeritus of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, internationally recognized authority on Nazi Germany

"One man volunteered for Auschwitz, and now we have his story. . .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." — Timothy Snyder, Yale Professor, author of Bloodlands, The New York Times Sunday Book Review, June 24, 2012

“A historical document of the greatest importance.” The New York Times “Editors’ Choice”

“Extraordinary.” Maclean’s (Canada)

The New York Times Book Review
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 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…and the great works of memory and literature by Primo Levi and Tadeusz Borowski.
—Timothy Snyder
Zbigniew Brzezinski
Earthshaking. A book which I hope will be widely read.
Rabbi Michael Schudrich
A shining example of heroism that transcends religion, race and time…This book is essential reading for anyone interested in the Holocaust.
Antony Polonsky
A real contribution to our understanding of the history of Poland under Nazi occupation.
Norman Davies
An Allied hero who deserved to be remembered and celebrated.
Gerhard L. Weinberg
This remarkable book...may shock but will surely enlighten. Here is a portion of the Auschwitz story that needed to be told.
New York Times, June 24, 2012 - Timothy Snyder
One man volunteered for Auschwitz, and now we have his story. . . 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.
New York Times Editors' Choice
A historical document of the greatest importance.


Product Details

Aquila Polonica
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Read an Excerpt


Summer 1945

So, I am to write down the driest of facts, which is what my friends want me to do.

They have told me: “The more you stick to the bare facts without any kind of commentary, the more valuable it all will be.”

Well, here I go...but we were not made out of wood, let alone stone, though it sometimes seemed as if even a stone would have broken out in a sweat.

Therefore, now and again I shall insert a thought amongst these facts to indicate what one was feeling.

I do not know whether this must by definition devalue the description.

One was not made out of stone, though I often envied it; one still had a heart beating, sometimes in one’s mouth, and certainly, running around one’s brain was the odd thought which I sometimes with difficulty grasped...

I think that inserting a sentence or two from time to time about this is needed in order to present a true picture.

• *

September 1940

The 19th of September 1940—the second street round-up in Warsaw.

There are a few people still alive who saw me go alone at 6:00 a.m. to the corner of Aleja Wojska and Felinskiego Street and join the “fives” of captured men drawn up by the SS.

On Plac Wilsona we were then loaded onto trucks and taken to the Light Horse Guards Barracks.

After having our particulars taken down in the temporary office there, being relieved of sharp objects and threatened with being shot if so much as a razor was later found on us, we were led out into the riding school arena where we remained throughout the 19th and the 20th.

During those two days some of us made the acquaintance of a rubber truncheon on the head. However, this was more or less within acceptable bounds for those accustomed to guardians of the peace using such methods to keep order.

Meanwhile, some families were buying their loved ones’ freedom, paying the SS huge sums of money.

At night, we all slept side by side on the ground.

The arena was lit by a huge spotlight set up right next to the entrance.

SS men with automatic weapons were stationed on all four sides.

There were about one thousand eight hundred or so of us.

What really annoyed me the most was the passivity of this group of Poles. All those picked up were already showing signs of crowd psychology, the result being that our whole crowd behaved like a herd of passive sheep.

A simple thought kept nagging me: stir up everyone and get this mass of people moving.

I suggested to my comrade, Slawek Szpakowski (who I know was living in Warsaw up to the Uprising),[1] a joint operation during the night: take over the crowd, attack the sentry posts while I, on my way to the lavatory, would “bump” into the spotlight and smash it.

However, I had a different reason for being there.

This would have been a much less important objective.

While he—thought the idea was total madness.

On the morning of the 21st we were put onto trucks and, escorted by motorcycles with automatic weapons, were taken off to the western railroad station and loaded onto freight cars.

The railroad cars must have been used before for carrying lime, for the floors were covered in it.

The cars were shut. We travelled for a whole day. We were given nothing to eat or drink. In any case, no one wanted to eat. The previous day we had been issued some bread, which we did not yet know how to eat or to treasure. We were just very thirsty. The lime, when disturbed, turned into a powder. It filled the air, irritating our nostrils and throats. We got nothing to drink.

We could see through the cracks between the boards covering the windows that we were being taken in the direction of Czestochowa.

Around 10:00 p.m. (22:00 hours) the train stopped somewhere and went no further. We could hear shouting and yelling, the cars being opened up and the baying of dogs.

I consider this place in my story to be the moment when I bade farewell to everything I had hitherto known on this earth and entered something seemingly no longer of it.

This is not an attempt on my part to use unusual words or terms. Quite the contrary, I believe that I do not need to attempt to use any irrelevant or pretty little word.

This is how it was.

We were struck over the head not only by SS rifle butts, but also by something far greater.

Our concepts of law and order and of what was normal, all those ideas to which we had become accustomed on this earth, were given a brutal kicking.

Everything came to an end.

The idea was to hit us as hard as possible. To break us psychologically as speedily as possible.

A hubbub and the sound of yelling voices gradually drew near. Eventually, the doors of our freight car were wrenched open. Lights shone in, blinding us.

“Heraus!rrraus!rrraus!...,” the SS belabored us with epithets and rifle butts to our shoulders, backs and heads. The idea was to get out as quickly as possible.

I leapt out, managing somehow to avoid being hit, and joined the “fives” in the center of the column.

A larger group of SS was hitting, kicking and screaming: “Zu fünfen! [Form up in fives!]”

Dogs urged on by the crazed soldiery rushed at those on the outside of the column.

Blinded by the lights, shoved, beaten, kicked, and rushed by the dogs, we had suddenly found ourselves in conditions which I doubt any of us had ever experienced. The weaker ones were so overwhelmed that they simply fell into a stupor.

We were urged on towards a larger cluster of lights.

On the way, one of us was told to run to a post at the side of the road; he was followed by a burst of automatic weapons fire and mown down. Ten men were then dragged out of the ranks at random and shot with pistols as “collective responsibility” for the “escape,” which the SS themselves had staged.

All eleven of them were then dragged along by leg straps. The dogs were teased with the bloody corpses and set on them.

All this to the accompaniment of laughter and joking.

We approached a gate in a wire fence over which could be seen the sign “Arbeit macht frei” [“Work Liberates You”].

It was only later that we learned to understand it properly.

[1] Pilecki is referring to the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, not the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. Translator’s note.

Meet the Author

Pilecki, Captain Witold (pronounced VEE-told pee-LETS-kee)

Captain Witold Pilecki (1901–1948), a cavalry officer in the Polish Army, was one of the founders of a resistance organization in German-occupied Poland during World War II that quickly evolved into the Polish Underground Army.

Pilecki is the only man known to have volunteered to get himself arrested and sent to Auschwitz as a prisoner. His secret undercover mission for the Polish Underground: smuggle out intelligence about this new German concentration camp, and build a resistance organization among the inmates with the ultimate goal of liberating the camp.

Barely surviving nearly three years of starvation, disease and brutality, Pilecki accomplished his mission before escaping in April 1943. Soon after his escape, Pilecki wrote two relatively brief reports for his Polish Army superiors about his time in Auschwitz. In 1945 he wrote his most comprehensive report of more than one hundred single-spaced typed foolscap pages—it is this last, most comprehensive, report which Aquila Polonica is publishing in English for the first time.

Pilecki continued his work in the High Command of the Polish Underground Army, fought in the Warsaw Uprising (August–October 1944), was taken prisoner by the Germans, and ended the war in a German POW camp.

In late 1945, Pilecki, who was married and the father of two children, volunteered to return undercover to Poland where conditions were chaotic at war’s end as the communists were asserting control. His mission this time: liaise with anti-communist resistance organizations and report back on conditions within the country.

He was captured by the postwar Polish communist regime, tortured and executed in 1948 as a traitor and a “Western spy.” Pilecki's name was erased from Polish history until the collapse of communism in 1989.

Pilecki was fully exonerated posthumously in the 1990s. Today he is regarded as one of Poland’s heroes.

Translator Bio

Garlinski, Jarek

Translator Jarek Garlinski was born in London, England, and grew up bilingual in English and Polish. His father was noted historian and author Jozef Garlinski, a former prisoner at Auschwitz-Birkenau. His mother Eileen Short-Garlinska was one of only a few Britons who spent World War II in Warsaw. Both parents served in the Polish Underground Army during the war.

Educated at the University of Nottingham, the University of Grenoble, and the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at the University of London, Garlinski is fluent in English, French, Polish and Russian, with a distinguished career in education.

Garlinski is a member of the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences of America and has been decorated by the Polish Ministry of Defense and the Knights of Malta for services to Polish culture.

He has translated numerous books of Polish literature and history, specializing in the World War II era.

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The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
PeachesRR More than 1 year ago
My expectations were not met - The Nazi thing has been done to death - We know how bad they were - We actually were in Auschwitz and saw the places in the book and it was very moving to be there. However the day to day accounting of the book was a bit tedious. We were aware of the camps history and its original purpose of holding and eliminating Poles. For the novice that may be new but otherwise there was nothing especially revealing in the book. But then, it was never intended to be a novel - just a military report.