20 January 2020

The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery

The main body of this book consists of an English translation of Captain Witold Pilecki's original 1945 report on his time in Auschwitz.

In the introduction, Norman Davies reminds us that most people have little more than a sketchy overview of Nazi concentration camps and World War 2 atrocities in general. For example the Russian camps of Stalin killed more people than Hitlers German camps, but Stalin was on the winning side, so no one was held to account for those Soviet war crimes.

witold pilecki polish hero auschwitz ww2 pow
ISBN 978-1-60772-010-2

This is the second book I've read on Witold, so its useful to compare the two. Since this book is a translation of Witold's words, it is more of a reference book of his experiences in Auschwitz. While his life in the camp was appalling, it did improve very slightly over time for a number of reasons.

At the time of his arrival, most prisoners were expected to last no more than 6 weeks due to their low daily calorie intake. If they lasted much longer, it was assumed that they were stealing food, and they could be executed. In other words, by restricting food intake they hoped to create a self regulating population, topped up by a regular stream of new prisoners.

On admission to the camp, each prisoner was asked his occupation. Those from professional classes were instantly beaten to death.

Prisoners who were happy to mistreat and often murder their fellow captives were sometimes made 'Kapos'. One such Jewish Kapo was known as "the strangler" and his preferred method of killing prisoners (including other Jews) was to use the handle of a spade applied to the victims throat.

However, they also needed workers (e.g. carpenters, builders, hospital staff and even some administrative staff) so working in the right place could help prolong the lives of some prisoners. Over time, the Germans wanted Auschwitz to appear to be a 'normal' POW camp, so they found more efficient ways of killing large numbers of people, while allowing for camp inspections by outside agencies. This required the camp to provide better food for the core of 'old numbers' that worked in the camp. But there was still disease and random acts of brutality that could take the life of any individual at a moments notice.

There was also the opportunity to obtain extra food and valuables (to trade) from the discarded possessions of those poor souls that were exterminated on mass. Initially these were mainly German, Polish and Russian, but then came the European Jews and minority groups like the Gypsies.

 It is believed that over 1 million prisoners died at Auschwitz, mostly from gas and fatal injections to the heart. But also from disease, starvation, beatings, one-off executions and medical experimentation.

This book gives a much more detailed view of Witold's day-to-day life in the camp than the other book that I've read (The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather). However Jack's book probably describes Witold and his short life before and after Auschwitz in more detail, and indicates that Witold was actually 'volunteered' by a senior officer.

So if you have an interest in Witold's story, I strongly recommend you read both books.