Recommended: The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather

Polish Jews and Polish Catholics have engaged in a “who suffered more” war of blame since the end of World War II. It is an unwinnable argument that diminishes the true horror of the Holocaust as it fades into history and the last of its survivors grow old and pass away. It also feeds the endemic hatred of Holocaust denial and racist nationalism.

January 27 was Holocaust Remembrance Day, and I could think of no better way to remember than to read Jack Fairweather’s new book, The Volunteer: One Man, an Underground Army, and the Secret Mission to Destroy Auschwitz

Fairweather spoke to a full house January 24 at the Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, Illinois. Carefully unfolding his research, he explained why one Polish Catholic man’s heroic efforts went unheralded after World War II and why Witold Pilecki was in fact executed by the communists who had taken control of the Polish government.   

After the presentation, one audience member asked if he was correct in presuming that Fairweather was neither Polish nor Jewish. Affirmative, said the author, who was then congratulated for being the ideal impartial writer for this story, which would be hard to believe were it not so carefully documented and researched. Pilecki resisted the anti-Semitic genocide that was sweeping through Europe and risked his life to deliver news to the Allies of Auschwitz, the German death camp where he was voluntarily interred. Despite the reports Pilecki was able to send, the United States, England, and their then-ally Russia never bombed the camp or the railroad lines that carried some 1.6 million people to their death. Fairweather’s analysis concludes that the Allies could have and should have, but the U.S and U.K. had Russia’s murderous tyrant, Joseph Stalin, to appease as he engaged in his own murderous rampage, as determined as Hitler to crush Poland.

Before the Second World War, Poland was home to Europe’s largest Jewish population. The Volunteer calmly and rationally examines the conditions in Europe that led to the Holocaust in the context of Poland’s history . The Germans were experts at turning people against each other, and Poland was the only country where the death penalty was applied without mercy to Polish families who harbored Jews. The book raises one central question of readers, and many of us walked away from Fairweather’s program asking that question of ourselves: What would I have done?

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