The True Story of Witold Pilecki and the Secret Mission to Destroy Auschwitz
New York Jewish Travel Guide sat down with Mr. Jack Fairweather, to ask a few questions about his new book “The Volunteer”. The following interview was edited for clarity:
NYJTG: First, thank you for the interview. Briefly, can you tell us about yourself and other literary works that you have written?
Jack Fairweather: I’m a war-reporter by background. I covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I was an embedded journalist with British troops as they invaded Iraq and occupied Basra. I spent three years living in Iraq working as the bureau chief of the Telegraph and then covered the war in Afghanistan for the Washington Post. At a certain point of covering these wars, I started to ask: “What’s creating these conflicts?”
That was the question that drove me to write two books exploring the origins of the wars. I wanted to find out how these wars unfolded – and why. I interviewed President Bush’s inner circle, his generals, his diplomats, and Iraqi and Afghan insurgents. I’ve tried to bring the same approach to Picki’s story and the great question he faced.
NYJTG: How did you discover this extraordinary Polish Cavalry and what compelled you to write about him? What was your objective?
Jack Fairweather: I found out about Pilecki through a war-reporter friend who had made a reporting trip to Auschwitz and saw a small exhibit about the camp’s resistance. The idea that anyone could oppose the Nazis in a place like that stunned me. It went against everything that I thought I knew about the camp. Then I discovered the other remarkable thing about Pilecki’s story: almost nothing was written about him because after the war he’d gone on to fight the communists and been captured, executed and all trace of his wartime record obliterated. I realized that there was a huge historical injustice that needed to be corrected.
NYJTG: How did you conduct your research? How long did it take you?
Jack Fairweather: It took a little over three years fo research me and my team of four people. I had two researchers working full time in the archives at the Auschwitz Birkenau State Museum, one researcher in Warsaw and one in DC. Tracking down what happened to the secret message that Pilecki smuggled out odf the camp required a lot of legwork because the reports are scattered in archives all over the world. There’s some in Warsaw, in London, Stanford, New York, in Switzerland, in Belarus.
NYJTG: What was Pilecki’s motivation to volunteer to go to Auschwitz? How can you translate his overall contribution in terms of saving the lives of the prisoners at the camps?
Jack Fairweather: That’s a great question. Pilecki was motivated by his patriotism and by his Catholic faith, although he never spoke much about the latter. I think he compelled by a sense that he could make a difference to the lives of people around him. The Nazis were trying to break down society and strip away people’s sense of dignity and self-worth. Pilecki understood that sharing the secret of his mission helped prisoners see that something greater than themselves could endure, even in Auschwitz. That spirit of hope kept many people alive.
NYJTG: How do you explain the following statement in his report to the allied commander that he witnessed the final solution in this camp saying, “To bomb this camp, even with us in it.”?
Jack Fairweather: Pilecki called on the allies to bomb Auschwitz for the first time in October 1940. It was his first secret message and it’s quite startling to think about. The Nazis had not envisioned the final solution at that stage, but Pilecki realized that what was happening to the prisoners was already so evil that it needed to be put an end to.
He went on to arrange for a dozen couriers to smuggle messages out of the camp. None were more important than the report he sent from Auschwitz in the summer of 1942 as the first Jewish families began arriving in the camp for extermination. He arranged an escape for one of his men and three others by stealing SS uniforms and then driving Commandant Hoss’s car of the main gate. Amazingly they succeeded, and the outside world was informed. Part of the tragedy of Pilecki’s story is that the outside world did not respond.
NYJTG: Going back to an earlier question, would you say that the actions of Pilecki had enabled many Jewish families to escape from the camp? Should he be recognized in Israel as a “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem?
Jack Fairweather: Piletski saved many lives in the camp because he gave people the idea that they could resist. That stopped many prisoners from sinking into despair. Pilecki saved hundreds of lives this way.
He also gave Allied commanders the opportunity to thousands upon thousands more had they listened to him and attacked the camp. How many lives would have been saved? It’s one of those great unanswerable questions and a reminder to us of the need to pay attention to the outrages going on around us.
NYJTG: Following up on that, do you know of any existence of any survivor’s testimonial of Pilecki ’s actions on the record?
Jack Fairweather: After escaping the camp, Pilecki went to save the life of a Jewish family in Warsaw from a Gestapo agent who was himself Jewish. It just goes to how the moral complexity of the time, and Pilecki’s remarkable ability to hold to his sense of right and wrong.
NYJTG: What was Pilecki ’s biggest disappointment? Was it with the world not acting fast enough or was it something else?
Jack Fairweather: He was so tormented by Auschwitz after escaping the camp. It never left him. I think he had survivor’s guilt. He was constantly writing about Auschwitz, understand his experience and share it with others.
Just towards the end of his life, he wrote this small little snippet that I discovered in an archive. “I’ve sat,” He writes, “In the camp with dozens of friends who knew they were going to be executed the next day. They all had the same regrets which were that they hadn’t given enough of themselves to those around them.” I think Pilecki felt like he hadn’t done enough. I hope that this book shows that in fact, he did more than we could ever imagine possible.
NYJTG: How would you like to continue to make your contribution to Pilecki ? Would you like produce a documentary, play or a movie to tell the story?
Jack Fairweather: Well, I would love this story to reach as many people as possible as I have been inspired by his courage and his bravery and his amazing creativity and ingenuity resisting the Nazis in the camp.
Thank you, for your time and for all the information you shared with us. I really appreciated it, as will our readers.
Meyer Harroch – New York Jewish Travel Guide & new York Jewish Guide