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The Volunteer Reviews

The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather

The Volunteer

The True Story of the Resistance Hero who Infiltrated Auschwitz

Jack Fairweather

4.59 out of 5

9 reviews

Imprint: W H Allen
Publisher: Ebury Publishing
Publication date: 6 Jun 2019
ISBN: 9780753545164

In the Summer of 1940, after the Nazi occupation of Poland, an underground operative called Witold Pilecki accepted a mission to uncover the fate of thousands of people being interred at a new concentration camp on the border of the Reich.

1 Prize for The Volunteer

Costa Book Awards
2019 Book of the Year

Chair of the judging panel, Sian Williams, said: “It’s an incredible story; pacey like a thriller, it reads like fiction and yet it’s not, it is fact. It is a story none of us have read before – this is an extraordinary and important book that people need to read.” 


4 stars out of 5
22 Feb 2020

" compellingly tells how Witold Pilecki infiltrated Auschwitz"

Yet Fairweather’s book illustrates the universal nature of the issues that Auschwitz forces us to confront, not least the indifference towards genocide that still blights our collective conscience. Witold Pilecki’s tragic and heroic story is a remarkable light shining out from one of the darkest places in human history.

5 stars out of 5
Andrew Anthony
17 Feb 2020

"explores the limits of humanity"

This vivid portrait is of someone who is no way a larger-than-life or conspicuous hero, but instead a man with a remarkable sense of faith, despite the most inhospitable conditions, in human decency. Pilecki’s tale is well known in Poland, but now finally this towering figure has been brought to the attention of a much wider global audience. Fairweather’s book is an impressive feat of research, organised by a keen moral intelligence and written with the elegance and pace of a first-rate thriller.

5 stars out of 5
Anne de Courcy
19 Aug 2019

"combines the verve of a thriller with the detailed evidence of the sober, hideous truth"

the Germans so that he would be sent to Auschwitz. Witold Pilecki, a Polish gentleman farmer, hoped to organise a Resistance ring to filter out vital information to the Allies that would end in the camp’s destruction. He spent three long years there, only surviving through grit and quick-wittedness. Jack Fairweather, a former war reporter for The Washington Post and The Daily Telegraph, along with his three Polish (and one American) researchers, have tracked down and translated recently declassified files, family papers, Pilecki’s own unpublished memoir and similarly unknown accounts from former fighters to reveal what he went through. (The details of the sources alone run to some 50 pages.) The result, The Volunteer, combines the verve of a thriller with the detailed evidence of the sober, hideous truth.

5 stars out of 5
Nick Rennison
9 Aug 2019

"(a) remarkable book "

In 1940, who in their right minds would volunteer to be imprisoned in Auschwitz? Witold Pilecki, the extraordinary hero of this book, did exactly that. 'You must be nuts!' a fellow prisoner told him. But he was just exceptionally brave....Jack Fairweather's remarkable book shows why his courageous efforts to alert the world to what was happening in Auschwitz deserve to be remembered everywhere.

4 stars out of 5
28 Jul 2019

"this spy thriller-cum-family saga is weighty and heart-rending"

The novelist Rachel Kushner calls Scibona “gravely, terminally, a born writer”, which will be ominous praise for some, and while he has a flair for tense, drawn-out passages of dialogue that sharpen into a crisis, a certain solemnity is undeniably the price of admission here (“A person was a world that walked through the world,” Vollie thinks, musing on “disremembered acts of greed and thirst”). It’s a mark of The Volunteer’s success that, despite this, its doomy vision of intergenerational misery feels more powerful than put on as a grim irony starts to gather around the book’s title, Scibona portraying nothing less than existence itself as a trauma no one ever signs up for.

4 stars out of 5
27 Jul 2019

"This hard-boiled critique of masculinity charts three lost generations of men before and after the Vietnam war"

Salvatore Scibona’s second novel, a tale of responsibility, abandonment and the ties that don’t bind, opens with a small boy left like unclaimed baggage at Hamburg airport. The child, who speaks no German or English and may well be from Latvia, is initially seen as a glitch in the system, the tragic victim of a freak accident. The subsequent narrative suggests he’s anything but. The Volunteer is a family epic built on shifting sand, inhabited by people perpetually on the brink of flight. The non-space of the airport is a peripheral hell. But it’s also the tale’s most secure and stable location.

  • The Sunday TimesOur Choice - Paperback
  • The Sunday TimesMust Read
5 stars out of 5
Giles Milton
21 Jul 2019

"A searing account of an insider’s reports from Auschwitz that the West ignored"

I first became aware of Pilecki’s neglected story in 2013 and included it in my Fascinating Footnotes from History. Fairweather has lifted it from footnote to full-length narrative and he has done so with aplomb. The Volunteer is a fitting memorial to one of Poland’s greatest war heroes and a shaming indictment of the western allies’ failure to act.

  • The TimesBook of the Year
4 stars out of 5
Robbie Millen
12 Jul 2019

"the book rises admirably to the challenge of telling his extraordinary story"

Reading The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather, a British journalist, it quickly becomes clear that Pilecki was a man of great courage reinforced by an implacable sense of duty and white-hot patriotic spirit...A disappointment of The Volunteer is that, despite Fairweather’s diligent sleuthing and his abundant use of Pilecki’s memoirs, the man does not spark into life. He remains rather one-dimensional, a paragon of duty, almost a stuffed shirt...Despite that caveat, the book rises admirably to the challenge of telling his extraordinary story. 

5 stars out of 5
11 Jul 2019

"If it sometimes seems as though there is nothing left to uncover about the Holocaust, Fairweather’s gripping book proves otherwise."

What distinguishes The Volunteer is Fairweather’s meticulous attention to accuracy. He spent five years in the archives in Poland, the UK, the USA, Israel and Germany unearthing more family papers and interviewing the surviving men who had fought with Pilecki. His notes and bibliography run to almost 100 pages, and he uses speculation only very sparingly and when the facts seem irrefutable...If it sometimes seems as though there is nothing left to uncover about the Holocaust, Fairweather’s gripping book proves otherwise.