Costa Biography Award
Judges: “An honest, powerful, hugely-accomplished and completely compelling story of horror and heroism.”
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one American) researchers, have tracked down and translated recently declassified files, family papers, Pilecki’s own unpublished memoir and similarly unknown accounts from former fighters to reveal what he went through.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.