LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
This is the story of Witold Pilecki, a Polish Army officer who, during World War II, while on a secret mission for the resistance, volunteered to become an inmate in Auschwitz, the largest of the German Nazi concentration camps.
JACK FAIRWEATHER: He stole some of the first architectural drawings of the gas chambers and smuggled them out of the camp. He stole a radio that he then used to ping out Morse codes, relaying numbers of dead in the camp. He arranged some of the most extraordinary escapes, despite the huge risks to everyone involved.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a true story and one Jack Fairweather spent years researching. His new book is called "The Volunteer: One Man, An Underground Army And The Secret Mission To Destroy Auschwitz." Fairweather discovered Pilecki's secret reports hidden in archives in London. And he even recreated the spy's dramatic escape from the camp. Fairweather says Pilecki - 39-years-old, a father and a member of the landed gentry - was an unlikely character to have taken on this mission.
FAIRWEATHER: He was living a quiet life in Eastern Poland. And I think, but for the war, he may have drifted quietly through life, raising his two kids and raising a crop of clover and helping the local farmers. The war changed all of that.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: In 1940, the Polish resistance had heard about what was going on inside Auschwitz. But they needed more intelligence from inside the camp, so Pilecki allowed himself to be arrested in Warsaw during a raid.
FAIRWEATHER: When Pilecki arrived in the camp, he thought he could foment an uprising. The conditions were such that he realized that would be impossible without help from the outside. So at a certain point, he realized he had to start gathering that intelligence and getting it out of the camp. Of course, that presented just a massive challenge in itself. How do you gather intelligence and, somehow, through the barbed wire, through all those guards, get that message out? Escape was out of the question. It was incredibly dangerous. They were watched at all times. But he realized that occasionally, a couple of prisoners were released if their families paid the right bribes. And that's how he found his first messenger from the camp.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that's what's so important about Pilecki, right? - that he was inside one of the main death camps, telling the Americans and the British what was happening. And yet they did nothing.
FAIRWEATHER: Exactly. So I described in the book the passage of this report - the first report that Pilecki smuggles. And the words are just, you know, nerve-tingling.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me.
FAIRWEATHER: He says, to paraphrase, please for the love of God, bomb this camp. Even if we are all killed in it, it will be worth it. He was saying this in October 1940. This was read by allied commanders. This is three years before they publicly acknowledged the camp's role as a place of terrible brutality.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So they knew.
FAIRWEATHER: They knew that it was a place that they should attack. And I think it's one of history's great - what might have been - you know, this was before the Holocaust had unfolded. It was before the series of steps that Pilecki went on to witness, the experiments with gas on prisoners and mass euthanasia and murder. If the Allies had attacked then, Auschwitz may not have happened.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And he was there for nearly three years. He was one of the earliest prisoners and then really did see that horrific transformation.
FAIRWEATHER: I think it's - it would be a somewhat new story to many of your listeners - it certainly was to me - to learn that Auschwitz wasn't immediately a death camp for Europe's Jews, that it went through this transition, these small steps by which the Nazis arrived at the final solution in the camp. And that began, first of all, by working out how to kill sick prisoners that the Nazis considered to be useless and in the camp and then, finally, the arrival of Jewish families in the camp in '42. And it wasn't immediately apparent where the Nazis were heading. They themselves didn't know. But Pilecki was always just one step behind them, figuring out how to get the reports out. He was one of the war's great detectives, just constantly displaying ingenuity and creativity in sussing out the Nazis' plans. He was trying his hardest to let the world know what was happening in the camp. And it was - you know, it's - part of the story I tell in the book is why the world did not listen.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Witold Pilecki was tortured and executed by the communists in 1948. And his history, as you know, was forgotten. He was the victim of another regime. That seems a sad but telling way for his life to have ended. You write, Witold died knowing that he had failed to deliver his message.
FAIRWEATHER: I was really struck by Pilecki's sense of guilt, both towards the end of his time in the camp and afterwards. You think, you know, this guy who had spent so much energy trying to inform the world, you know, would emerge with a sense that he had done all he could. But that wasn't the case. He was wracked with - I think, we would call it survivor's guilt now but just this fear that gnawed away at him that he hadn't found the way to connect with people. And, you know, he went on to fight in the Warsaw Uprising. He went on to fight against the communists after the war. But there was almost not a day that went by in which he wasn't writing about Auschwitz, just trying to understand what the experience had meant.
But also, I think his own confusion and difficulty in reconnecting with his own life - I mean, he struggled to connect again with his family after the war. One of the scenes that I found very effective in the book was when his daughter catches him fiddling with something in his pocket. This is in - shortly after he's reunited with her. And he reveals it's a scrap of bread. And just because of that memory of hunger from early months in the camp was so strong, he just always carried a scrap of bread with him ever after. And seeing him working away at it in his pocket, you know, brought home to his daughter what he had been through.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is a moment in Poland but also around the world where the history of the Holocaust is being forgotten or ignored. There was a survey here in 2018 that showed that 41% of Americans and 66% of American millennials don't know what Auschwitz is or was. What do you think this story tells us?
FAIRWEATHER: I think Pilecki's experience shows us that it is a struggle to comprehend what the Nazis were doing. When Pilecki was witnessing what was happening in the camp for the first time, he couldn't immediately comprehend what was happening there. I mean, just the idea of the industrialized mass murder of an entire people is mind-boggling, even to us now. And we have all the historical documents available to us. One of the takeaways, for me, from the book was, you know, this need to keep on reaching out to others, trying to understand what is happening in the wars, in the atrocities going on around us. That's our commitment to those who died in the Holocaust - is not just to never forget, I feel, but to also make sure that we keep our vigilance up.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jack Fairweather, author of the new book "The Volunteer" - thank you very much.
FAIRWEATHER: Thanks, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.