Few books have enthralled, incensed and haunted me as The Volunteer has done ... The actions of Witold Pilecki, and the superb account of them by Jack Fairweather, inevitably engendered an array of intense emotions ... Those who have read about the Holocaust will recognize the Dantean hell in which Pilecki found himself. But familiarity with the facts will not lessen the impact of the brutality chronicled by Mr. Fairweather ... The Volunteer might have benefited from using more of Pilecki’s own language from his reports rather than filtering them through Mr. Fairweather’s authorial voice. Also, a deeper insight into Pilecki’s background and interior life—what it was about his basic nature that allowed him to act with such persistent courage against every obstacle—would have been welcome. But these are minor criticisms ... This is a story that has long deserved a robust, faithful telling, and he has delivered it.
Pilecki’s own story is tragic, and Fairweather tells it well ... What distinguishes The Volunteer is Fairweather’s meticulous attention to accuracy ... The fascination of his book lies not just in the story of Witold Pilecki and his brave friends, nor in its punctilious chronicle of the information reaching the Allies, but the light it throws on Auschwitz’s early days, before it turned into a mass-killing centre for Europe’s Jews. If it sometimes seems as though there is nothing left to uncover about the Holocaust, Fairweather’s gripping book proves otherwise.
Cryptically structured, glacially paced but with volcanic flashpoints ... keeps you guessing as to what it’s even about. A mix of war novel, spy thriller and family saga, set in the US, Germany and Latvia, ranging in time from the invasion of Vietnam to post-9/11 Afghanistan, it eventually emerges as a kind of 400-page backstory to its alarming prologue – a bravura piece of writing that reels you in before Scibona starts to make us sweat over his purpose ... This is heart-rending stuff, superbly done ... [Scibona] 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 ... t’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.
There have been many testaments to the cruelties of Auschwitz, but few have followed its development from concentration camp to extermination camp with such gripping descriptive power ... 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.
This is a Holocaust-era work like few others ... In some hands, The Volunteer could have been a soapy, fictionalized memoir with 'Hollywood film script' written all over it. But Fairweather, a British war reporter who has worked in Afghanistan and Iraq, was determined not to put a word on paper which could not be checked out or substantiated. The book comes with a forest’s worth of footnotes, and every minute detail of what took place in Auschwitz is accounted for ... It’s taken years, but with The Volunteer, Jack Fairweather has finally set the record straight.
Drawing Pilecki’s witnessing of appalling crimes into a forceful narrative with unstoppable reading momentum, Fairweather has created an insightful biography of a covert war hero and an extraordinary contribution to the history of the Holocaust.
Fairweather...brings a touch of drama to a complex and detailed story ... The graphic and matter-of-fact accounts of violence, torture, and illness in the camp make for challenging reading. The contrast of the daily realities of life for prisoners against the struggle to get accurate information to the Allies in London and Washington, DC, is another obstacle, but one that the book clearly asks readers to respond to in their own time ... Most appropriate for war or military history readers, but an important story of the Holocaust that deserves to be heard.
Scibona is an observant, lyrical writer, and the strength of his images and musicality of his sentences are almost enough to carry the novel on their own ... These quotidian metaphors make the horrors of war more accessible, as do the highly specific, human details ... While [the protagonist's] constant self-sabotage and ascetic grimness are believable, given his experiences, it becomes difficult for the reader to invest in him emotionally. The plot grows numbing and predictable once we work out that any positive turn – a love interest, friendship, financial windfall, escape – will eventually result in anguish. Whenever the novel introduced a new character, I found myself awaiting their destruction.
... the well deserved winner of the 2019 Costa biography award ... Pilecki died believing he had failed. Yet as this compelling study of his remarkable life shows, he did more than anyone to reveal the true horror of the camp.
Fairweather...delivers a well-written, riveting work ... Using myriad sources to paint the pictures of the camp’s horrors, including the prime source, Pilecki’s memoir, which has only recently been translated, Fairweather shines a powerful spotlight on a courageous man and his impressive accomplishments in the face of unspeakable evil. An inspiring story beautifully told.