A war correspondent for The Washington Post turns his sights to World War II to narrate the true story of a Polish resistance fighter's infiltration of Auschwitz to sabotage the camp from within, and his death-defying attempt to warn the Allies about the Nazis' plans for a 'Final Solution' before it was too late.
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.