Recommended by Dave Pell of Next Draft, I picked up this book from the library quickly, to my surprise as it is a new release. Less than half way through, I bought a hardback copy for myself, and a digital copy that I promptly gave away. This book is worth reading, I will buy you a copy, too.
This is the story of Witold Pilecki who, despite the name of the book, was "volunteered" (read: politically blackmailed) to go to Auschwitz to collect evidence of the German actions in the camp. The prison had not yet become the death camps it evolved into, but it was still a place of horror when Pilecki went in. That he survived as long as he did, and also managed to escape to tell his story, is an incredible story worth hearing, listening to, reading.
Sad is the fact that Auschwitz is glossed over in many history books, if only because it comes at the end of a school year, mixed in with the short telling of World War 2. Sad is the fact that people deny it happened, or worse, claim that the Jewish people are complicit in their own destruction (yes, read the Amazon reviews, and see how polarizing the book is, and how many people claim Auschwitz didn't happen, wasn't "that bad," or was "their fault," it is horrifying).
Actually, "sad" doesn't begin to convey the depth of pain for these things. We fall into horrors one small step at a time. We become used to one action, and the next doesn't seem that bad. We adapt, oh so tragically, we adapt. “Witnessing the killing of healthy people by gas makes a strong impact only when you first see it,” he observed.
And yet, one can see in the telling of Pilecki's story that there will be those seemingly normal people who say, "No." No, this is not acceptable. No, this is not who we are. No, this is not who I choose to be. No, I will fight this, quietly or loudly, discretely or overtly, I will resist this.
We also see that doing the right thing does not result in a happy ending. For this we cry, for all of these losses.
I wonder if I can get my older brother and my dad to read this book. They need to read this book, perhaps to bring them slightly closer to understanding how their beliefs carry them to these horrors.
I will buy you a copy. Read this book.
Poland had been one of the most pluralistic and tolerant societies in Europe for much of its thousand-year history. However, the country that had reemerged in 1918 after 123 years of partition had struggled to forge an identity. Nationalists and church leaders called for an increasingly narrow definition of Polishness based on ethnicity and Catholicism.
Witold disliked politics and the way politicians exploited differences. His family stood for the old order, when Poland had been independent and a beacon of culture.
Gawryłkiewicz told Witold to stick to marching on the roads, instead of the woods. They’d be open targets, Witold realized, but he followed orders. They’d hardly set off when a German fighter buzzed over them, only to return a few minutes later with half a dozen bombers that proceeded to attack the column.
His instincts told him to lie perfectly still but it was an agony to listen to the shrieks and groans of his men being massacred.
The truth was unavoidable: Witold knew that Poland had lost its independence once again, and that the question facing him—every Pole—was whether to surrender or to fight on knowing that to do so was futile. Witold could never accept the first option.
There was no sense in continuing toward the border, which was sure to attract German attention sooner or later. So they made for the woods, where they could stage hit-and-run attacks and maybe find enough like-minded souls to plan a bigger operation. Over the following days they attacked several German convoys and even a small airstrip, blowing up a plane, but Witold knew such attacks didn’t achieve much.
The city had held out for another fortnight after he’d left, much to the fury of Hitler, who had instructed his generals to darken the skies over Warsaw with falling bombs and drown the people in blood.
Witold doesn’t say much about his time in Ostrów Mazowiecka. He likely felt dismayed by exhibitions of anti-Semitism among the locals, which clearly played into the Germans’ hands.
The best chance of driving out the Germans lay in planning an uprising to coincide with an Allied offensive. Witold knew there would be others who felt like he did and that he needed to start building a network.
Killing squads known as the Einsatzgruppen preempted resistance by rounding up and shooting some 20,000 members of the Polish educated and professional classes—lawyers, teachers, doctors, journalists, or simply anyone who looked intellectual—and buried their bodies in mass graves.
Witold almost certainly noticed Frank’s official decrees plastered on lampposts around the city and understood that the Germans meant to destroy Poland by tearing apart its social fabric and pitting ethnic groups against one another.
[H]e also saw encouraging signs of resistance: stickers declaring, “We don’t give a damn” (a direct translation of the Polish idiom is: “We have you deep in our ass”) and a giant poster of Hitler in the city center that had sprouted curly whiskers and long ears.
“Why do you trust me?” asked one man.
“Dear boy, you have to trust people,” Witold answered.
In the meantime, the intelligence chief Jerzy was keen to crack down on Poles who had started to collaborate with the occupiers, mostly drawn from the country’s million-strong ethnic German community. The Nazis relied on such informers to enforce the racial order. Despite the claims of Nazi scientists that they could distinguish anatomically between races, the truth was most Germans struggled to tell Poland’s ethnic groups apart and needed informants to reveal the complex fabric of Polish society. Informants took full advantage of their power to exact petty revenge. “In every community there are people who had no scruples about ridding themselves of trouble or denouncing an unwanted husband, wife or mistress,” observed one underground member.
He had already written to Polish leadership in France of his concerns that the Nazis were deliberately stoking racial hatred to divert Poles from anti-German activity.
However, the British were cautious about publicizing stories about Nazi wrongdoings in case they were accused of propaganda. The government’s use of fabricated atrocity stories during World War I—such as the claim that the Germans used corpses to manufacture soap—had created widespread public distrust.
... leaving the running of the hospital to SS-Unterscharführer Josef Klehr, a former cabinetmaker from Austria who liked to think of himself as a doctor. He arrived at the hospital on his motorcycle and expected one nurse to buff the paintwork and another to remove his boots and wash his feet at his desk. A third administered a manicure as Klehr puffed on his pipe “like a pasha,” as one prisoner recalled.
Dering searched for the BBC, which, unlike the tightly controlled German broadcasts, was largely accurate (the British government had calculated that reporting the news, even when it was bad for the Allies, made it more credible and thus more listened to). Despite Nazi efforts to jam the signal, the BBC’s German-language service was increasingly popular within the Reich,
Commandant Höss had instigated a grim new form of collective punishment for escapes: ten prisoners were chosen at random from the escapee’s block to starve to death in retribution. (The first time this happened, Marian Batko, a forty-year-old physics teacher from Krakow, had volunteered to take the place of a teenager who’d been selected, to the amazement of those who witnessed this self-sacrifice.)
The SS had discovered that a shot of phenol administered by syringe straight to the heart acted quickest, and routinely disposed of a dozen patients per day. The SS physicians justified these murders as acts of mercy. “A doctor’s duty is to heal patients, but only those who can be cured. Others we should prevent from suffering,” declared Schwela.5
Hitler had not yet conceptualized the Final Solution. But he believed Communism to be a Jewish invention intended to subjugate the Aryan race and that the Jews encountered in the Soviet Union were therefore enemy combatants.
As the Dutch theologian Willem Visser ’t Hooft wrote after the war, “People could find no place in their consciousness for such an unimaginable horror, and . . . did not have the imagination, together with the courage, to face it.” It was possible, Hooft concluded, to live in the “twilight between knowing and not knowing.”
The T4 program had already developed special gassing trucks that pumped carbon monoxide into their cargo bays for killing patients who lived too far away from a gas chamber. In November 1941 Himmler approved the deployment of the trucks to occupied Russia to spare his men the trauma of shooting civilians.
The whole camp became gripped by the frenzy. “Once someone has reached for things that are still warm and felt joy in doing so, the bliss of ownership begins to affect him like hashish,” wrote one prisoner.
The truth was, they needed to believe that they had some control over their fate.
Witold winced. He’d come from the tannery, where work now included processing the hair shorn from the corpses of Jewish women in Birkenau for use as mattress stuffing and lining stiffeners for uniforms.
But it was also true that many nurses acceded to SS orders while secretly working to alleviate the suffering they inflicted with smuggled medicine and food. No one could say with certainty which deed rose to the level of collaboration or what constituted a moral act in an environment where survival depended on complicity with murder.
Witold lay awake that night thinking of the boy and was overwhelmed with shame. For all his talk of uprisings, he’d failed to act on behalf of a single child. Worse, he knew that this pain, too, would fade, and the boy become faceless and forgotten. He felt the same deadness growing within him as he thought of the murder of the Jews. He was surrounded by evidence of the slaughter in the tannery, but he struggled to identify with the Jewish victims. “Witnessing the killing of healthy people by gas makes a strong impact only when you first see it,” he observed.
His sense of emotional distance was underscored by the fact that the treatment of prisoners in the main camp had improved somewhat.
“We were enchanted by everything,” Witold recalled. “We were in love with the world . . . just not with its people.”
After two and a half years in the camp, he was unsure of the mind-set of the people he would find. Witold was confident that most of his countrymen still opposed the Nazis, but how many had been forced through hunger or fear or ambition to make an accommodation with the occupier?
Yet he struggled to find the words to explain himself. He wanted people to feel the righteous anger that he had felt upon arriving in the camp. But when he talked about the camp’s horrors to friends that autumn, they closed down or changed the subject or, worse, tried to commiserate. He didn’t want pity but rather understanding.
Józef, the father, was opposed to the Communists, but he had little work. Many of his friends were taking jobs with the new regime. He was tired of fighting.
Three hundred thousand Polish Jews of the once three-million-strong community had survived the war. Those who remained or had returned home were subjected to abuse and violence by a contingent of Poles who blamed Jews for the Communist takeover of the country.
But there is, implicit in the tortured prose that emerges, a recognition that the horrors of the camp might never be comprehensible, even to a prisoner like himself who had suffered within its walls. Perhaps this gave him a measure of relief. For what emerges from these passages is a sense that Witold’s orientation had shifted. No longer did he need his readers to understand an evil that defied comprehension. Instead he asked them to look within themselves for that which they could share with those who suffer.
Yet Witold’s story is essential for our understanding of how Auschwitz came into being and obliges us to confront how we respond to evil in our own time. Witold entered Auschwitz before the Germans understood what the camp would become. This meant that Witold had to come to terms with the Holocaust even as the camp was transformed into a death factory before his eyes. At times he struggled to make sense of events, resorting to placing extraordinary atrocities in the context of the familiar. But Witold, unlike most prisoners or the long chain of people who handled his reports between Warsaw and London, refused to look away from what he could not understand. He engaged, and in doing so felt compelled to risk his life and act.
Above all, he asks us to trust one another. Witold’s defining quality was his ability to place his faith in other people. In the camp, where the SS sought to break the prisoners down and strip them of their values, the idea of trust had revolutionary potential. So long as the prisoners could believe in the greater good, they were not defeated.