Interview with Jack Fairweather, the author of the awarded book about Witold Pilecki

I met the Oxbridge educated journalist, Jack Fairweather for the first time at the end of 2019 at the Polish Embassy in London at the premier of the book “The Volunteer” – when, for the first time, he introduced his remarkable book to the Polish and British audiences.  He was then accompanied by his two young daughters and just turned 39 – similar age as the hero of his book – Witold Pilecki, who also had two children. 

Jack straight away impressed me as someone with great conviction and a deep sense of mission – and I instantaneously thought that this is also something that Pilecki must have been like, when he decided to take up his dangerous mission to infiltrate Auschwitz.

After that first meeting with Jack I started reading his hard-covered book, which I bought at the Polish Embassy event, accompanied with a special dedication to my son Joseph, that Jack kindly signed with a few wishful words: “I hope Pilecki’s story inspires”.

Why should it inspire young generation of British Poles, like my son?

“ The Volunteer “ is a very special story of one brave Pole, an operative of a Polish underground army who gives up his family, including wife and two young children, his wellbeing, health, sanity and potentially his life,  in order to deploy on a secret mission to destroy the most notorious of the German Nazi concentration camps that ever existed on this Planet, established to exterminate large population of Jews, Poles and other nationalities.

Moreover, this deadly camp was built and run by the Germans in Poland, a country that was brutally invaded and occupied by the German Nazis and then Soviets alike. The country in which Hitler’s and Stalin’s totalitarian regimes killed millions of innocent people.

Both evil tyrants tried to eradicate the Polish nation from the map of Europe all together.

It was however at our second meeting, few months later at the Ognisko Polskie (The Polish Hearth Club), in somewhat fashionable Kensington, when I could ask Jack few pertinent questions about why he decided to take up the task to bring the subject of Pilecki, the brave but unknown Polish hero, whom Pilecki certainly was, and introduce him to the British and international audiences.

Should he not leave Pilecki’s story purely to historians? 

The first question I had to Jack was “where on Earth” did he first hear about Pilecki?  Even Oxbridge education, I doubted, was granting enough knowledge to know someone like Pilecki.  After all Pilecki was largely totally unknown for nearly 70 years, even to Polish people he was a top secret,  in distant reality and time, with an impossible mission to set up cell in Auschwitz, attempting to change the course of history.

He had “mission impossible” – to stop the genocide by sending secret reports informing the World to act.

Jack admits:

“I first heard about the existence of a resistance cell in the camp in 2011 and was stunned by the idea that anyone could resistance the Nazis in a place like Auschwitz. Then in 2012 Pilecki’s longest report was finally translated into English, and I knew I had to tell his story”.

Knowing Jack’s experience as a reporter for the Washington Post and the Daily Telegraph, where he was the war corresponded and the paper’s Baghdad bureau chief, I was curious if that direct experience of the war in Iraq had influenced him to write about the Second World War in Europe.

Before I read his book, my suspicions were that Jack wanted to use Pilecki’s story to investigate how people react in very extreme war conditions where life is put at stake and having to accomplish and important mission.  I thought simply that The Volunteer will be another James Bond but operating in more gruesome conditions.

Jack responded explaining his “rationale” for the book:

“I’ve always been stuck by Pilecki’s unswerving belief in telling the truth. That touched me as a reporter, and really shaped how I wanted to approach his biography. I knew that every detail I put in the book had to be based on a testimony or archival document, because to stray from the facts would go against everything Pilecki’s work in the camp stood for”.  

Indeed, Jack has done excellent work on being honest with the facts and telling the truth, breathtakingly researching the story of Pilecki, visiting his home in Warsaw, meeting his close relatives, looking at various archives, hunting for pictures or pieces of information and even following step by step the route that Pilecki took when he escaped from Auschwitz.

“I started work on “The Volunteer” in 2015, so it’s taken the best part of five years to complete” quantified Jack.

During this time Jack’s meticulous research was focused on every aspect of Pilecki’s life and his great escape from Auschwitz.  Jack was taking his research very seriously.   This included personal inspection of places, even entering dirty sewers in Warsaw, where Pilecki was hiding during his escape, as well as digging out intimate details on his family.

Some of the research work was done by helping hands of few Polish researchers however Jack had to make many visits to Poland to gather, personally inspect and qualify the materials.

Jack qualifies these efforts in more details.

It took “..well over a dozen research trips, and I had two amazing researchers’ stations in Oświęcim for two years, and a third researcher in Warsaw. They were working in the archives and contacting witnesses and their families we would then interview extensively”.
Anyone who even once visited concentration camps like Majdanek, Sobibor or Oświęcim (Auschwitz is the German name for Oświęcim) can only understand the unspeakable horror and humane depravity associated with these places.   I was curious what impressions Auschwitz left on Jack, when he visited all the places where Pilecki stayed in the camp.

“I have been to Auschwitz over a dozen times during research. It never fails to move me profoundly” Jack responds.

So what remarkable or revelatory is in the Pilecki’s story?   What are the lessons that stem from Pilecki’s actions, a message to humanity?  

“Through his act of volunteering, Pilecki set himself on a trajectory that was different to every other person sent to the camp. He was there by choice. Why is that act of choosing important? Because he reminds us that empathizing with the suffering of those beyond our immediate family and friends is also a choice. As the fate of his reports show, it’s not the instinctive response of many people to seek to come to the rescue of others, especially if they themselves are in danger or facing hardship. I feel that Pilecki asks us, no matter how gruesome the subject, no matter how difficult our own circumstance, that we never stop trying to understand the plight of others”.

In the picture: Iwona Golinska and Jack Fairweather

I felt I got my answer to why is this book so important. Pilecki has made a statement about humanity that can remind us that even in the conditions of Auschwitz we, as humans, have the capacity for courage and nobility and love that is always in human soul, even in terrible times such as The Volunteer had to live through.

One thing I forgot to ask Jack in my interview was what happened with Pilecki after the war?

Anyone would think that a man of such quality, patriotism, high moral standards and courage like Witold Pilecki would be adequately recognised and honoured after his heroic acts and will become a statesman for Poland and the World.

The reality however was strikingly different.

After the War, Pilecki was pronounced the “Enemy of the People”, his patriotism was considered a threat to the new order and Soviet standards forced on Poland and he was sentenced to death by the puppet government installed by Soviets in Poland.

Pilecki was tried in a stalinist “show trial” by the communist judges, and the verdict reached was guilty with capital punishment – by hanging, which was promptly executed by the Soviet run Bezpieka (Security Agency) in the notorious communist Mokotow prison, in Warsaw, not a million miles away from where Pilecki lived in Warsaw.

British historian Michael Foot considered Pilecki one of the six bravest people in the world fighting during the Nazi occupation. He voluntarily went to the Auschwitz camp to set up an underground organisation there and try to rescue prisoners. His “Witold Report” was the first testimony documenting Nazi crimes in Oświęcim. May 25 will be the 72th anniversary of the execution of him by the will of the communist authorities.

“Oświęcim was a joke”, he said before his death after what he had passed from the hands of the security service.

On his last day, the prisoners first heard the characteristic click of ironed shoes. Then the slam of the heavy, metal door that opened, from behind which a bruised, barely standing, tall man stepped out into the corridor.

On the wall of the cell from which he was dragged out, there was an inscription scratched by him: “I tried to live so that in the hour of death I would be able to enjoy rather than fear”.


Text: Iwona Golinska 

Pictures: Iwona Golinska and British Poles