The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery by Witold Pilecki
Pilecki in 1922
Captain Witold Pilecki spent much of his life fighting against the tyranny of the Nazi regime and then the Stalinist communist government. He was an officer in the Polish underground Home Army and made it his life’s work to infiltrate these regimes to shine a light on the atrocities being committed.
To that end, Pilecki volunteered to enter into a concentration camp as a prisoner. In 1940, he was arrested by the SS and subsequently spent 2 1/2 years in Auschwitz before he escaped. He then wrote a report on his time there, this book, which became the first evidence of the mass murders that were taking place under Hitler’s regime. This is a grim recollection during his early days there:
’I had noticed that fewer people returned from work every day, and I knew that they had been “finished off” at one task or another; but now I was to discover the hard way what a day “in the camp” looked like…’
Pilecki suffered greatly during his time there; starvation was his most difficult plight, and then illness, which terrified him greatly. The sick were the first to be sent to the gas chambers. Auschwitz Birkenau, where the gas chambers and crematoriums were, was less than a mile away.
Maps from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Pilecki recalls this from August of 1942:
’The SS men quickly surrounded the block. I have to admit that watching that scene for a moment my blood froze and then boiled …
What I was shortly to see, was also distressing.
The sick were pulled out and shoved into vehicles. Those who were unconscious and those who were now well, those convalescing having been ill a month earlier but who were still in quarantine, they were all packed into the vehicles and taken off to the gas chambers in several waves …
I saw an SS man throwing two small inmates into the vehicles. A little fellow, who was eight years old, asked the SS man to spare him and knelt on the ground. The SS man kicked him in the stomach and threw him into the vehicle like a puppy.
They were all finished off the same day in the gas chambers at Rajsko.
Then for two days the crematoria worked away, with new batches of inmates continually being brought in from the camp.’
After Pilecki escaped, he continued his work for the underground Polish army. But when the nazi regime to the west was overthrown, Soviet communism swept in from the east. Pilecki was arrested in 1948 by the Polish communist regime and executed. He was 47.
It can be argued that Stalin’s gulags were even more brutal than Hitler’s concentration camps. Historians agree on roughly 20 million killed in the gulags, though writer Solzhenitsyn places it closer to 60 million. 17 million died in the concentration camps, though this number gets conflated because around 80 million people total died during World War II.
Have you never heard of Witold Pilecki? It is no wonder, the communists in Poland expunged all memory of him. When the Soviet Empire fell in 1989 his story was revealed. Today, he is revered as one of Poland’s greatest heroes.
Educated by Tara Westover
This memoir recounts how Westover pulled herself out of and away from her fundamentalist upbringing, one that denied her an education. It is filled with moments of ignorance and danger, and both physical and mental abuse. The moment Westover realizes her potential, that she is autonomous of her parents is a revelatory moment:
Not knowing for certain, but refusing to give way to those who claim certainty, was a privilege I had never allowed myself. My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.
How does one go from zero education straight to college? Without any basic knowledge of history, or the perceptions gained from living a childhood amongst what’s considered commonplace. How does one gain enough insight to learn that fear no longer needs to be an everyday occurrence and that the suspicions and anxieties born from survivalism can be overcome? Westover proves that it is possible. She is a study in the potential of the human spirit.
It’s April and that’s National Poetry Month: Daljit Nagra noted ‘Poetry is an espresso shot of thought.’ Here is a sampling:
Lament by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Your father is dead.
From his old coats
I’ll make you little jackets;
I’ll make you little trousers
From his old pants.
There’ll be in his pockets
Things he used to put there,
Keys and pennies
Covered with tobacco;
Dan shall have the pennies
To save in his bank;
Anne shall have the keys
To make a pretty noise with.
Life must go on,
And the dead be forgotten;
Life must go on,
Though good men die;
Anne, eat your breakfast;
Dan, take your medicine;
Life must go on;
I forget just why.
A Man may make a Remark (952) by Emily Dickinson
A Man may make a Remark –
In itself – a quiet thing
That may furnish the Fuse unto a Spark
In dormant nature – lain –
Let us divide – with skill –
Let us discourse – with care –
Powder exists in Charcoal –
Before it exists in Fire –
Fragment by Amy Lowell
What is poetry? Is it a mosaic
Of coloured stones which curiously are wrought
Into a pattern? Rather glass that’s taught
By patient labor any hue to take
And glowing with a sumptuous splendor, make
Beauty a thing of awe; where sunbeams caught,
Transmuted fall in sheafs of rainbows fraught
With storied meaning for religion’s sake.
Moonlight by Sara Teasdale
It will not hurt me when I am old,
A running tide where moonlight burned
Will not sting me like silver snakes;
The years will make me sad and cold,
It is the happy heart that breaks.
The heart asks more than life can give,
When that is learned, then all is learned;
The waves break fold on jewelled fold,
But beauty itself is fugitive,
It will not hurt me when I am old.
Spring Storm by William Carlos Williams
The sky has given over
Out of the dark change
all day long
rain falls and falls
as if it would never end.
Still the snow keeps its hold on the ground.
But water, water
from a thousand runnels!
It collects swiftly,
dappled with black
cuts a way for itself
through green ice in the gutters.
Drop after drop it falls
from the withered grass-stems
of the overhanging embankment.
Sign up for a poem a day at poets.org.
Link to the National Poetry Foundation’s ‘How to Read a Poem’ by Edward Hirsch.
Desert Notes by Barry Lopez
I know what they tell you about the desert but you mustn’t believe them. This is no deathbed. Dig down, the earth is moist. Boulders have turned to dust here, the dust feels like graphite. You can hear a man breathe a distance of twenty yards. You can see out there to the edge where the desert stops and the mountains begin. You think it is perhaps ten miles. It is more than a hundred. Just before the sun sets all the colors will change. Green will turn to blue, red to gold.
Barry Lopez wrote his first book after spending time in the Alvord Desert in Oregon in the late 1960s. He was 24 at the time. He transformed what he took away from that experience into a set of poetic short stories, and it set his writing career into motion. This collection has a running theme of the human relationship with the natural world. His short story ‘Coyote and Rattlesnake’ explores the invasive nature of people, the encroachment and usurping; the big picture reveals that people are just passing through and are part of the wider narrative. Lopez is our country’s finest writer of the natural world and his work has heavily influenced subsequent generations of writers.
When Desert Notes was anthologized with River Notes & Animal Notes in 2014, Lopez wrote about his writing technique in the afterword:
“When I write a story, I am not trying to make a point or demonstrate any particular proficiency as a writer. I am trying to make the patterns of American cultural life more apparent, patterns any individual reader might be able to take further, metaphorically, than I am able to, patterns that I hope will serve the reader’s own search for meaning. In the creation of the story, it is the reader’s welfare, not the life of the writer, that is finally central.”
Barry Lopez’s latest book ‘Horizon’ will be released in March.
The Ravenmaster by Christopher Skaife
Chris Skaife, yeoman warder of the Tower of London, is chief Raven Master there, and though he claims to not be a raven expert, he is as close as it comes to understanding, and more importantly, revering them. Chris is in charge of the general welfare and the keeping of the ravens. Currently there are seven ravens housed at the Tower and it is foretold that if the ravens ever leave the Tower, it will fall, along with London itself. Hence, the importance of the job, not the least being that it keeps the mythos alive. Chris speaks romantically of London with its rich backdrop and substantial past:
‘History and prehistory, legends, fables, and stories, they’re everywhere here. I sometimes think that the Tower is just a vast storehouse of the human imagination, and the ravens are its guardians.’
Yeoman warders are informally known as ‘beefeaters’ and besides being the guards of Her Majesty’s crown jewels, they chaperone the droves of tourists who visit the Tower. Chris guesses that he must be photographed nearly 400 times a day during the summer: ‘I reckon the ravens and I have probably featured in someone’s family album in every country in the world.’ Guilty as charged: I also have a photograph of a beefeater from a trip to London.
As the head of Team Raven, Chris has attuned his senses to his birds’ needs. Ravens are smart birds but much-maligned and they have more in common with us than we might think: ‘Ravens are creatures of habit, and even the slightest change to their daily routine can lead to stress and psychological problems. Sometimes by the time I pick up on a dispute between ravens, it’s too late. Like a lot of us, they tend to hide their sicknesses and their grievances. I assume it’s a self-protection mechanism. I’m not an expert on raven social systems, but I can see that they have complex social lives, with feuds and disagreements between them, just as we humans do.’
Check out Chris’s twitter feed at twitter.com/ravenmaster1 to see images of the Tower’s magnificent ravens.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
This is a real meat and potatoes kind of book, and centers on one Korean family spanning the 20th century. Prejudice and racism, obstinance and perseverance, food culture and family life, and sacrifice, they all play a part here. Lee’s characters are torn between the logic of self-preservation and the beauty of an ideal. The conflict between these two themes is salt and peppered throughout the book.
During the first part of the 20th century, government corruption and mismanagement drove many Korean citizens out of their country. Many settled in Japan as strangers in a strange land and settled into a second-class tier. Japan became rife with racism and it became nearly impossible for a Korean to make any gains. The poverty is tangible:
‘At the crowded bar, men were drinking and making jokes, but there hadn’t been a soul in that squalid room — smelling of burnt dried squid and alcohol — who wasn’t worried about money and facing the terror of how he was supposed to take care of his family in this strange and difficult land.’
Japan was no Shangri-La for the Koreans. It is the real world, in all its hardship. ‘Save your family. Feed your belly. Pay attention, and be skeptical of the people in charge.’ More like survival of the fittest on steroids. But even the thought of fitting in was repellent to some Koreans: ’You think I’m an animal, Moazsu thought: Then I can be an animal and hurt you.’
A decent job or education are things that every person should have a right to. With resolve, and a striving for beauty in life, (‘Once tender-hearted people seemed wary and tough’) Lee’s characters make a concerted effort to break the chain.