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Fighting Auschwitz

The Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland is recognized as one of the most notorious ones operating under the Nazis during World War 2. Whenever a mention is made of this camp, it draws to memory accounts of brutalities again Jews and inhumane conditions to which they were subjected, eventually being murdered or surviving miraculously. This book by Garlinski however provides an account about something different from within Auschwitz. The gas chambers and the cruelty of the Nazis do figure in this book but it is only one aspect of it.

The book deals more with the underground Polish resistance that sprang up in the camp and that pursued significant activities under the very noses of the Nazi guard. This makes it a very valuable study of the mostly non Jewish small underground movement within the camp. The members of this group consisted predominantly of inmates of the camp who had spent a lot of time there. The story revolves around Witold Pilecki, a leader of the outlawed Polish Army, who is reported to have allowed himself to be captured by the Nazis who promptly put him in Auschwitz.

This was a scheme hatched by him to initiate the military underground in the camp. Once inside, Pilecki was able to make a small outfit consisting of Polish nationals of varying ideologies called the Union of Military Organization or ZOW as it was known to the Poles. ZOW was able to make the conditions a bit better for many of the inmates of Auschwitz. They were even able to make clandestine contact with the local underground operating in the area and opened small channels of communication with the headquarters of the Polish Army.

The remarkable leader was even able to transmit radio messages from the transmitter hidden in the camp at his life’s peril. A number of the members of this clandestine group had to make grave sacrifices, sometimes enduring torture and many got murdered as well. Garlinski’s work is important as it provides some intricate details into the nature of the workings inside Auschwitz. One intelligent maneuver that the ZOW was able to employ was the use of a “bacteriological warfare” lab to culture typhus bearing lice which were used to infect Nazi guards (Garlinski 53).

Apart from these internal measures, the underground was responsible for numerous daring escape attempts that were orchestrated by the poles (Garlinski 103). At one time, this manifested itself in the form of open revolt inside the camp. The author further highlights the utilitarian nature of the Nazi policies towards the inmates. As 1942 was passing by and the possibility of Nazi defeat began to emerge, the Germans decided they required labor from able bodied people for the war effort.

This led to them sparing a lot of the Jews inside the camp and even toning down on the reprisals against the Poles for their rebellion and escape attempts (Garlinski 101). There is also an account of the horrid plans regarding experimentation with sterilization conducted on some of the Auschwitz inmates. This was inline with the genocidal plans of the Nazi leadership. An important element of the book is the role of the Polish Underground as described by the author which was very active around the area.

It was operating with very little arms and ammunition around the year 1943 and thus were not able to supply well some of the groups it was aiding in the vicinity. One troubling phenomenon within the camp was the existence of German serving Poles who are reported to have been loyal to their country but exploited through the use of Gestapo’s torture methods. There are some mentioned in the book who actually managed to flee from the concentration camp, which included two Slovak Jews. They were able to get assistance from the Polish Underground who helped them get safely to Slovakia.

From there, the two individuals tried to inform relevant people about the atrocities being committed in the camp but found it hard to convince. Another important mention in the book is that of the Sonderkommandos’ who were made to help the Nazis in the working of the gas chambers and cremation of corpses. These were predominantly Jews but sometimes Russians as well who got benefits for this support but were frequently disposed of by the Nazi guards to leave as little eye witnesses as possible.

This posed a threat to them and thus in 1944; they attempted a revolt inside the camp with the assistance of the Polish Underground. The plan actually relied on elements of the Underground to join the Sonderkommandos’ in their fight but they were not able to for which they are frequently blamed. However, Garlinski reports differently stating that the sudden arrival of a Nazi guard resulted in the Sonderkommandos’ having to eliminate him and initiate the plans before the assigned time which led to confusion and a lack of understanding.

The circumstances were worsened given that the fighting erupted in day light whereas it would have been better in the cover of night. The piece of work by Garlinski also goes into the depths of the Polish Underground’s efforts to liberate the inmates of Auschwitz. This is described as Pilecki’s main objective for the formation of the ZOW. His dream was a coordinated assault on the camp from within with help from partisan forces from outside.

However, it did not get the backing of the Polish Army headquarters which deemed the SS garrison too strong in the camp and the countryside support too weak for such an assault in which the Germans would surely be reinforced from the adjoining areas. However, the author tries to make it understandable why the Poles failed in their efforts for an assault on the camp. Overall, this book is a good read with some insightful accounts into Auschwitz. Garlinski proves the existence of an effective Polish Underground in the camp and even illustrates how the approaching Communist forces had little to do in its inception and its operations.

The reader is left with some burning questions about this clandestine force however as to why the ZOW never attempted to blow up the famed gas chambers which doomed many Jews. There is also the question as to why it never mentioned the plight of the Jewish inmates despite the channels of communication it had with the Polish Army headquarters. News of the atrocities only came out when the Jewish Slovaks managed to escape and told of the stories at Auschwitz. Garlinski portrays some of the violence in the camp in a very graphic fashion which can sometimes be disturbing.

The book displays elements of being carefully written and documented however, though it has to be mentioned that the bulk of the work relies on the unpublished accounts of Pilecki himself. It has an extensive bibliography, appendices and illustrations and can be said to provide the picture of Auschwitz from another angle and questions some of the historical assumptions surrounding the role of the resistance inside the camp. Works Cited Garlinski, Jozef. Fighting Auschwitz. Fawcett, 1975.

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