On the 75th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation, it’s hard to imagine a time when the Holocaust did not dominate our thinking about World War II. Yet after the immediate horror that greeted the liberation of the camp, and the other Nazi camps in 1945, the mass murder of Europe’s Jews scarcely lodged in the public’s consciousness. It wasn’t until the early 1960s and the publication of Raul Hilberg’s monumental book, The Destruction of The European Jews, and Hannah Arendt’s dissection of Adolf Eichmann’s trial, that we started coming to terms with mankind’s darkest act.
When I started work on The Volunteer, these were the books I turned to, along with Nikolaus Wachsmann’s more recent study of the Nazi concentration camp system, KL, and Robert Jan van Pelt and Debórah Dwork’s Auschwitz, both of which are brilliant for explaining how Nazi thinking led to mass murder. I also watched Claude Lanzmann's documentary Shoah, which gave victims, perpetrators and bystanders the chance to speak in their own words, in many cases for the first time. It's eight hours long, utterly compulsive, and inspired me in my own research, tracking down witnesses and retracing Witold Pilecki’s footsteps [an underground operative who willingly entered the Auschwitz detention centre to uncover the fate of those being shipped there, the subject of Fairweather’s book].
I also turned to survivor accounts for insights. Elie Wiesel's Night, touched me deeply for its beautifully rendered description of a father and son’s relationship in hell. Filip Müller’s Witness to the Gas Chambers is the horrifying account of one of the Jewish prisoners forced to operate the gas chambers of Auschwitz.