Sian Williams on Judging the Costa Book of the Year
Rewarding the finest literature of the year, the Costa Book Awards are among the most sought after gongs for any self-respecting author. Most prestigious of all is the Costa Book of the Year, selected from the winners of the five separately judged categories. This year's victor was The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather and, in this short piece, Chair of Judges Sian Williams explains why this inspiring and humbling book was head and shoulders above the competition.
I was nervous going into the judging room. It’s a huge responsibility helping to choose the Costa winner and none of us knew which would emerge triumphant after our deliberations. Or where our fellow judges’ preferences lay. But as I went around the table, asking for a first and second choice, it was clear which book had moved, surprised and intrigued us most. The extraordinary story of a Polish resistance fighter who got himself arrested and sent to Auschwitz, so he could tell the world about the Nazi crimes which were happening inside. Meticulously researched, Jack Fairweather’s biography of Witold Pilecki reads like spy fiction, with its extraordinary pace and drama. ‘Thrilling’, said one judge. ‘My heart was in my mouth’, said another. Many had read it in ‘one gulp’, kept awake until the early hours by its suspenseful narrative.
Witold spent two and a half years building an underground army at the concentration camp. They sabotaged facilities, staged escapes and assassinated SS soldiers in an audacious plan where they infested their uniforms with typhus-infected lice. It’s as if Witold’s underground army were prepared to do anything, however far-fetched, to bring the horror to an end. In fact, the extent of what he and thousands of others were enduring is perhaps best demonstrated by the very first message that he smuggled out for the attention of Allied forces in 1940; ‘Please for the love of God, bomb this camp even if it kills every prisoner here, because what is happening here is so terrible, it has to stop’. That was before the Germans had slaughtered around a million prisoners. What might have been, if Witold’s warnings had been heeded, his descriptions taken seriously by world leaders?
The incredible detail in the book is the result of picking through thousands of sources and piecing together hundreds of testimonies, yet Jack Fairweather, a former war reporter, stumbled across Witold's story by chance. After returning from covering the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, he came across mention of a resistance cell in Auschwitz and his journalistic inquisitiveness sent him on a voyage of discovery. However, detail was scarce. Witold’s wartime records had been erased and his own family were unaware of his efforts right up until the 1990s. He had been tortured, interrogated more than a hundred and fifty times and was always at risk of losing his life as he struggled to get his messages heard. But his role, essential in our understanding of how the camp came into being, was undiscovered and unremarked upon. This book feels like that injustice has been righted.
However much you know about the Holocaust, you haven’t heard this. It’s a story told so well, that Witold’s voice, quietened by the madness and suspicions of the war years, suddenly seems clear and urgent. It feels like a message for our times too, with hate crimes increasing and anti-semitism on the rise. Witold calls on all of us to be braver, to stand up for injustice, to shout when we see prejudice rearing its ugly head.
When Jack Fairweather collected his award, he dedicated it to Witold’s children, Andrzej and Zofia. That night, 88 year old Andrzej called to thank him for finally giving voice to his father’s courage, finally writing the story of the unsung hero who fought to bring light to one of history’s most brutalizing regimes.
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