Costa Book of the Year: Auschwitz resistance biography wins £30,000 prize

Jack Fairweather at the Costa Book of the Year Awards Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Fairweather said his winning book contained “a strong message for us today”

The Volunteer, a biography of a Polish resistance fighter who infiltrated the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, has won the Costa Book of the Year award.

The book, by former war reporter Jack Fairweather, beat four other titles to the prize on the day after the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation.

It is the second year running that a biography exploring this period of history has won the £30,000 prize.

Fairweather said he had been inspired to write “a story lost to history”.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Witold Pilecki pictured in 1940

The Welsh author’s book tells of Witold Pilecki, who volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz in 1940.

There he sabotaged facilities, gathered evidence of the mass murder of the Jews and spread news of the Holocaust to the Allies.

Pilecki escaped in 1943 and later fought in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.

Executed in 1948 by Poland’s communist regime, his story did not come to light until the 1990s.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption A memorial ceremony took place in Poland this week at a monument to Witold Pilecki

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Front Row after winning the award, Fairweather. from Abermule, near Newtown in Powys, said his subject was “one of the great heroes of World War Two”.

The author said: “He was there at the apex of mankind’s worst acts and found in himself the courage to resist.

“Anyone who reads the book will feel as inspired as I was,” he continued, saying Pilecki’s story contained “a strong message for us today”.

The Costa judging panel concurred, describing his book as an “extraordinary, chilling and masterful work of historical biography”.

The Volunteer follows last year’s book of the year winner The Cut Out Girl, which told of a young Jewish girl sheltered in The Netherlands during World War Two.

Fairweather’s book was named best biography of 2019 earlier this month alongside four other Costa category winners:

  • First novel – The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins
  • Novel – Middle England by Jonathan Coe
  • Poetry – Flèche by Mary Jean Chan
  • Children’s book – Asha & the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan

Tuesday’s ceremony in central London also saw US-born writer Anna Dempsey receive the 2019 Costa Short Story Award.

Dempsey, a teacher in south-east London, won the £3,500 prize for her story The Dedicated Dancers of the Greater Oaks Retirement Community.

The Costa Book Awards, formerly the Whitbread Book Awards, were established in 1971 to encourage, promote and celebrate the best contemporary British writing.

Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes and Sebastian Barry are among the authors to have won the book of the year award more than once.

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Source: bbc.co.uk

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