This week, Reihan Salam sits down with filmmaker Errol Morris to discuss his latest film, The Unknown Known, a portrait of one of the leading architects of the Iraq War—Donald Rumsfeld.
The Polish Soldier Who Snuck Into Auschwitz and Was First to Report on the Horrors Inside
On September 19, 1940, Witold Pilecki, a Polish soldier, was captured by German SS officers and sent to the concentration camp in Auschwitz. Considering he was a spy, things had turned out exactly as he’d planned. Captain Pilecki’s mission was to organize resistance from within the most horrific symbol of the Holocaust, send information to the Allies, and record the horrors he witnessed for the sake of history.
Pilecki arrived in Auschwitz sometime in the evening between September 21 and 22, 1940, and described what he found as “another planet”—a hell in which every building’s walls were covered in swastikas and corpses lay everywhere. Pilecki went on to live in inhumane conditions for nearly 1,000 days and become the first person to inform the Allies about the appalling conditions of detention and the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime.
Pilecki’s comprehensive 1945 report on his undercover mission was published in English in 2012 under the title The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery. Yet, for some reason, his story still isn’t widely known. I wanted to know more about the career of this exceptional man, so I got in touch with the people who recently translated the book in French—former director of the AFP bureau in Warsaw, Urszula Hyzy, and Patrick Godfard, who is a professor of history.
VICE: The book was published in English in 2012, with the New York Times describing it as “a historical document of the greatest importance.” How come it was only translated to French now?
Urszula Hyzy and Patrick Godfard: Pilecki was a “disturbing” character for the Allies, who pretended for a long time not to know what was happening in the camps, and for the Communists, who were responsible for his death in 1948. In communist Poland, it was forbidden to talk about Pilecki and his children were barred from higher education.
The Auschwitz Volunteer remained in the archives of the Polish Underground Movement Study Trust in London [Studium Polski Podziemnej] before being discovered by the historian and former prisoner Józef Garlinski, who wrote Fighting Auschwitz: The Resistance Movement in the Concentration Camp in the 1970s. It was not until after the end of the Cold War that the book was published in Poland.
Recuperating Memories in Jordan’s Zaatari Refugee Camp
The Central African Republic’s capital of Bangui has seen its Muslim population drop from 130,000 to under 1000 over the past few months. Over the past year, thousands across CAR have been killed and nearly a million have been displaced. The United Nations recently stated that the entire Western half of the country has now been cleansed of Muslims.
Death’s Messenger: One Soldier’s Job Delivering the Worst News Imaginable
“There’s still a war going on,” Captain Richard Siemion began. “There are still people dying—not as many as before—but it’s still happening. And when it does, the Army sends somebody like me to break the news.”
Captain Siemion was recently honorably discharged but was one of several casualty notification officers serving in upstate New York. Whenever a soldier’s death was reported, the CNO on duty would have four hours to track down the deceased’s family and deliver some of the worst news they would ever hear.
CNOs have been the focus of some interest over the last decade of American war. In 2006, the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News published a Pulitzer Prize–winning series about the Marines tasked with the same job as Captain Siemion, and in 2009 Woody Harrelson starred in the independent film The Messenger. He played a CNO.
I sat down with the 31-year-old Siemion to talk about his first-hand experience telling families of active-service soldiers that their loved one have died in action.
VICE: Did you volunteer for the job?
Captain Siemon: We call it being voluntold. I had just gotten back from my first tour in Afghanistan when my Battalion Commander sent me to the training course.
What did you learn there?
You learn that there’s no right way to tell someone that their loved one is not returning from war, but there are a lot of wrong ways to do it. If you look at history, the way they used to tell families about a death: You had telegrams, you had taxi drivers paid to ring doorbells, you had word of mouth. Through trial and error, the United States Army got it as close to right as they can. I was always the kind of leader who didn’t go 100 percent by the book, but in this case, I went right by the book, because there is a reason why they have it the way they do. Not much room for creativity.
What do you think they got right?
One thing is the idea that no job is more important than this job. So, if you’re in the middle of an important brief with a Colonel and you get called to give a notification, you say, “Gotta go.” Another thing is that you go in person. It shows the importance. Obviously you’re never going to see that individual again, or be their best friend, but if my brother died, I’d rather have it straight—face-to-face.
Are you one of those people who tweets us every weekend asking why we don’t post our HBO show online for free? If you are, you do realize that HBO is the best television network in the world, right? And, as such, can demand a premium for a lineup that may be the only reason to still have a subscription to cable, correct?
Well, either way, you’ve worn us down with your largely unreasonable demands, and HBO is streaming the season 2 premiere of VICE on YouTube for FREE. You can watch it on YouTube, before or after you finish binge-watching the entirety of season 1 for free right here on VICE.com.
How fucking awesome is that? It’s awesome, and you’re welcome, but all of this is only happening for a limited time so you better get cracking before we have to take them off the internet. Which reminds us, just subscribe to HBO already. It’s worth it, we swear.
Season two of VICE on HBO premieres tonight at 11PM! You can catch up on all of season one right here, for free.
Is Facebook Censoring the Syrian Opposition?
Last December, a woman from the Syrian community in Toronto reached out to me for help after a Syrian opposition Facebook page, for which she was an administrator, was expunged from the internet. She told me that Facebook had deleted the page, called Likes for Syria, in mid December, by which time it had garnered more than 80,000 “likes.” Several Syrian Canadians had organized the page shortly after the revolution in Syria began, back in 2011, and used it as a tool for posting news stories about the crisis, spreading messages of hope, and creating awareness in the Western world—something that many feel is desperately needed.
“We feel like our freedom of speech has been totally taken away,” said Faris Alshawaf, another administrator for Likes for Syria. “We have a right to talk about what is happening.” Facebook had removed the page once before but quickly republished it after administrators made an appeal. Just days later, Facebook deleted the page a second time.