A former war reporter has won Costa Book of the Year for his account of a Polish underground operative who smuggled evidence of Nazi atrocities out of Auschwitz.
Jack Fairweather’s biography The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero who Infiltrated Auschwitz won the 2019 award on Tuesday evening.
The book details the story of Witold Pilecki, who created an underground resistance army that used secret messages and radio broadcasts to report on Nazi crimes within the concentration camp.
This is the second consecutive year a biography exploring this period of history has won the award. Last year’s prize went to The Cut Out Girl by Bart van Es.
Announcing Mr Fairweather’s £30,000 win, which comes a day after the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, chair of the final judges Sian Williams said the decision had been unanimous.
“It’s an incredible story; pacey like a thriller, it reads like fiction and yet it’s not, it is fact. It is a story none of us have read before – this is an extraordinary and important book that people need to read,” she said.
The panel said: “We were deeply moved and impressed by this extraordinary, chilling and masterful work of historical biography. Compulsive and accomplished, it had to be our winner.”
Mr Fairweather is a former Washington Post war reporter who was born in Shrewsbury.
He learned of Witold’s story from a group of reporters who he lived with in Baghdad in the house of Saddam Hussein’s former perfume supplier.
While in Iraq, Mr Fairweather survived a suicide bomb attack, a kidnapping attempt and almost daily mortar attacks around his house. For a time he lived as a virtual prisoner behind barbed wire in a heavily fortified hotel.
He is also the author of A War of Choice and The Good War and his war coverage has won a British Press Award and an Overseas Press Club award citation.
Mr Fairweather beat novelist Jonathan Coe for his thirteenth novel, Middle England; debut author and former lawyer Sara Collins for her first novel, The Confessions of Frannie Langton; Hong Kong-born poet and lecturer Mary Jean Chan for her debut collection Flèche; and children’s writer Jasbinder Bilan for her first novel Asha & the Spirit Bird.
American-born writer and teacher from south-east London Anna Dempsey won the 2019 Costa Short Story Award for The Dedicated Dancers of the Greater Oaks Retirement Community.