When, in September 1939, Poland was invaded by Hitler from the West and Stalin from the East, Jan Karski was 25 years old. He was proficient in several languages, a diplomat by training and recent experience, and a reserve officer in the Polish army. He reported for duty one week ahead of the invasion, but Western Poland was quickly overwhelmed and Karski, with what remained of his regiment, trekked East - into Russian captivity. Posing as a private soldier (as an officer he would have been shot, probably at Katyn), he managed to achieve an exchange back into German-held territory, and escaped from a train carrying him to a labour camp. He joined the Polish Underground, which rapidly established itself to resist the invaders, maintain morale, and sustain contact with the Polish Government in Exile.
Karski served as a courier, slipping across the border to neutral territory and on to France. His first return trip was entirely successful, but on a subsequent foray he was picked-up by the Gestapo. He was lucky to escape with his life and fairly certainly would not have done so except that he was sprung by the Polish Underground - whose orders if the rescue failed were to shoot him.
His injuries and presumed notoriety with the Gestapo put him out of action as a courier, but he worked on information and propaganda, moving back to Warsaw and drawing close to top Underground officials. In the second half of 1942, it was agreed that he would make a new attempt to carry information to the Government in Exile, then located in London. He was anxious to take with him first hand information on the Nazi's systematic annihilation of Polish Jews. To that end he had himself smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto and into what he believed at the time to be the Belzec death camp. We now know that the camp he saw was not Belzec but a transit camp, possibly at Izbica, but what he witnessed was nevertheless deeply shocking, and was found impossible to believe by some of those in Britain and America to whom he gave the news. That he was thought to be exaggerating, or to have fallen victim to propaganda, is a tragedy in itself, but the world had no previous experience of atrocity on such a scale, and Karski's mistake about Belzec confirms that although several camps with gas chambers were then fully operational, details of the methods employed had not at the time leaked far, even in Poland.
Karski's accounts of his visits to the Ghetto and the camp are reminiscent of Dante's Inferno, The Divine Comedy: Inferno (Penguin Classics)
. With reference to the Ghetto, Karski actually writes of "the streets of this inferno". Dante's Inferno was, however, a work of the imagination.
Karski writes well and much of what he writes makes riveting reading. There is more detail of some of his journeys than might be found in a corresponding thriller, and some of the incidental encounters with individuals of whom we never hear any more would not appear in such a work. Situations that seem to have potential for romantic interest come to absolutely nothing, and the work suffers from having been written for publication before the war was over - before the overall picture became clear, and whilst some information still had to be withheld. But these can hardly be labelled faults, for they are inherent features of history written as it was made.