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.Read more ›
This astonishing wartime memoir seems scarcely credible. There are moments where the narrative seems more at home in an airport spy thriller. Jan Karski (the author's resistance nom de guerre) was recruited into the Polish Underground early in his country's Nazi Occupation. We trace his many movements around Nazi-occupied countries made possible by clandestine mountain treks. We eavesdrop on his work as a crucial messenger between key leaders in exile and the resistance at home. In the course of this work, he met many key players on the Allied side and developed a fascinating relationship with the highly revered statesman, General Sikorski. We meet many brave individuals who did (often menial) tasks at great personal risk. So it is a gripping read. And even if there seem traces of exaggeration or hyperbole, the fact that this is essentially a true story makes it truly remarkable.
SCARCELY CREDIBLE in 1944 However, when this book was first published in the USA in 1944, it wasn't the author's exploits that made it hard to believe. It was his concluding chapters. For in these, Karski offered one of the first eye-witness testimonies of the Holocaust to reach the Allies. It seemed impossible to believe that such atrocity from such a civilised nation was conceivable, let alone achievable. Of course, today, all but the most determined holocaust deniers take it with the utmost seriousness. But then it was very different. Karski was all too aware of the problem. So as he took his report to the Polish government in exile in London, spoke to Allied leaders in London and Washington, he knew he had no alternative but to report as carefully and objectively as he could.
AT GREAT PERSONAL RISK Karski knowingly took immense risks to bear his terrible witness. For he had been caught by the Gestapo on one of his mountain treks and therefore had no illusions about the horrors of their interrogation techniques. He only escaped because, having becoming so ill that he was hospitalised, underground helpers managed to get him out. But once he began to hear more about what was happening to the Jews, he was determined to see for himself in order to get the news out authoritatively. Firstly, after meeting a couple of Polish Jewish leaders, he arranged to be smuggled into the Warsaw ghetto through a secret connecting cellar in a house bordering the Aryan and Jewish sections of the city. He likened this to the ancient Greek River Styx (across which the newly dead were ferried into the Underworld).
What he found in the ghetto was truly pitiful and no scene was more pitiful than this: We passed a miserable replica of a park - a little square of comparatively clear ground in which a half-dozen nearly leafless trees and a patch of grass had somehow managed to survive. It was fearfully crowded. Mothers huddled close together on benches nursing withered infants. Children, every bone in their skeletons showing through their taut skins, played in heaps and swarms. `They play before they die,' I heard my companion on the left say, his voice breaking with emotion. Without thinking - the words escaping even before the thought had crystallized - I said: `But these children are not playing - they only make believe it is play.' (p340)
But worse was to come after Karski showed astonishing bravery. Wearing the stolen uniform of a Polish guard, he was smuggled into a death camp. The sights, sounds and smells of what he witnessed would remain branded forever on his memory. And now came the most horrible episode of them all. The Bund leader had warned me that if I lived to a hundred I would never forget some of the things I saw. He did not exaggerate... The military rule stipulates that a freight car may carry eight horses or forty soldiers... The Germans had simply issued orders to the effect that 120-130 Jews had to enter each car. The people were then left in the train carriages until they died.
Remember - this was only 1944. What is common knowledge now was only suspected by few outsiders then. And of course, this wasn't even the extent of the horror. He never visited the 40 square miles of Auschwitz. While obviously not the only eyewitness, Karski's testimony would prove invaluable at the UN War Crimes Commission.
POLAND'S TRAGEDY After the war, Karski ended up in the United States, and remained there for the rest of his life. But perhaps the most poignant aspect for him, and indeed for Poland, was that all the optimism the underground had for the country's post-war future would be dashed. Like their neighbouring Baltic states and many other countries in Eastern Europe, they would only escape Hitler's frying pan by falling into Stalin's ferocious flames. This book therefore anticipates the agonised sense of betrayal felt by so many in eastern Europe. So much of what they fought for, at such personal and national costs, came to naught.
That this book was never published in Britain until now was to our great loss. It is an essential testimony to the fate experienced by the era's countless victims of geopolitical tectonic plates and dictators' megalomania.Read more ›
Jan Karski was a planner and courier inside the Polish World-War-2 underground who was deputed to make a report in 1942-3 on the state of resistance both to the Polish government-in-exile and to British and American leaders.
His commitment was, in his own words, a "faithful, concrete reproduction" and this is what he gave, both on the resistance and on his experience of the programme of mass murder of Jews (including his own visit to the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw and to the concentration camp at Belzec).
His style in writing the book, back in 1944, reflected this matter-of-fact, almost detached approach. This makes it alternatively powerful in its understatement and almost dull.
No doubt this detachment was Karski's means of survival: both through the horrors he experienced himself - his own torture by the Gestapo, the horrible deaths of friends and comrades, the degradation and extermination of Jews - and what must have been his moral abhorrence that the western leaders to whom he reported, including Eden and Roosevelt, took no action to halt the death railways into the Nazi extermination camps.
Of course, the detachment could never entirely overcome what Karski experienced, and the postscript by Andrew Roberts hints at the pain he subsequently endured. Karski wrote:
"The images of what I saw in the death camp are, I am afraid, my permanent possessions. I would like nothing better than to purge my mind of these memories. For one thing, the recollection of those events invariably brings on a recurrence of the nausea. But more than that, I would like simply to be free of them, to obliterate the very thought that such things ever occurred."
This is very much a first-hand account and therein lies its power as well as its limitations. I would also advise reading Norman Davies 'Rising 44' on Poland and the Second World War. Karski makes the powerful point early in `Story of a Secret State' that Poland faced the prospect, sandwiched as it was by Germany and Russia, that defeat in war would lead to its ceasing to exist. It is some consolation to the reader, then, to know Karski lived to see an independent Poland. May God have mercy on his soul.Read more ›