Review: Story of a Secret State – Jan Karski

jan karskiNote – since publishing this review, I have been sent some interesting personal reminiscences of Jan Karski which I have published in two parts here (Part 1) and here (Part 2).

I have recently been engrossed in a first person account of the Polish resistance movement in World War II Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World.
After the invasion of Poland by the Germans in 1939, Jan Karski became a liaison officer with the Polish underground, travelling across closed borders to Paris and eventually infiltrating the Warsaw Ghetto and taking eye-witness accounts to a sceptical Anthony Eden and Franklin Roosevelt.

You are probably going to hear quite a lot about this book in coming months – a recent article in The Observer reported that film-maker Ian Canning, the producer of The King’s Speech has acquired the rights to the memoir from Penguin with Ralph Fiennes being a likely contender for Karski.

It is difficult to understand why this book was never published in Britain when in America 400,000 copies were sold during the war.  This new edition contains additional information added by Karski before his death in 2000, material which he could not reveal during the war.

The bravery of Jan Karski was exceptional.  Reporting directly to General Sikorski, the Polish Prime Minister in London, Karski risked his life throughout the war, being captured by both the Russians and the Germans and suffering brutal torture at the hands of the SS.  Few people would volunteer to be smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto by the Jewish Resistance, and later to infiltrate the Belzec death camp in the uniform of an Estonian guard.

The history of Poland is sorrowful in the extreme and it is doubtful whether any European nation suffered so much in the 20th century.  When the Russian army crossed the Polish frontier to help defend the nation against the Russians they came as invaders in their own right and Karski found himself shipped back to Russia as a slave labourer, an agonising journey in freight cars taking four days and nights.  He was eventually able to participate in a prisoner exchange that saw him shipped back to the German sector and during the long journey back, he was able to jump from the train at night-time eventually finding his way to a Polish village where he found temporary refuge.

Making his way back to Warsaw, he made contact with the resistance who were initially highly suspicious of him, but as he completed tasks successfully he was trusted with more responsibility and made his way to Paris as a courier to the government in exile. His trip down through Eastern Europe and then into Italy and across the French border was full of the type of border incidents y ou would expect, but when he eventually made his way up to Paris, Karski was rewarded with a meeting with General Sikorski himself leading to lunch in a restaurant where vital information was exchanged.

Back in Warsaw, Karski again found himself being despatched to Paris but by this time, Holland and Belgium had fallen to the Germans and the army was marching on Paris.  If the journey was difficult before it would be doubly so this time.  Alas, while crossing the Carpathian mountains on foot in the company of a young guide, Karski was captured by German guards and handed over to the Gestapo for interrogation involving torture and beatings.

Incredibly, Karski was able to escape from captivity and the Resistance movement hid him in a remote farmhouse for three weeks while he recovered – before being sent back to Warsaw and further missions.

I could write at length about Karski’s two visits to the Warsaw Ghetto and his infiltration of a Jewish death camp.  These are as horrible as you might expect, but enough has been said about these things in other places for me to wish to add further details from Story of a Secret State.  However, these accounts do not occupy a large part of the book, and the tone overall is of an overwhelming passion to get the news out of what was going on in these hellish places.

I think the thing I would say about this book is that its immensely readable – Karski has a vivid writing style which draws the reader along with him.  The book has the urgency of a newspaper report written on the day of the events described.  This is no dull history, but an eye-witness account as readable as any novel and you feel Karski’s passion to communicate with the outside world.

For me, the book acted as a useful counterpoint to Richard Zimler’s recent fictional account of the Warsaw Ghetto The Warsaw Anagramswhich I reviewed here.

A follow-up article containing a substantial amount of additional information from Dawn Barclift has been published here.

12 thoughts on “Review: Story of a Secret State – Jan Karski

  1. WOW, sometimes the word hero is Not enough. This appears to be a really fascinating book, by an individual who had more lives than the proverbial cat. And no reasoning why it had never been published in the UK.


    • Parrish – thanks for visiting. I think the film will be worth seeing, but I don’t have much stomach for visuals of concentration camps etc.


  2. I agree with you, what Poland went through was particularly harrowing. This sounds very interesting. It is indeed starnge that it wasn’t published in the UK. Your review made me think of the movie “Katyn” about the massacre of Polish officers..


  3. Thank you for reading the book and publishing your review. It was my great honour to have met Jan Karski. He was (and remains) one of the few human beings that I’ll never, ever forget. Even though he was quite frail when we met, he was forever impeccably elegant in bearing, dress (never without a perfect suit jacket and pocket square), and manners. And that austere profile! That voice! That seductive, loose draping of limbs when he sat like a languid greyhound! That charisma! That omnipresent cigarette! He could hold a room with ease and was surrounded like a flock of birds by respectful, swooning acolytes whom we affectionately dubbed ‘The Kult of Karski’. He had greatness of heart, true moral greatness of character, and was immensely sad and lonely at the end.

    Unable to return to Poland, Jan remained in Washington, DC. At the age of 39, he enrolled at the School of Foreign Services at Georgetown and he committed himself to a life of education, teaching at Georgetown until his retirement in 1984. He was a familiar, beloved, and highly respected figure around town and was always seen out and about as he remained traditionally European and preferred to walk or bicycle rather than drive a car. He was, however, a terribly anguished man who’d seen and survived things that no one should have to live with. Unless officially/formally interviewed or asked, he preferred not to discuss the war.

    In the 1960s, he married Pola Nirenska, a modern dancer and choreographer, who had been born in Poland with the name Pola Nirensztain. She was the daughter of an observant Jewish father who was not at all happy with her choice of career. She persevered and went away to study dance. Pola was in London during the worst of the Holocaust and thus survived the war. It was in London that Jan first saw her in one of her well-received dance performances. He did not see her again for many years but always remembered her. Pola immigrated to America (NYC, if I remember correctly) and for several years led an extremely hand-to-mouth existence dancing and teaching wherever she could and washing dishes at an Italian restaurant. The hours were very long. The owners would let her eat what was left over at the end of the day (in later years, Pola refused to do two things: wash dishes and eat Italian food). It is an interesting story how she and Jan connected; but she became a celebrated force in Washington, DC… teaching, choreographing her own work and leading her own company. She was, however, extremely emotionally fragile and brittle. Her last dance piece presented in Washington in 1990 was inspired by Holocaust victims she had known and was called “In Memory of Those I Loved…. Who Are No More” In 1992, she committed suicide… jumping from their Bethesda apartment’s balcony, and an already anguished man suffered yet another tragic loss. Jan himself died in July 2000, aged 86, from heart and kidney ailments at Georgetown University Hospital. Although he was a noble man who never complained or stooped to self-pity, to his dying day he considered himself a failure because – despite all of his effort – no one did anything to stop the Holocaust. I attended his Funeral Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, DC. I still have the Mass Card/Pamphlet for the service and treasure it.

    If Fiennes is selected to portray Karski, this will be a role that (more than almost any other since SS Hauptsturmführer Göth) will change his life. One didn’t walk away from Karski unmoved and without sensing greatness. If the dramatic film cannot do him justice then I prefer it not be made at all.

    The attached article from Georgetown University (his Alma Mater) dates back to 2000 (shortly after Jan’s passing). Note that the article, even then – eleven years ago – mentions Ralph’s resemblance to Karski.


    • Dawn – thank you very much for leaving your extremely interesting and informative comment. It is wonderful to receive your personal reminiscences of Karski, which add so much to my review. I hope you don’t mind but I am going to feature them in a post of their own so that other people do not miss them.


  4. I come to this article as a hopeful, someone who has not forgotten the sacrifices of Jan Karski, and as someone who seeks the next best thing to the lost possibility of stopping a great deal of the holocaust: recognition of the tremendous effort exerted to try to.

    I met Karski when I was probably 10 or 12 at the Kennedy Center in Washington for an awards presentation to recognize his contributions to human rights as a window to the Nazi’s secret world of mass murder. My grandfather, Jan Slowikowski (1915-2010), was visiting the US from Poland for this very occasion. He and Karski had a bond that was sparked by a clear demonstration of a commitment to the wellbeing of those who were threatened by the Nazi death machine gaining momentum in Europe.

    When dziadzia (grandpa) Janek made the decision to arrange an escape from the Nazi-operated hospital in Poland where he worked, he was just a freshly graduated doctor but had some connections with the underground resistance. He found out about the circumstances that the injured and desperate Karski was in and decided it was his moral duty to get this man out. As the story goes, dziadzia slipped sedatives into the guard’s coffee, left some windows open, lit a cigarette, and ensured that his buddies secured Karski’s freedom.

    I have always been blown away that this actually happened, and even more astonished that the ultimate goal of alerting the world never came to fruition. I am hopeful. I would find tremendous reconciliation, and the world would learn of sacrifices largely unacknowledged for what they were.


    • Tomek – thanks for visiting. Sorry for the delay in approving your comment. I am very interested to read the additional information you provide so thank you for posting it


  5. Dear Tom,
    I knew Jan Karski. He appears on the cover of “LION HEARTS” a book I wrote which was published only a couple of months ago. Chapter 9 in the book is called Jan. You may well like to read this book. If you google “Lion Hearts Henry R. Lew” it should come up. The book has been endorsed by well known Australian book reviewer Christopher Bantick as “An exceptional book about extraordinary people living in extraordinary times” and “my only regret on completing it is that I have not met any of them personally.” Sir Michael Holroyd writes of it, “Many men and women in the later stages of their lives contemplate writing autobiographies or family memoirs for their children. Not many actually do so and very few take on such thorough research or discover such dramatic stories as Henry R. Lew has done. His LION HEARTS is structured like a series of connected chapter-carriages, full of refugees and asylum seekers, and the sounds of exhilaration and sadness, which travels through a history of the twentieth century. Though centred on the author’s family, the story embraces us all. It deserves a wide readership. You might also find the following website interesting:
    Please feel free to contact me on the e-mail address supplied to you.
    Kindest regards, a merry Xmas, and a happy and healthy New Year,
    Henry R. Lew.


    • Henry – thank you for visiting my website. I found the additional information you provide very useful. If Sir Michael Holroyd commends your book then it must be well worthwhile and I commend you for your achievement. Every good wish to 2013, Tom


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