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