Book Review: Polish Patriot, Soldier, Spy

Jan Karski worked with the Polish ­Underground, carrying messages from Nazi-occupied Europe to exiled leaders

TVR Books | Rennie Sweeney | July / August 2013

"In the Underground, it became a rule not to live in one place too long," writes Jan Karski, in his memoir of the Polish resistance. Agents moved quickly from site to site in Nazi-occupied Europe. In Warsaw, they were beaten but fighting on, navigating borders while carrying messages to an outside world that wasn’t ready to listen – furtively witnessing glimpses of the Holocaust via the Izbica transit camp, the Warsaw ghetto and an undercover mission to Belzec.

Story of a Secret State was written in a Manhattan hotel room in the summer of 1944 and republished several times, most recently in 2013 with a forward by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and a biographical essay by Yale historian Timothy Snyder. This "report to the world" attempted to bare the horrors of occupied Europe.

As it turned out, the evil described was too terrible to be believed. Karski took his testimonials first to Britain and eventually to Roosevelt himself. It was the first account of the fate of Europe’s Jews to reach the west, and it went largely ignored by those in positions to help. Snyder writes that his "...heroism reminds us that the Allies knew about the Holocaust but were not much interested.

Karski recalls our weaknesses, one of which is that we forget them." As Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, himself Vienna-born, told the Polish ambassador, "I did not say this young man is lying. I said I am unable to believe him."

Born Jan Kozielewski, he worked in the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs when Germany invaded. He was mobilised briefly before being captured by the simultaneously invading Russians. His experiences, terrifying and exhilarating, unfold as the burgeoning Polish underground evolved.

One of the early casualties to Hitler’s aggression, changes in state and region were chronicled step by step. And it’s somehow reassuring to learn of the perilous circumstances he found himself in, usually by his own choice, and where he acted with fortitude. As did many of those he encountered; sadly, many did not survive.

In his first undercover escapade, Karski disguised his lieutenant’s rank to volunteer for a prisoner trade with the Germans from a Soviet labour camp. He seemed to have a gift for adapting to dangerous situations, reacting with a cleverness and cunning he would have been lost without. Later, it’s clear he’d skirted the notorious Soviet massacre of Polish officers at Katyn.

It’s these near-misses, split second decisions and hair’s-breadth chances that underscore his incredible fate and its far-reaching effects. He cites luck, and miraculous circumstances confirm that he had it in spades.

Escaping to Warsaw, he found the landscape of life there devastatingly altered.

"There was no longer a Poland," he writes. "And with it had disappeared the whole mode of existence that had previously been mine." So he devoted himself to his country, joining the now-legendary Underground to deliver information from occupied Poland to exiled leaders in Angers, France.

From here on, the story has all the characteristics of a spy-thriller – concealed film and suicide capsules, capture, interrogation, the drama of train travel and border checkpoints, the mysteries of those met, and countless convoluted escapes (a specialty of his).

Names that became bywords for evil flit menacingly through the narrative – like the town where his army barracks were, Oswiecim, better known to us by its German name, Auschwitz. His memory for detail and ability to recreate places, people and situations is extraordinary.

He never shies from acknowledging shortcomings and lives only for his work, explaining that it "...completely altered my mental outlook. Whereas formerly I might have remarked only on the beauty of the scenery, I observed that the forest afforded superb concealment for meetings, the passage of couriers and, grimly enough, for assassinations."

These recollections are a powerful testament to the selfless actions of a young man whose heroism is still evoked – President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. Compulsively readable thanks to his deeply likable personality, stark honesty and admirable humility, the story is further enriched by his poetic thoughtfulness, as when, quoting a new prayer for Poland:

"Look at our land covered with graves, and lighten the path of our sons, brethren and fathers, of the Polish soldiers fighting their way back to Poland. Let the sea return the drowned, the waste spaces of land the buried ones, the sands of the deserts and the snows of Siberia give us back at least the bodies of those we loved."

Eventually, Karski entered the infamous Warsaw ghetto, meeting leaders of the struggling community who implore him to get the message out, as he is so skilled at doing.

"Our entire people will be destroyed," they plead. "A few may be saved, perhaps, but three million Polish Jews are doomed. As well as others, brought in from all over Europe... Only from outside the country can effective help for the Jews be brought."

Haunted, he got the message across an ocean, to ministers and a president. But it wasn’t enough. This book was written to carry it further. Those millions were lost, but the tireless strength and bravery of many in the Underground were surely worth something.

Karski explains a "legend" that was used as a detailed backstory for Underground operatives – airtight narratives weaving fictional identities via faked passports, birth certificates of dead infants and registrations from landladies willing to look the other way. He’d lived these legends until it was necessary to reveal secrets too costly to keep. Now his own life, and his story, are the legend. No falsified history needed.


Story of a Secret State

by Jan Karski

Georgetown University Press 

(Reprint March 2013)

pp. 414


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