Review: Jan Karski's WWII memoir is harrowing history

Published May 28, 2013

On Sept. 1, 1939, Nazi Germany attacked and occupied western Poland. Within three weeks, under a Nazi-Soviet Alliance, Russia took over eastern Poland.

Polish cities were mercilessly bombed, and the Polish government, to all outward appearances, seemed to have vanished.

A week before the onset of war Jan Karski, a well-educated, popular, 25-year-old graduate of the University of Lwow, was a member of the Polish diplomatic corps. Fond of good food, women and horses, Karski had enjoyed a pleasant life and career serving in Germany, Switzerland and Great Britain. But starting in the last fateful week of August 1939, he would be catapulted into the unbelievable horrors of history.

Originally published in 1944, Karski's novelistic Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World is the author's gripping eyewitness account of his terrifying exploits as the Polish Underground's global ambassador. A bestselling Book-of-the-Month Club choice at the time, Story of a Secret State has been re-issued with a foreword and afterword, respectively, by former U.S. secretaries of state Madeleine Albright and Zbigniew Brzezinski, and a biographical essay by Yale history professor Timothy Snyder.

A few weeks after Karski's abrupt summons into military action, his army unit was taken captive by Soviet Red Army troops and made to perform hard labor. Karski informs us, however, that by November 1939, he was transferred through prisoner exchange to a German POW camp. There, he vividly recounts, the brutality was vicious and matter of fact, and the living conditions atrocious. Fortunately, Karski managed to escape the Germans by jumping from a moving train with his comrades.

As Karski made his way toward Warsaw, thinking of continuing the fight for his homeland, he began to realize that there was no Polish Army to rejoin. "There was no longer a Poland . . . the specter of total annihilation swooped down upon the entire nation."

During his incognito visit to Warsaw, Karski is enlisted in the Polish Underground. Unlike ad hoc underground resistance movements in other occupied countries like France, the Polish Underground was really a vast, legitimate government within Nazi-occupied Poland, and it was answerable to the official government in exile in France.

As Marian Borecki, one of the most eminent organizers of the Underground, explained to Karski at the time, Poles must "maintain our national continuity, the legal and moral aspects of a state, and a will to fight." Karski's memoir shows how, against all odds, the brave members of the Underground enabled Poland to maintain this continuity.

As an Underground agent Karski, because of "his steady nerves, skill with languages, and near-photographic memory," became the organization's main international courier. He gathered crucial intelligence from occupied countries and held the vast movement together by maintaining communication between the exiled leaders in Paris and all the political factions in Poland. And as he traveled within Poland or across the continent, always with a false identity, he encountered all the horrors of wartime Europe.

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He gathers information from inside the beleaguered Warsaw Ghetto and sees the hideously starving Jews. He listens to their desperate Zionist leader, who implores him to tell the Allies of the unthinkable extent of the massacre and to convince the Allied leaders to bomb German cities, to do something, anything, or "Our entire people will be destroyed."

Disguised as a guard, Karski visits the Nazi death camp near Belzec, Poland, where he witnesses Jewish men, women and children being crammed into cattle cars "bursting with tightly packed human flesh completely, hermetically filled." Quicklime was poured into the cars and "the occupants . . . would be literally burned to death . . . the flesh eaten from their bones."

Karski is captured in Slovakia by the Gestapo. He is beaten and tortured mercilessly. Unwilling to reveal information, he attempts suicide by slitting his wrists. Though bleeding profusely, he survives to later succeed in an incredibly daring escape.

When, in 1942-43, Karski finally makes his way to England and then to the United States to inform Prime Minister Winston Churchill, President Franklin Roosevelt and many other government officials of the full magnitude of the Holocaust, they appeared to be astonished.

Karski later earned a doctorate at Georgetown University, where he taught for 40 years in the School of Foreign Service. He died at age 86 on July 13, 2000, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2012. Secret State is an indispensable and compelling historical document of World War II and the Holocaust, written by a supremely courageous humanitarian.