Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World

September 14, 2012 2:06 pm

Jan Karski as a Cadet

When we talk about the Second World War and the Holocaust, we sometimes go into hypothesis. What if the Allies and the rest of the world were aware of the scale of the atrocities carried out by the Nazi regime? Would they have invaded sooner? Would they have been able to save more people from an inhumane execution?

It turns out that one individual did testify to the savage conditions of the camps and the Warsaw ghetto and gave his eyewitness account to both the British and the American governments as early as 1942. His report was not acted upon because what it stated was too unimaginable to be accepted as the truth. His testimony was dismissed as romanticised exaggeration. The name of this man was Jan Karski and his “report to the world” was published in the UK for the first time last May.

Karski’s report-cum-memoir is a piece of gripping prose that needs continuous reminding that it actually happened. For real. From the comfort of an armchair on a sunny day, no one would blame you for slipping into his elegantly flowing narrative like you would into a top ten fiction bestseller. His story begins in an appropriately literary fashion at a luxuriant dinner party on the eve of the war and he is conscripted when he arrives to his house in a drunkenly haze.

And so the tale begins. Karski experiences Blitzkrieg first hand before an imminent lapse into Russian captivity. When he is given the opportunity to be handed over to the Nazis, Karski unknowingly escapes being the victim of the Katyn massacre, a fate most of his decimated unit suffered. He manages to make a break from Nazi captivity by inspiring the soldiers in his train car to action and a daredevil escape. And all this only so that he could reach Warsaw in an attempt to reunite with the remnants of the Polish army that he believed were still intent on fighting the enemy.

In Warsaw, the futility of Poland’s situation became all too clear. The war had been lost. Only, the Polish people had a tradition of rebellion and underground activity and their hate for the Nazi regime combined with the dreams of independence were not to be overcome. It turned out that even in the first few months of the war and occupation, the Polish government was working to keep the semblance of an actual state. Karski would help set it up as a courier between the Underground and their president-in-exile. This perilous activity would lead him into the hands of the Gestapo where he suffered unbearable torture that he even tried to end in suicide. But don’t hold your breath yet. By the time he is saved from the hospital, you’re not even half way through the story.

In 1942, the complete horrors of the situation under Nazi regime crystallises and Karski is designated to take microfilms of 1200 documents as well as an invaluable personal testimony of the brutality in the Warsaw Ghetto (described with such measured precision that you feel you are standing next to him) as well as the extermination techniques of Belzec transfer camp to London. He carries these through Germany, occupied France to neutral Spain before reaching his destination.

After delivering the news to his superiors, Karski is instructed by president Sikorski to share the information first to the British government and then to anyone and everyone who will listen. Since Churchill wouldn’t take him in for an appointment and was not reassured by platitudes served by Eden, Karski was sent to America to speak to Roosevelt. But it was to no avail. If the Allies did believe his reports, they chose not to act on them, or simply couldn’t afford to at that time. Looking back at his incredible story, who could really blame them? His book was first published in 1944 to raise awareness and sold out 400 000 copies, but served as an exciting read as opposed to a call to arms.

Many reviewers tend to point out how Story of the Secret State breaks the news of the Holocaust and isn’t believed. And surely, Karski’s wish to make clear the complete horror of the extermination of concentration camp prisoners is an important part of the book. However, for today’s reader it brings much more to the fore than Holocaust – a topic that has probably been the most explored part of the Second World War.

Story of a Secret State is finally a memoir by a person who takes us through the nooks and crannies of the underground system. We learn about initiations, activities, signals, reckless behaviour and safe-houses, escape orchestration, underground schooling system and wedding procedures. We learn about people who weren’t active members of the underground network, but protected official agents and risked their and their families’ lives in the process. We find out about the unacclaimed liaison women whose life expectancy was only a few months and without whom the underground network could barely operate.

Karski’s is not just a story of a tragic individual whose illuminating testimony was snubbed by the world. It isn’t just a story about the death camps and cruelty towards the Jews, Poles and other prisoners. Story of the Secret State is a testimony about a whole nation defeated and under threat of extinction who refused to give in. A nation who wasn’t to be threatened by the beastliest of crimes and tortures inflicted on them. It is a story of courage of a whole nation of patriots who put the idea of an independent state and most importantly – justice before their own safety and their lives. Jan Karski lends a voice to all the individuals according to whose conduct we can calibrate our sense of morality and freedom.

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