Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World, by Jan Karski, Penguin, RRP £20, 352 pages

Jan Karski was a second world war Polish underground courier who survived incarceration by both the Soviets and the Nazis. He crossed Nazi-occupied Europe repeatedly to bring intelligence to the Polish government-in-exile and the Allies, notably the first detailed eye-witness account of the Holocaust.

After his cover was blown, Karski wrote this memoir about his hair-raising exploits combined with a harrowing account of the Nazi occupation and descriptions of the heroic efforts of the Polish resistance. First published in the US in 1944, Karski’s story has since been buried by the torrent of words generated by the war. It is now being published for the first time in the UK, complete with detailed new notes.

Story of a Secret State is a Boy’s Own tale of disguise, hidden microfilms and the obligatory cyanide pill. In one escape Karski leaps from a moving prison train; in another he swaps uniforms with a fellow inmate; in a third he is sprung from the Gestapo’s clutches by underground fighters whose orders were to save him or to kill him.

His account plays up the role of the resistance. There is vibrant detail on everything from the execution of collaborators to the running of secret schools, printing presses and political parties. We now know that although Poland’s underground army was Europe’s largest, with 350,000 fighters, its contribution to the Nazis’ defeat was modest in spite of huge sacrifices. But its role in reinforcing Poland’s capacity to resist oppression later helped the country play a decisive part in the overthrow of Communism, to the benefit of all Europeans.

Karski can be forgiven for exaggerating the underground’s achievements. The original purpose of Story of a Secret State was to rally western support for the Polish cause. And not without reason. After the Soviet Union turned from enemy to ally of the west, both the UK and the US recognised the Red Army was bearing the brunt of the war effort. Poland’s role in the fighting – and its awkward position as the victim of Soviet as well as Nazi oppression – was minimised. Karski writes that whereas in Warsaw Polish heroism loomed large, in London “people asked where did Polish sacrifice rank next to the immeasurable heroism, sacrifice, and suffering of the Russian people”.

The most significant element in Karski’s book is his account of the fate of Poland’s Jews. He enters the Warsaw Ghetto to meet Jewish leaders and hear their desperate plea for help. He dresses as a concentration camp guard to smuggle himself into a Nazi death camp. He describes in detail the hell-like scenes of degradation and destruction. What he sees makes him physically sick and haunts him for the rest of his life.

He takes his story to Allied leaders, including Anthony Eden, Britain’s foreign secretary, and US president Franklin Roosevelt. But he fails to secure the support Warsaw’s Jews sought. He meets indifference and even disbelief.

For diplomatic reasons, Karski pulled his punches. He barely mentions a memorable meeting with Felix Frankfurter, US Supreme Court associate justice and a leading American Jewish figure. Frankfurter refused to accept Germany could be capable of genocide and later said of his talk with Karski: “I did not say that he was lying, I said that I could not believe him. There is a difference.”

Karski concludes, rightly, that no government did enough to try to save Europe’s Jews. He writes with tragic feeling of the death of Szmul Zygelbojm, a Jewish member of the Polish government-in-exile in London, who committed suicide in 1943 in despair over the Holocaust: “Of all the deaths that have taken place in this war, surely Zygelbojm’s is one of the most frightening, the sharpest revelation of the extent to which the world has become cold and unfriendly, nations and individuals separated by immense gulfs of indifference.”

Karski, who became a professor at Washington’s Georgetown University, developed into a strong advocate of Holocaust memory. He died in 2000, aged 86, and sadly never produced a full post-war version of his story, leaving it to biographers to combine his account with the official reports he submitted and other evidence. But this eye-witness testimony from a war that was still raging while Karski was writing is imbued with a passion that subsequent memoirs can rarely match. The stench of war clings to its pages.

Stefan Wagstyl is the FT’s emerging markets editor and a former eastern Europe editor

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