The Story of a Secret State is an astonishing wartime memoir that seems scarcely credible. There are moments where the narrative seems more at home in an airport spy thriller. Jan Karski (the author’s resistance nom de guerre) was recruited into the Polish Underground early in his country’s Nazi Occupation. We trace his many movements around Nazi-occupied countries made possible by clandestine mountain treks. We eavesdrop on his work as a crucial messenger between key leaders in exile and the resistance at home. In the course of this work, he met many key players on the Allied side and developed a fascinating relationship with the highly revered statesman, General Sikorski. We meet many brave individuals who did (often menial) tasks at great personal risk. So it is a gripping read. And even if there seem traces of exaggeration or hyperbole, the fact that this is essentially a true story makes it truly remarkable.

Scarcely credible in 1944

However, when this book was first published in the USA in 1944, it wasn’t the author’s exploits that made it hard to believe. It was his concluding chapters. For in these, Karski offered one of the first eye-witness testimonies of the Holocaust to reach the Allies. It seemed impossible to believe that such atrocity from such a civilised nation was conceivable, let alone achievable. Of course, today, all but the most determined holocaust deniers take it with the utmost seriousness. But then it was very different. Karski was all too aware of the problem. So as he took his report to the Polish government in exile in London, spoke to Allied leaders in London and Washington, he knew he had no alternative but to report as carefully and objectively as he could.

I know that many people will not believe me, will not be able to believe me, will think I exaggerate or invent. But I saw it and it is not exaggerated or invented. I have no other proofs, no photographs. All I can say is that I saw it and that it is the truth. (p358)

At Great Personal Risk

Karski knowingly took immense risks to bear his terrible witness. For he had been caught by the Gestapo on one of his mountain treks and therefore had no illusions about the horrors of their interrogation techniques. He only escaped because, having becoming so ill that he was hospitalised, underground helpers managed to get him out. But once he began to hear more about what was happening to the Jews, he was determined to see for himself in order to get the news out authoritatively.

Firstly, after meeting a couple of Polish Jewish leaders, he arranged to be smuggled into the Warsaw ghetto.

Adjoining the wall on the outside was a large open court that likewise surrounded nearly the entire ghetto. One of the buildings on this court was so constructed that its front door opened into the Aryan district, while an exit from its cellar led directly into the ghetto. This building gave many Jews the opportunity of contact with the outer world. With bribery, circumspection, a willingness to take the risk of being caught, and a thorough knowledge of the confusing cellars, the passage was comparatively easy. Indeed, at that time, the building had become like a modern version of the river Styx which connected the world of the living with the world of the dead. Now that the Warsaw ghetto no longer even exists, destroyed in the heroic ‘defense’ my friends had promised, I can mention the building and its cellars with impunity. Now the friendly building can no more help the unfortunate Polish Jews than I can harm them by revealing its secret. (p338)

What he found in the ghetto was truly pitiful and no scene was more pitiful than this:

We passed a miserable replica of a park – a little square of comparatively clear ground in which a half-dozen nearly leafless trees and a patch of grass had somehow managed to survive. It was fearfully crowded. Mothers huddled close together on benches nursing withered infants. Children, every bone in their skeletons showing through their taut skins, played in heaps and swarms.
‘They play before they die,’ I heard my companion on the left say, his voice breaking with emotion.
Without thinking – the words escaping even before the thought had crystallized – I said:
‘But these children are not playing – they only make believe it is play.’ (p340)

But worse was to come after Karski showed astonishing bravery. Wearing the stolen uniform of a Polish guard, he was smuggled into a death camp. The sights, sounds and smellsof what he witnessed would remain branded forever on his memory.

And now came the most horrible episode of them all. The Bund leader had warned me that if I lived to a hundred I would never forget some of the things I saw. He did not exaggerate… The military rule stipulates that a freight car may carry eight horses or forty soldiers… The Germans had simply issued orders to the effect that 120-130 Jews had to enter each car.

The two cars were now crammed to bursting with tightly packed human flesh, completely, hermetically filled. All this while the entire camp had reverberated with a tremendous volume of sound in which the hideous groans and screams mingled weirdly with shots, curses and bellowed commands. (p357-8)

The trains would never go far. They would simply be left in sidings for 3 or 4 days until all had died… after which the process would be repeated.

Remember – this was only 1944. What is common knowledge now was only suspected by outsiders then. And of course, this wasn’t even the extent of the horror. He never visited the 40 square miles of Auschwitz, for instance. While obviously not the only eyewitness, Karski’s testimony would prove invaluable.

I also appeared before the United Nations War Crimes Commission, which is composed of representatives of the United Nations, and of which Sir Cecil Hurst, the legal advisor of the British Government, is the chairman. I told them what I had seen in the Warsaw ghetto and the Belzec death camp. My testimony was placed on record and I was told that it will be used as evidence in the United Nations’ indictment against Germany. (p393)

Poland’s tragedy

Memorial to Karski in his home town of Łódź

After the war, Karski ended up in the United States, and remained there until his death in 2000. His wife, Pola Nirenska, was herself a Polish Jew and a holocaust survivor. But after marrying in 1965, she committed suicide in 1992, another tragic victim of Nazism’s legacy. The scars of his experiences and those he loved never left him.

But perhaps the most poignant aspect at a broader level for him, and indeed for Poland, was that all the underground’s optimism for the country’s post-war future would be dashed. Like their neighbouring Baltic states and many other countries in Eastern Europe, they would only escape Hitler’s ‘frying pan’ by falling into Stalin’s ferocious flames. This book therefore anticipates the agonised sense of betrayal felt by so many in eastern Europe. So much of what they fought for, at such personal and national costs, came to naught.

That this book was never published in Britain until now was to our great loss. It is an essential testimony to the fate experienced by the era’s countless victims of geopolitical tectonic plates and dictators’ megalomania.

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