Story of a Secret State
My Report to the World
(Georgetown University Press)
On August 23, 1939, Jan Karski was in Warsaw at a party that was "carefree, festive ... almost lyrical in mood. We drank wine and danced interminably." The next morning he was called up --- he was an officer in the Polish army --- and was told to report to headquarters in Oswiecim. A week later, the Germans invaded, but by the time Karski and his companions had reached the frontier, the Russians had invaded from the east and the Polish army had laid down its arms. Karski and his friends were forced to flee the frontier.
During the course of this book --- which runs from the time of the invasions until early 1943, Karski gets arrested, goes through a grueling session of torture (by then he is member of the Polish Underground), and manages to escape not once but several times. He is no dummy (surviving in the Underground is not only for the brave but the shrewd) and ends up being sent via Portugal to England and America to report on the virulence of the German occupation, which includes some of the first facts to reach the outside world about the pogroms and the concentration camps.
The Story of a Secret State was first published in 1944, and has been reissued recently by Georgetown University Press. In its long history, it has garnered an astonishing collection of encomiums from newspapers in England and the United States. This edition includes a moving forward by Madeleine Albright.
The book is a classic of wartime journalism, forcing the reader --- or at least this reader --- to give up several nights of sleep just to stay with it. The stories of his various escapes from the Gestapo (three --- plus dozens of close calls) are rich with detail, including his descent from a hospital room buck-naked in order to leap from a ground floor window into the hands of the local Underground ("Look for a rose laying on the sill so you'll know which window to jump from," he is told).
This was his closest call, but being a member of the Polish Underground forces him to be continually living with close calls. (The reader gets quite jumpy too.) The most desperate of chapters tells of his time of incarceration, the beginning of his torture by a German officer with a "large face, from which the black, glossy hair had been brushed severely back and pomaded, with its cruel, pursed lips, made an extraordinary impression of contrasts, of gross power mingling with feminine delicacy and cruelty."
One has no doubts about Karski's bravery, but one session with the torturers forces him to attempt to kill himself with a razor he had previously hidden in his cell. His main thought as he is preparing to do himself in is a sense of disgust that he doesn't have the ability to withstand the startling pain, that of being repeatedly sapped on the head, just behind the ears. The scars on his wrists are testament to this failed attempt, and, indeed throughout the course of the book are used as a form of identification.
When he meets with Wladyslaw Sikorski, the head of the Polish government-in-exile, in London in the winter of 1942, the General looks at his scars and says, "I see the Gestapo gave you a decoration too."
When Karski finally makes it to America, he is presented to President Roosevelt, and then later, by the Polish ambassador-in-exile, to Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. Karski told him of his visit to a concentration camp, and the justice says to him, "I can't believe you."
The ambassador exploded and said to him, "Felix! Felix! Look at his wrists! How can you say to him that you don't believe him?" And Frankfurter said, "I didn't say I didn't believe him; I said I cannot believe him."
§ § §
One is never free when one lives in a land occupied by those bent on stamping out any sense of pride and nation. The most decimating loss to the Poles was the freedom to speak and move about without restraint. In such a time and place, one becomes infected with the belief that everyone around you is a potential informer, or a potential torturer. The most subtle lesson of Story is learning the signs that preoccupy one when one is "underground." You are sure that your enemies are all about you, and are after you. In Poland, this fear was further edged by the knowledge that the enemy was subtle, thorough, methodical, and relentlessly cruel.
The number of people in Warsaw who carried false documents or had something to conceal was enormous. When someone met a friend whom he had not seen for a long time, it was highly possible the friends had been in hiding. This was taken for granted and accepted as casually as one might accept a friend's trip to the country.
On the other hand, the tricks that Poles came up with to harass the enemy are highly creative, and sometimes almost funny. Western Poland was filled with "Volksdeutscher," people who had been resettled from Germany, people whose loyalty to the Polish nationalist cause was always in doubt. As one of the directors of the the propaganda arm of the Underground, Karski cobbled together a fake letter, ostensibly from these Volksdeutscher to the military authorities in Berlin, offering their services as volunteer enlistees in the army (German names were culled from the telephone book). Another ghastly trick involved using pimps for German soldiers, "procurers to arrange encounters between German officers and prostitutes whom we knew to have venereal infections." Equally as chilling is the tale of an up-to-date Typhoid Mary ... a man named Jan who spoke perfect German, befriended German officers in bars and taverns, and at the appropriate moment, "he would drop a louse bearing typhoid germs behind the collar of his German friend."
Before leaving for his English and American visits, Karski managed to sneak into the Warsaw ghetto, and then made a trip --- disguised as an Ukranian kapo --- into the German concentration camp at Belzec. These chapters are graphic and can be hard to get through. In a couple of places I had to skip over passages that are just too grim and ghastly.
Karski was one of the first to reveal to the English-speaking world what was going on behind the facade of Nazi Germany, was able to tell of what he saw in his meetings with Anthony Eden and Franklin Roosevelt.
§ § §
There are passages that tell us the nature of war and secrecy, the need to protect your fellows in the service of the state. Some of these passages show his evolution from a young playboy into a hardened agent of the Underground. When he is evacuated from the house of the Sawas family --- people who had sheltered him (kindly, humanely, and very bravely) for the weeks after his escape from the Gestapo --- he writes, simply,
I never saw the Sawas again. Months later in Cracow, I heard of their fate. My information disclosed to me that the entire family had been arrested by the Nazis, tortured, and executed.
And when Karski finally, after a hair-raising trip from Warsaw, across Germany, down through France to the Spanish border, for him (and the reader) all that had been dark, ominous and dangerous suddenly turns light: "The hike through the Pyrenees was delightful. The country was wilder than any through which I had ever passed, but also was rich in a vivid green foliage and unusual mountain views."--- Eileen Leigh