No messenger bearing bad news can expect to be popular. But to be dis- believed as well adds a particularly bitter twist, since the messenger’s character can only be vindicated by proving the truth of his horrific message. That was Jan Karski’s fate. He was the Polish resistance fighter sent to London in 1942 to tell the world that the Jews in Poland were being exterminated. Not in their hundreds, not in their thousands, but in their millions.There would be none left, Karski reported, unless the Allies publicly promised a retaliation sufficiently terrible to halt the Nazis in their tracks. ‘I had this feeling’, Karski confessed after giving his information to a member of Churchill’s war cabinet, ‘he thinks I am spreading exaggerated anti-German propaganda.’
He passed on his message to Franklin D. Roosevelt in person, but to no greater effect. Yet, when Allied leaders saw the death camps for themselves, their excuse for inaction was always the same: they could do nothing because they had not been told. To which Karski bleakly remarked, ‘I told them.’
Had this memoir, written in 1944, been available to his indifferent audience, it would surely have made them listen more intently. It tells with great passion, fluency and the pace of an adventure story how Karski became qualified to be not just a messenger, but one of utter integrity.
His formal war began and ended within a few days, bombed by the Germans and captured by the Russians. For modern Poland, which had only existed since 1918 after disappearing from the map in 1795, defeat brought the prospect of ‘total annihilation’ as the invaders divided up its territory between them once again. What Karski conveys incomparably well, because it was integral to his own character, is the iron determination of the Poles. It was this that enabled them to create, out of the shambles of defeat, an underground army and government despite the presence of almost a million German troops on their soil.
Independence was reliant not just on the Poles’ overt resistance, such as blowing up railway lines, but on their rigid refusal to co- operate with the occupiers in any way, even by reading German newspapers or speaking German. The campaign was enforced implacably, even when German retribution extended to the collective execution of entire communities after sabotage. To organise this national policy they needed messengers who could be trusted in Warsaw as well as the most distant village.
Having escaped from his Soviet prison, Karski took on the role, learning as he went the craft of moving inconspicuously in the open, concealing his true identity in a multiplicity of ‘legends’, and instantly judging the reliability of a new acquaintance. Any mistake would mean betrayal. It is not by chance, therefore, that the vivid descriptions which distinguish the memoir should come from Karski’s close attention to character and incident: the anguish of a mother when her child stumbles into the table where she is assembling cyanide pills, the mixture of delinquency and courage in a teenage recruit, the smell of perfume and the slender fingers of the Gestapo officer who tortured him when he was caught.
Rescued by the underground army from the hospital where he was taken after trying to commit suicide, Karski was then selected to report to the Polish government-in-exile in London on conditions in Poland. Before leaving, the young man was guided through the Warsaw ghetto where some 70,000 starving Jews remained of the 400,000 originally incarcerated there. Although he had already witnessed extremes of inhumanity beyond ordinary imagination, the scenes in the ghetto at last broke his resolution, and he ran away overwhelmed by ‘the atrocious stench of decomposing bodies, the pitiful moans of dying children, the desperate cries of a people struggling for life’. It was this personal evidence, as well as the statistics on the death camps gathered by Jewish leaders, that he presented so fruitlessly to London and Washington.
Inexplicably, the publishers provide no introduction to Karski’s story to set it in context. This must be sought elsewhere; after the war, Karski himself described in many interviews, notably in the film Shoah, his anguish at being disbelieved, the wider consequences of the Allies’ wilful ignorance, and his disgust at the bland denials of senior figures that they had ever been warned. Before his death in 2000, however, Karski clearly attained an unmistakable serenity, recognising that the messenger’s only duty is ‘to reproduce objectively what you saw, what you experienced and what you were bidden to tell’. The rest is the responsibility of the listener.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 4, 2011Tags: Book review, Historical memoir, Memoirs, Non-fiction, Poland, Warsaw, Wartime