Roderick Hart's Reviews > Story of a Secret State

Story of a Secret State by Jan Karski
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's review
Jun 10, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: autobiography, history

These are the memoirs of a Polish officer during World War 11. Captured by the Soviets then exchanged into the custody of the Germans, he escapes from a train taking him to a labour camp or worse and makes his way to Warsaw where he is recruited into the Underground.

At first he works as a courier, conveying information from the Underground to the Polish Government in Exile, then in France. Since this involves travelling through several occupied countries with forged papers it is risky and eventually he is caught by the Germans. Suffering badly at the hands of his captors, he ends up in a hospital from which his escape is arranged. On the estate where he is sent to recuperate, he turns his hand to propaganda and misinformation.

On his return to Warsaw, he is briefed to report on the situation facing the Underground, the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Germans death camps. This involves two visits to the Ghetto and one visit to a camp near Belzec, about one hundred miles east of Warsaw. His descriptions are detailed, as is his account of his reactions to what he sees.

With his own first-hand evidence and extensive briefings from people in the Underground and representatives of the Jews, he makes his way via several countries to London, where he reports to officials of the Polish Government in Exile and to members of the British government. He then goes to the United States where he briefs, among others, President Roosevelt.

The book is well written, giving the reader a clear idea of how appalling conditions were at the time and a remarkably detailed picture of how complex the Underground was and how it operated. Footage of the death camps which appeared after the war was not available at the time this book was published, and though their existence was known about the author hoped to convince the Allies of the full horror of what the Germans was doing, hence the book’s subtitle, ‘My Report to the World’.

Karski (real name Jan Kozielewski) was a highly educated man who had just begun a career in the diplomatic service when the war broke out. At one level, parts of the book can be read as a long and dangerous series of real-life adventures. His pen portraits of the more important characters are excellent, as are his descriptions of places. Since the book is autobiographical, the author is the most important character and is often impatient enough to be irritating. He admits (Chapter 11) he has a high opinion of himself, which sometimes leads him into disputes with people who have a better grasp of events than he does. The fact that he gives us chapter and verse on these incidents says a lot for his honesty, and he was plainly meticulous in carrying out the tasks assigned to him, most of which exposed him to great danger.

But the book was not written as an adventure story. Its purpose was to give a first-hand history of the Polish Underground during World War 11 and the brutality of the occupation. Karski wanted the world to know what was really going on in occupied Poland at a time when something could be done about it, hence the first publication date of 1944.

He provides a detailed analysis (Chapters 11 and 19) of how the Underground (the Secret State of the title) was structured and conducted its operations. The level of organisation was very impressive, though he admits one major mistake - the Poles believed the war would not last long and planned accordingly. Unfortunately, it lasted much longer than they expected. There was a second major mistake which they seemed unaware of, certainly in the early stages of the occupation. They planned for the democratic Poland which would arise after the Nazis were defeated, not foreseeing the expansion of the Soviet empire into Eastern Europe. This naivety seems odd given the fact that when Germany invaded Poland, the Soviet Union did likewise, effectively dividing the country between them. They did not need to know the contents of the secret protocol to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact to understand this – it was already a reality on the ground. And Poland fared no better when the war was over. Despite the heroic efforts of the Underground, one dictatorship was replaced by another.

Karski’s command of detail is so remarkable that some have questioned whether it can all be accurate. Authors of memoirs have been known to improve on the facts to strengthen the narrative or show themselves in a better light. There are even examples of memoirs which are entirely fake, including one in the same subject area, Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years, so it is not unreasonable to consider this question.
In his obituary on Karski in the New York Times (July 14, 2000) Michael T Kaufman states that the author ‘seems to have been blessed with a photographic memory’, but this is no more than Kaufman’s reaction to the astonishing level of detail the author provides. Karski himself did not claim to have a photographic memory, though he does claim (Chapter 19) that his memory was well-developed, as if memory were a muscle capable of improvement through exercise. Kim’s Game is based on this premise and versions of it are reportedly used in some military training establishments.

One of the conversations he records early on in the book is with a young woman who tells him in the strongest terms that when the Germans are defeated, a ruthless mass terror must be organized against the people who invaded their country and made them suffer. The reader may find this as unlikely as Karski did, but something very like a ruthless mass terror did in fact occur after the war. (A short history of what happened is to be found in an article by Christian Habbe in Spiegel International dated 2nd May 2011.)

In his role as a clandestine diplomat Karski was expected to remember a great deal of information, not only about the situation on the ground but also about current policy in various sections of the Underground. Since he could not risk writing it down, he was obliged to commit it to memory and appears to have done this very well. Particularly towards the end of the book, he names many of his contacts in the UK and the US, so his claims have been open to verification for many years.

But however good his memory may have been he did not record, and cannot have remembered word for word, the extended conversations he had for example, with Borecki, a leader of the Underground in the early days, with Danuta, a young girl who looked after him when he was recovering his health after his period in the custody of the Gestapo, with the two representatives from the Warsaw Ghetto, and with General Sikorski. I believe he was taking the essence of actual conversations and turning them into dialogue. The people he quotes, including himself, did not say verbatim the words he gives them, but those words convey what they meant at the time when they spoke. This is a well-worn technique stretching back to Thucydides, and gives the reader the immediacy of direct speech, allowing us to meet his cast of characters face-to-face. The result is that the book has greater impact on the reader. In this case, given what Karski was trying to achieve, the greater the impact the better.


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