Book Review – “Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World,” By Jan Karski
Published by Penguin Random House, 455 pp. $18.95
Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy
As the summer of 1939 drew to a close, perhaps for the first time in a long while Canadians had reason to be guardedly optimistic. For one thing, the Great Depression which had ravaged the economy for ten long years was finally starting to show signs of abating. Even more important, to the millions who viewed themselves as being loyal British subjects, the nation was still basking in the glory of the Royal Tour that had taken place earlier that summer. From the time they arrived in Quebec City in mid-May to their departure from Halifax a month later, everywhere they went King George VI and Queen Elizabeth were mobbed by thousands of cheering admirers eager to show their pride at being part of the then-mighty British Empire.
Just before the Labour Day weekend, the world suddenly changed when on the morning of Friday, September 1, the people of Canada woke up to the news that the German Army had invaded Poland. By Sunday, Great Britain had declared war on Germany, and there was no question that Canada would quickly follow suit. Meanwhile, halfway around the world Hitler’s armies were unleashing a horrific pounding on Poland. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Poles mounted a heroic but ultimately futile defence, and in the space of only a few weeks’ time their forces collapsed in the face of the Nazi onslaught.
To add to the already dire situation they were faced with, little more than two weeks after the German assault began the Poles were attacked from the east by the Soviet Union. By the time the fighting ended in the first week of October, nearly 200,000 Polish soldiers had been killed or wounded, more than a million more had been taken prisoner, and Poland itself had been neatly divided in two by the Nazis and the Soviets. In Story of a Secret State Jan Karski, a Polish officer who escaped captivity and later became a leading underground operative, provides an intimate look at life in Nazi-occupied Poland, and details the extraordinary resourcefulness the Polish people used to survive under their newfound overlords, and wherever possible, resist against the brutal tyranny that was imposed upon them.
Few nations suffered as much under the Germans as did Poland. In contrast to their occupied territories of Western Europe, where the Germans ruled over most of the general population in a stern but comparatively civilized manner, the Poles and others of Slavic origin were deemed to be subhuman “untermenshen” whose principal value to the Third Reich was to provide a convenient source of slave labour. As a result, there was seemingly no limit to the cruelty that was visited on the people of the Polish General Government territory that fell under German control. Millions of Jews from all over Europe were herded into squalid, densely-packed ghettos in Poland’s major cities, from which the vast majority were soon dispatched to infamous extermination camps such as Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Sobibor. It is estimated that out of a population of 35 million at the start of the war, well over five million Polish citizens perished under the rule of the Nazis.
In late August of 1939, Jan Karski was a 25 year-old bachelor living a carefree bohemian life in Warsaw after having recently returned from three years of post-graduate study in Western Europe. Holding a reserve commission in an artillery regiment, as the storm clouds of the impending invasion began to grow increasingly ominous, he was called up for service with his comrades, most of whom expected that war with Germany would be a short-lived affair. Within the space of a few weeks Karski found himself a prisoner of the Red Army enroute to captivity in an unknown destination somewhere in the Soviet Union. It was only through a combination of audacity and luck that he managed to escape and begin a journey back into the heart of his homeland, where he would soon embark on a new and oftentimes exceedingly dangerous life.
Not long after he had arrived back in Warsaw, Karski was recruited into the nascent Polish underground resistance movement, which over the next few years would evolve into a secretive and complex clandestine organization. Because of his fluency in several languages and the fact that he had spent three years studying n Western Europe before the war, he was tasked to act as a courier delivering important messages and reports to the Polish government in exile, which in the months after the 1939 invasion was located in France and led by General Wladyslaw Sikorski.
Karski’s missions involved lengthy trips by train across much of Europe, and his first few excursions went off seemingly without a hitch. But in the summer of 1940 disaster struck, when a Polish peasant with whom he was sheltering overnight turned him in to the Germans, and Karski found himself trapped in the clutches of the dreaded Gestapo.
The Nazi thugs spared no mercy in their efforts to extract whatever information they could from their captive, and Karsi was subjected to brutal beatings intended to break his will. After several days of unremitting torture he finally reached what he believed to be the end of his endurance, and in desperation he attempted to commit suicide by slashing his wrists with a pilfered razor blade. He was discovered in the nick of time by a guard, and was taken to an SS hospital, where a sympathetic Slovakian nurse helped him to regain his health. Karski’s good fortune continued when his comrades in the resistance managed to spirit him out of the hospital one night in a meticulously planned rescue. Having managed to miraculously evade what would almost certainly have been a most unpleasant death at the hands of the Gestapo fiends, Karski resolved to never again allow himself to be taken alive.
Over the course of the next few years, Karski would witness firsthand the unspeakable atrocities which the German occupiers perpetuated on Poland. At one point in 1942, accompanied by leaders of the Jewish community, he visited the Warsaw Ghetto, where he watched two teenagers clad in the uniform of the Hitler Youth casually shoot down an elderly man, and then walk away laughing at what they had just done. Later, disguised as an Estonian guard, he made his way into the Belzec death camp, where he saw an entire trainload of Jewish deportees meet a horrific death at the hands of the Germans.
While working as an underground operative, Karski was also able to observe first hand the tenacity and resilience the people of Poland demonstrated through their determination to resist the German oppression, as well as the remarkable courage and resourcefulness they displayed in availing themselves of every possible opportunity to thwart the occupiers’ attempts to dominate them. Over the course of the war, the Polish underground evolved into a highly sophisticated apparatus that mobilized the efforts of countless thousands of ordinary citizens to achieve its larger mission.
As one example in this regard, Story of a Secret State describes the important contributions made by the “liaison women”, whose main role was to provide a vital communications link between the Polish underground cells. Many of these valiant women suffered the misfortune of being captured by the Gestapo, who showed no deference to their gender, and routinely subjected them to barbaric tortures. Even though the risks associated with this work were all too well known, Poland had no shortage of valiant women who were prepared to step up and do whatever they could to support their compatriots. Without their support, the underground would never have been able to survive.
Other ingenious tactics helped to keep the flame of resistance alive, and sustain the spirits of the Polish people during the darkest days many of them had ever known. One important element in this regard was the secret press that operated for much of the war. The publication of clandestine newspapers was already a well-established tradition in Poland, as this was one of the principal means through which freedom fighters had done battle with the Tsar’s secret police during the years when Poland had been a satellite of the Russian Empire.
During the Second World War years, information on world affairs was provided for the underground newspapers by a vast network of Polish citizens who defied the Germans’ directives by tuning in to British and American radio broadcasts, and the papers themselves were cranked out on a wide variety of printing presses that were carefully secreted in various locations scattered across the country. Because the underground newspapers were widely available and relatively easy to obtain, they were relentlessly scrutinized by the Gestapo in hopes of obtaining information that might be useful. However, editors of these publications took great care to ensure anything of potential strategic value was carefully camouflaged. They took even greater delight in anonymously sending copies of their newspapers to local Gestapo offices, knowing full well that the Germans would become frustrated to the point of exasperation by their invariably fruitless attempts to glean any useful intelligence about the activities of the resistance.
In late 1942, concluding that the outside world needed to be made aware of the true state of affairs in their country, Karski’s superiors in the Polish underground ordered him to proceed to London to report what was going on. The mission required him to make a long and circuitous trip through France and subsequently Spain. At one point, while on a train heading into the latter country, Karski was advised by an apparently streetwise conductor to pose as a Canadian. The conductor explained that if Karski were arrested in Spain, the guise would result in him being released into the custody of the British Embassy, something which would assure the completion of his journey.
Eventually, Karski ended up in Gibraltar, and soon thereafter found himself on board an Allied bomber headed to London. Upon arrival, he proceeded to General Sikorski’s headquarters, where he delivered his report. Later, in the summer of 1943, he travelled to Washington, where he visited the White House and briefed President Franklin Roosevelt on the events he had witnessed in his homeland.
Story of A Secret State was originally published in the United States in late 1944, by which time Western Europe had been successfully invaded, President Roosevelt had been re-elected for an unprecedented fourth term in office, and the Allied armies were continuing their drive eastwards towards the German heartland. The book proved to be an instant bestseller, and over 400,000 copies were sold in the first edition. Americans were shocked and sickened by Karski’s vivid descriptions of the German atrocities, and the revelations in his book only served to strengthen their resolve to see the Third Reich brought to its demise once and for all.
After the war ended in 1945, Jan Karski decided to remain in the United States, and became an American citizen in 1954. He earned a Ph.D. from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and taught for nearly 40 years at the institution. In the late 1960’s, one of his students was a young man from Arkansas named Bill Clinton, who would soon head to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. In 1965, Karski married Pola Nerenska, a Polish-born Jew who was a noted performer of modern dance. The couple remained together for the next 27 years, until Nerenska tragically took her own life in the summer of 1992. Karski himself passed away in July 2000 at the age of 86, and was interred next to his late wife.
Story of a Secret State was reprinted in 2019, containing the complete text of the 1944 version as well as an afterward that describes the impact of the book at the time it was originally published. It is a personal narrative that portrays in vivid and often nightmarish detail the atrocities the Nazis visited upon their victims, and beyond that, it is landmark work that preserves for all time the legacy of the many thousands of heroic Polish men and women who resolved to fight back against their oppressors in whatever ways they could. This book is highly recommended for Canadian military officers of every generation as one that presents a candid, in-depth look at the critical details of one of the most important periods in modern world history.