Over the last few weeks, I've been intermittently reading a book called Story of a Secret State [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1944] , by Jan Karski, which I've just finished. Karski * was a Polish diplomat at the beginning of the war with Germany on September 1st, 1939, who ended up working for the duration of the conflict with the Polish Underground Resistance, which period this book describes in some detail. Karski's harrowing tale, filled with narrow escapes, imprisonment and torture by the Gestapo, and fascinating glimpses into wartime Poland, concludes with an account of his attempts, upon reaching the West, to make known the facts of the German concentration and death camps, and the ongoing Holocaust.
Last year, I read Nicolson Baker's book Human Smoke ** [New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008], which is devoted to some degree in providing a sort of documentary history of the progress of the Holocaust, and the reaction and attitude towards it by the leaders of the "West." I was probably not surprised to learn how callous Churchill and Roosevelt and other figures were towards the early rumors, and later confirmations, of hardships and atrocities suffered by the Jews, ethnic minorities, and the disabled, but I was astonished at the failure of historians to tell this story before now.
Karski managed to escape to the West in 1943, by way of Berlin, Paris, Southern France, Barcelona, Algeciras, Gibralter, thence first to London, and eventually Washington DC. The story he would tell constituted one of the first unimpeachable confirmations of the continuing "Final Solution" of the Nazis--the Holocaust. And yet, few in the West were willing either to publicly acknowledge the atrocities, or to take any action to alleviate the fate of European Jews and "Undesirables"--a fact that continues to weigh on the conscience of the world, now, 70 years later.
Initially captured by the Russians--who, if your history is a little fuzzy here--invaded Poland from the East as the Germans invaded from the West--Karski managed to escape and join the Polish Underground, a vast shadow network of administration, government-in-hiding and -in-exile. Eventually captured by the Gestapo, he endured unspeakable torture, which led him to attempt suicide by slitting his wrists--leading to another supreme irony, as the hospitalization for this self-inflicted injury eventually facilitated his escape, and the resumption of his primary function as courier for the Underground.
Despite severe poor health, malnourishment, and the oppressive facts of Poland's defeat, demoralization and economic exploitation by their occupiers, Karski survived trial after trial, escape after narrow escape, to survive and bear witness to the events of Nazi tyranny. Before departing for the West, he was taken secretly to visit the Warsaw Ghetto, and also one of the staging transfer camps set up to relocate the Jewish population on its way to the death camps. Karski did not witness the actual death camps, believing that the prisoners were allowed to "die" on trains, before being buried in unmarked graves in the countryside. Had he understood how organized and ruthless the extermination process had become, how much more convincing or compelling would his accounts have been, when he was finally allowed, in company with the Polish Ambassador to Washington, to meet with Roosevelt, and describe the things he had seen?
After the War, unable to return to his native Poland, Karski took a Ph.D. at Georgetown University, and spent the rest of his 40 year work life as a professor in East European International Affairs. Polish freedom fighters had originally believed that after the War, Poland could be reconstituted as a democracy, but the Soviet occupation during the decades of the Cold War dashed those hopes. Karski became an American citizen in 1954, and for a time his efforts on behalf of Polish (and European) Jewry were forgotten. After the fall of communism in Poland in 1989, Karski's wartime role was officially acknowledged there for the first time, and he was honored (decorated) there, as well as being made an honorary citizen of the State of Israel, a tree being planted bearing his name at the Yad Vashem's Valley of the Righteous Among the Nations.
Karski's witness stands as a repudiation of the Western powers during the War years: "It was easy for the Nazis to kill Jews...the allies considered it impossible and too costly to rescue [them]...The Jews were abandoned by all governments, church hierarchies and societies, but thousands of Jews survived because of...individuals in Poland, France, Belgium, Denmark, Holland who helped to save [them]...Now, every government and church says 'We tried to help the Jews,' because they are ashamed, they want to keep their reputations...They didn't help, [and those] six million Jews perished...but those in government, in the churches, they survived...No one did enough." [his words]
A statue of Karski commemorates his deeds and teaching career on the Georgetown Campus.
*Wikipedia Entry on Karski.
**New York Times Review of Baker's Human Smoke.