As the resident Pole on Bookmunch I have received this book for reviewing and now I am afraid I won’t do it justice. Going through years of the Polish education system, I didn’t think I wanted or needed to know anything more about World War II, the occupation, the Gestapo or the Holocaust. I was wrong. Jan Karski’s Story of a Secret State should be a compulsory read for everyone. I am not saying this because I am Polish and we like to inform the whole world about our heroic, albeit forgotten deeds. I am saying this because it is an extremely well-written, captivating, thrilling and unsettling account of the Second World War.
The book starts with a carefree atmosphere of a ball in the Portuguese embassy, where Karski is trying to flirt with the daughters of the Portuguese Ambassador. It’s a beautiful summer night but we already know these are the last moments for lightheartedness and innocence because it is August of 1939. Karski will wake up in a different world and we follow him as he is thrown overnight into the very centre of the war. And so begins the story of the Polish Resistance – the largest resistance movement in all of occupied Europe – the complex secret state operating underground and punishing by death any attempts of collaboration with the Occupant. To the very end Poland refused to surrender, collaborate or even acknowledge the existence of Nazi occupation. The price it had to pay for such unreasonable stubbornness was high – Poland lost 6 million people (including 3 million Polish Jews).
Like every good WWII spy thriller Story of A Secret State has arrests, Soviet work camps, German camps, torture, microfilms, dozens of false identities, emergency cyanide pills, and treks through borders of various countries of the war-torn Europe. Nonetheless, Karski’s “Report to the World” is honest, modest, full of distance to himself and even has occasional glimpses of humour, and is therefore very far removed from the ‘I’m on a horse’ Bond-like narratives. The story is characterised by typical Polish patriotism, reckless and insane; the very kind that has long been smothered by political correctness, but the kind that has allowed Poland to survive the many decades it had been wiped off the map. It goes very much along the lines of Poland’s favourite motto: ”God, Honour, Motherland”- the holy trinity of Polish values. I was afraid that this kind of sentiment might not be fully understood in the UK, because the English never had to fight for the very existence of their Motherland, and therefore never developed this sort of feverish madness as a national trait. In Karski’s own words:
“[The Englishmen] were also stubborn, strong and realistic. A Frenchman or a Pole, with an exaggerated love for the grand gesture, might commit suicide for a lost cause. An Englishman, never. […] They do not gamble recklessly with a worthless hand. […] I was not interested in their idealism; I had seen idealism too easily crushed by the Nazis. Perhaps it was not just on England, but it was on British common sense alone that I pinned all my hopes.”
Yet, when I read Andrew Roberts’ heartfelt afterword in this new edition, I realised that the English might not be as unsentimental as Karski saw them.
Story of a Secret State was originally published in the US in 1944 where it became an instant bestseller selling over 400,000 copies, yet it failed to achieve what Karski set out to do – make the Western Allies believe the shocking reality of the Nazi genocide of the Jews, Poles and others. The reports he brought in 1942 and 1943 to the British and American authorities were tragically assumed to be typically Polish exaggerations. The plaque that appears on the statue of Karski in Washington, DC reads: “The Man Who Told of the Annihilation of the Jewish People While There Was Still Time To Stop It”.
Story of A Secret State should now be read as a reminder to never underestimate the atrocities as well heroism that humans are capable of.