Jan Karski’s story of fighting for the Polish Underground during the Second World War, in fierce resistance to their Nazi oppressors, reads at first a bit like a thrilling espionage boy’s own story. But this detailed account is the true story of the author’s wartime experiences.
It was first published in 1944 in an attempt to get the Allies to support the Polish struggle to regain their country. It is surprisingly published now for the first time in this country, and so the message seems all the more poignant, falling as it did on deaf ears following the end of the war and carve up of the Polish nation.
Karski suffered torture by the Gestapo, recounted in horrifying detail. “Of all the beatings I have endured, I never felt anything to equal the instant of sheer pain produced by the impact of the rubber truncheon. It made very muscle in my body wince in sharp agony.” But that was nothing in comparison to the horrors he witnessed perpetrated against the Polish Jews in the Nazi death camps and the Warsaw ghetto, where he was taken to make sure he could recount the exact horrors of those places to British and American politicians. What a damning indictment it was of Eden and Roosevelt et al they did not really listen to him in 1943.
Aside from these horrific memories, Karski is able to recall the details of the life as a Polish Underground member in thrilling and fascinating detail. Although he does say that some of the time it was really quite boring, often little more than unglamorous ‘office routine’. He gives a very moving account of the experiences of some of his female fellow fighters, whom he feels had a much tougher time than the men, as they were often more exposed and more dispensable than their male counterparts, but were in his opinion better suited to a life of espionage.
Karski comes across as incredibly brave and determined, and he lived a long life until 2000. Although his account is not very descriptive or flowery, sticking as he does to the facts and details of his experiences, they are more than enough to impress, astonish and horrify the modern reader. So hopefully his memoir will still convey a powerful message, even if not quite the one it was written for.