THE BLOG
03/28/2014 12:14 pm ET Updated May 28, 2014

Karski's Story of a Secret State -- A Primer on the Polish Ethos

Dziepatowski was a timid violin player with "a delicate, perpetually ailing physique." After the Germans and Russians both invaded Poland in 1939, air raids left one third of Warsaw uninhabitable, and Dziepatowski found refuge in a bombed out building. When Jan Karski reconnected with his artsy college friend, he did not know that Dziepatowski had become an assassin whose mission was to kill German Gestapo officers.

One did not enlist in the Polish Underground during World War II. No, they found you. Dziepatowski recruited Karski into the Underground. Karski had no wife or children that would give the Germans leverage over him if he was caught. Prisoners of war could withstand torture and keep secrets longer if they had no loved ones to protect. With nothing to lose but their own lives, single people made the best spies and assassins.

First published in 1944, Karski's book reads like a spy novel on steroids. But you can't make this stuff up. The truth is indeed more horrible than fiction. That's why first hand accounts of the war such as The Diary of Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel's Night, and Karski's Story of a Secret State must be kept alive for posterity's sake. Georgetown University Press has reissued Karski's report to the world with a foreword by Madeleine Albright, an essay by Yale professor Timothy Snyder, and an afterword by Zbigniew Brzezinski that give context to Karski's memoir 70 years after it was first published.

With the World War II generation nearly gone, opportunities to preserve their memories are fading. Brzezinski was a teenager and his father was a diplomat in Canada during the war when Karski came to visit. Brzezinski was stunned to see that Karski's "wrists were badly slashed and cut and were healing." After being arrested and tortured by the Germans, Karski was not sure if he could keep the Underground's secrets, so he tried to kill himself.

Polish Underground operatives were often equipped with cyanide in case they were captured, and Poles who collaborated with the Germans were killed. Whenever the Underground attacked the occupying German army, the Nazis took retribution with mass murders of Polish civilians. Poles where randomly put up against the wall and shot for minor infractions. Albright writes, "The Nazi's demanded submission, the Underground mandated resistance. The residents of occupied Poland lived under two wholly incompatible systems of justice and law."

Karski explained that for clandestine operations to succeed, members of the Underground had to "be inconspicuous" and "melt into the landscape," to seem humdrum and ordinary. The Poles were used to this. From the Teutonic Knights to the Prussian Kaisers, right up to Hitler's Third Reich, Germans tried for centuries to wipe Poland off the map. And from 1795 until 1918, they succeed in doing so by joining with Czarist Russia and the Austrian Empire to attack Poland from all sides and divvy up its territory and population.

Albright explains that after World War I, "the revived Polish Republic labored to establish itself amid economic turbulence, political infighting, and the rise of ruthless and predatory dictators to its east and west."

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact concocted by Hitler and Stalin was simply the latest attempt by Poland's neighbors to take her land. Stalin murdered Polish officers and intellectuals in the Katyn Massacre and sent more than one million Poles to Siberia simply for being educated, which the Communists saw as a challenge to their authority.

On separate occasions, Karski was arrested by the Russians and the Germans, and managed to escape to continue his efforts to liberate Poland. "The Polish Underground was a stirring example of human resilience," Albright writes.

And Karski was its poster child.

Poland became the Jewish homeland beginning in 1264 when the Statute of Kalisz offered Jews liberties and sanctuary. Western Europe pushed the Jews east toward Poland. Russia prohibited permanent residency by Jews and pushed them west into the Pale of Settlement on Polish territory. With so many Jews in Poland, the Germans decided to build the death camps where the most Jews lived. The Germans wanted to annihilate the Jews and erase Poland from the map forever.

The Polish Underground told the world what was going on. Karski secretly traveled to the West, smuggling details about the Holocaust to the Allies. As early as 1942, Karski snuck microfilm out of Poland that resulted in a pamphlet called "The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland."

Snyder points out that Karski's "incontestable heroism reminds us that the Allies knew about the Holocaust but were not much interested."

The American and British governments did nothing to save the Jews. Winston Churchill refused to meet with Karski. President Roosevelt met with Karski, but was more interested in how horses were being treated by the Nazis than the condition of the Jews.

Snyder writes, "We would all like to imagine that we could have tried to stop the Holocaust... Of the two billion or so adults alive during the Second World War, only one of them achieved all of this: The Polish courier Jan Karski."

On Twitter: https://twitter.com/AlexStorozynski

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.