In 2009 Gallimard published Yannick Haenel’s novel Jan Karski. The novel consists of three parts. First there is the transcription of Karski’s testimony for Lanzmann’s film Shoah. In the second part Haenel summarizes Jan Karski’s novel — more a report, a testimony — Story
of a Secret State. Then Haenel talks about the rest of Karski’s life, of his way with coping with his failure to convince English and American leaders to do something on behalf of the Polish Jews that were being exterminated.
Haenel’s novel impressed me and I bought the original novel.
Jan Karski was killing time being a student just before Germany invaded Poland in 1939. He was conscripted as an officer in the Polish army and as many others he didn’t know what was coming. The Blitzkrieg swept over Poland and his unit did not even get the chance to fight. Most of the officers and soldiers tried to reunite with the rest of the army. But when in the end they were taken prisoner by the Russians, they understood that there was no Polish army any more. Not even a Polish state.
The Russians shipped what was left of the Polish army to Siberia. When Karski heard that the Russians were exchanging soldiers with the Germans, he posed as a common soldier to escape to Poland. He was lucky to do so as the Russians killed off thousands of Polish officers at Katyn.
On a German train headed for a Prisoners of War camp he managed to escape and went to Warsaw. There it did not take him long to join the underground resistance. He was trusted and soon became a liaison officer to the Polish government in exile in France.
On one of his dangerous travels through Europe he got caught by the Gestapo and was tortured. However, again he managed to escape.
France was conquered by the Germans, so the government in exile had to move to London. In 1942 Jan Karski was chosen for a mission to the Polish government to meet with General Sikorski. Before he went, the Jewish underground wanted him to see with his own eyes what was happening to the Polish Jews. He was smuggled in and out of the Warsaw Ghetto and a concentration camp.
What he saw and learned there changed his life. Life was hard for the Polish population, but this was nothing compared to the fate of the Polish Jews, they were being killed systematically.
He managed to reach London, where he met among others Władysław Sikorski and Anthony Eden and then he went to the US where he met Roosevelt and Jewish leaders. His pleas for immediate action to help the Jews did not meet with great enthusiasm. Well known is his interview with supreme court judge Felix Frankfurter. Frankfurter could not believe what he was told about the extermination of the Jews.
In 1943 world leaders in Britain and the US knew what Hitler was doing. Wir haben es auch nicht gewußt?
In his novel Karski does not linger on his disillusion to achieve anything concrete for the Jewish plight. But it marked his life.
In the YouTube video below you can see part of an interview with Jan Karski where he talks about his meeting with Frankfurter.