I came across this beautiful video a few days ago, and it immediately brought to mind Story of a Secret State by Jan Karski. Annoyingly, I can’t find any record of when I read it, even though I’m sure it was in the last few years. I think I picked it up after reading a newspaper review, but I could be making that up entirely. I studied history at school, and loved it, but what has become evident to me as an adult is that history teaches you the broad sweeps while the day-to-day often gets lost. We spent a lot of time on World War II, looking at it from different perspectives, charting its beginning and consequences, and we talked about The Emergency in Ireland (as a neutral country, we didn’t technically have a second world war). But we didn’t talk about what happened to ordinary German citizens when the Soviets moved in (see A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous), we didn’t talk about what happened to non-Jewish people in countries invaded by Germany, we didn’t talk about how badly the Allies let down Poland when the war ended, and we certainly didn’t talk about how someone told the Allies about concentration camps and they didn’t believe him.
‘I do not pretend to have given an exhaustive picture of the Polish Underground, its organization and its activities. Because of our methods, I believe that there is no one today who could give an all-embracing recital…This book is a purely personal story, my story’. Jan Karski’s 1944 war memoir is a heroic act of witness: the courageous testimony of a man who risked everything for his country. At times overwhelming in the details it reveals of the suffering of ordinary people, it is an unforgettable and deeply affecting record of brutality, courage, and survival under conditions of extreme bleakness. During the first four years of World War II, Karski worked as a messenger for the underground, risking his life in secret missions. He was captured, tortured, rescued, smuggled through a tunnel into the Warsaw ghetto and, finally, disguised himself as a guard to infiltrate a Nazi death camp. Then, travelling across occupied Europe to England, with his eye-witness report smuggled on microfilm in the handle of a razor, he became the first man to tell the Allies about the Holocaust – only to be ignored.