Tuesday 10 May 2011

Ecce homo - Behold the man

Story Of A Secret State
by Jan Karski

60 pages into this memoir there is a chapter entitled The Beginning, where Karski describes the 'simple visit to a good friend' that ended up becoming his enrolment into the Polish Underground. It is typical of his humility that he should not only say that 'There was nothing extraordinary about it; nothing at all romantic. It required no decision on my part, no spurt of courage or adventure' but that he should even call this the beginning. In the preceding 60 pages he has described his call up to the Polish Army, their almost immediate capitulation to the Russians and the imprisonment that followed, his pretence at German descent in order to be exchanged to the German side where conditions were even worse and his escape through the window of a moving train as they were being transferred to who knows what privations. If that can be considered the mere warm-up act to the main feature then you can guess that this memoir tells the story of a quite extraordinary life and the part played by one man in bearing witness to the struggles of his country.

After the runaway success of Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin, Penguin may well be hoping for a similar interest in this non-fictional counterpart (That aim could be supported by potentially the coolest author picture ever). But where Fallada's novel was about homegrown resistance to Nazi rule Karski tells the story of how an entire state can continue to function under the apparatus of imposed rule from an invading force. The extraordinary thing I've learned from this book is what the Underground really means: not simply acts of resistance and disruption but a fully realised administration to run literally underneath that imposed by the Germans. A coalition of vastly different parties, an army, education, newspapers, all working together to ensure that there would be no collaboration with the Nazis so that a strong Polish state could emerge from the wreckage of the Second World War. This is worth drawing attention to mainly because collaboration was so common across Europe and yet Poland managed to last the entire conflict without a single Quisling (the term coined by The Times for fascist collaborators after Vidkun Quisling who seized power in Norway backed by the Nazi's as they invaded). Karski makes clear the strength of anti-German feeling, as well as the 'sacrifice and heroism entailed in our nation-wide refusal to collaborate with the[m].'

With his education, language skills and diplomacy Karski makes himself invaluable to several aspects of Underground work. One of these was as 'father confessor' for each of the four parties that made up the coalition during occupation. Those who think Clegg and Cameron have looked far too cosy at times will be far more comfortable with the unlikely alliance of the Peasant, the Socialist, the Christian Labour and the National Party. Karski was entrusted with task of transmitting 'all the most important secrets, plans, internal affairs and points of view of all four of the political parties to their own representatives in France' a measure of the trust placed in his impartiality. There is something of the spy thriller about Karski's travels; false documents, multiple identities, trails and codewords; it's hard not to feel the old buttocks clenching at times and that's even before Karski's arrest and torture by the Gestapo (and before you learn also that the traditional hiding place for prison contraband is the perineum).

Gestapo tactics in questioning are brutal and bleak, almost always leading to the same fatal conclusion whether they get their information or not. After several horrific sessions and with that end in mind Karski has a new perspective '...I thought how easy it was to think philosophically about pain and torture if they happened to someone else. How could someone explain that after a certain stage of pain had been reached, death became the aim of insensate longing, the greatest of privileges.' Having revealed nothing secret or incriminating Karski's attempted suicide comes after that realisation, but not only is it unsuccessful, it also allows his liberation from Nazi hands. After his recovery he returns to Poland and the Underground with a renewed vigour and determination.

The Warsaw he returns to is remarkable well adapted 'to the network of conspiracy that had now grown and twined through all the varied life of the city. There were so many people working underground that the rest of the population had begun to accept them as a matter of course.' That said, it remained imperative to keep one's identity as an underground operative secret, something that became increasingly difficult when running into old acquaintances who wondered where you might have been for the last few months - 'It is almost as difficult to be tight-lipped to a smiling friend as it is to remain silent under Gestapo torture.' Some of the tactics employed by the Underground are ingenious, some diabolical, all a  measure of the strength of resistance - 'the desperation of an animal caught in a trap.' One ingenious example was reserved for those few Poles who had the remotest claim to German blood and had taken advantage of the offer to become Volksdeutche and gain extra food rations, certain privileges and German citizenship after the war. Regarded by the vast majority of Poles as traitors they might find themselves the victim of 'voluntary enlistment' where men like Karski had faked a letter from them to the Reich begging for the opportunity to serve with the German Army. They were often so scared of the consequences of questioning their surprise call-up that they trotted off to the front line and suffered the same fate as their German brothers.

Far more direct action was taken with those that were actually German. Officers were paired off with prostitutes known to carry venereal infections, diseases were spread by infected lice dispensed by a man known as 'the walking germ', criminals were released from prison and 'encouraged to resume their former professions of thieving and murdering, with the proviso that they confine their activities to Germans...It is a significant sign of the intensity of the collective hatred against the Germans that not one of these criminals committed a single act against a Pole.' There's no faulting the ingenuity even if there are moral questions, even Karski finds himself taking part in activities that he struggles to square entirely with his conscience. And whilst there is lots of thriller-style detail about their work there is also plenty to enjoy in the more day to day aspects of subterfuge and concealment. It's interesting to read about the different roles played by men and women for example, especially when a bit of old-fashioned sexual politics is involved.

I should say that despite the world-wide opinion that women are loquacious and indiscreet, my own experience has led me to believe that women on the whole make better conspiratorial colleagues than men...They are quicker to perceive danger and less inclined to avoid thinking about misfortunes than men. They are indubitably superior at being inconspicuous and generally display much caution, discretion, and common sense...Men are often prone to exaggeration and bluff, are unwilling to face reality and, in most cases, are subconsciously inclined to surround themselves with an air of mystery that sooner or later proves fatal.

But it is Karski's testimony about the fate of the Jewish people in Poland that he is perhaps best known for and that provides the book with its most powerful pages in the final quarter. There is something ominous from the moment he meets two Jewish leaders from the Warsaw ghetto, both of them 'unforgettable, less like men than incarnations of mass suffering and nerves strained in hopeless effort.' They all agree that it would be better for Karski to actually witness the conditions they were living in, and the fate that awaited them on their transfer rather than to be a mere mouthpiece but that of course would entail risking his life whilst also being given the assurance that 'as long as I lived I would also be haunted by the memory of the ghastly scenes I would witness.'

Is it still necessary to describe the Warsaw ghetto? So much has already been written about it, there have been so many accounts by unimpeachable witnesses. A cemetery? No, for these bodies were still moving, were indeed often violently agitated. These were still living people, if you could call them such. For apart from from their skin, eyes, and voice there was nothing human left in these palpitating figures. Everywhere there was hunger, misery, the atrocious stench of decomposing bodies, the pitiful moans of dying children, the desperate cries and gasps of a people struggling for life against impossible odds.
The horror of what Karski describes isn't diminished by being familiar, the dehumanising of the ghetto's inhabitants typified in one section where Karski witnesses 'the hunt' where young Nazi thugs take random potshots at men, women and children as they run for cover. Things only get worse of course when Karski, disguised as an Estonian militiaman, sneaks into one of the death camps where he has to literally clamber over and around the dead and dying, watch as they are loaded in the most brutal fashion into trailers whose floors are scattered with lime, unable to intervene as they are carted off to a slow death by starvation, asphyxiation or decomposition. The fact that he then risked his life again to carry that testimony to Europe and the Allied leaders only for it to be roundly ignored only compounds the tragedy of a man who at the end of the day could only stand up and tell what he had seen.

All I can say is that I saw it and that it is the truth.

As well as reading this extraordinary testimony it is also possible to view the video of Karski's testimony to the Shoah Foundation.


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