This book is the autobiographical account of Jan Karski, young intellectual, optimistic young soldier, prisoner to the Russians / Soviets, POW, escapee, refugee, spy, and finally, member of the Polish Underground. This story was written in 1944, to chronicle Karski's report on Poland under German occupation to the world. Aside from the incredible story of Karski's own life in occupied Poland from 1939 to 1942, the book is a testament to the organization and effectiveness of the Polish underground, as well as firsthand chronicling of an occupation so deprived, so evil, that it disturbs our sense of what a modern society could or should become.
The writing style changed and evolved, reflectingt Karski's personal development throughout the book. Rick remarks the first couple chapters were characterized by bureaucratic European stiffness describing the mechanics of society, the narrative on the preparation for war, and the Blitzkrieg. The style shifted with Karski's personal experiences as an escapee, where the story and the prose became personal, more compelling, and real.
Karskis story itself is extraordinary. Consider how many times he cheated death. Even in the beginning of the book, during and after the Blitzkreig in 1939, he escaped from the Germans, escaped from the Soviets, and travelled easterly around Germany toward France, over incredible distances to escape capture, and to move information for his country, Poland.
The descriptions of his capture were especially notable. He could have painted the story of his capture differently, blame the guide, blame others, but his description was so personal, so self-critical, the reader can not challenge its credibility. Clearly he was a man of integrity; a reflection of so many Poles during occupation.
We talked a lot about German domination of Europe, how it began with the systematic strangulation of Poland, with the ultimate goal that Poland would not exist. One example was the intentional corruption of the youth, beginning with the withholding of education. Some took great risks simply to educate the children, as many took risks for their country.
The amazing thing about the underground was the zero Quislings, or collaborators. The Underground accomplished this partially with their own harsh code of loyalty, but could not have achieved such success without an extraordinary sense of country by ordinary Poles.
The women suffered in silence, as so many others, but often had it worse than most of the men. Women were given supportive roles where they were subjected to greater risks, often with unspeakable retribution by the occupiers.
Discussion of the communal responsibility, and how do you allow the German practice of killing many innocents for every German killed. One specific example was at the printing press - 82 people killed for one printing press operating surreptitiously in a neighborhood. In smaller towns, Germans also would hold a single person, an identified community leader, responsible for actions of the whole town. The leadership of the Underground was extremely well organized and actively decided to accept the concept that the German community killing was worth the price to resist. The pride of the Polish people meant incredible sacrifice for the country, by her countrymen.
Karski's credibility, the acceptance of his story, seemed to diminish the further he got from the underground environment. As a leader, his word carried great value. But as he traveled to London, and to the U.S., the less seriously his audiences took him. Roosevelt was inquisitive, but didn't seem to do anything about Poland or the Jews. Churchill wouldn't have an audience with Karski. We talked about this, mostly coming to the conclusion that the horrors inflicted on people in war are distracting to the prosecution of the war effort itself: Roosevelt and Churchill may have cared about the Jews being systematically collected and exterminated, but cared more about German bombers over London, or preparing for D-Day.
The surreptitious visit to the extermination camp was another example of Karski's strength. He learned from Jewish leaders that one cannot understand the depth of evil until you've seen the machinations inside the camp. Auschwitz was a series of camps: gas chambers for Jews where 1.3 million were systematically killed throughout the war. There were plenty of other places were camps where Polish, Czech, Hungarians and others were sent to die of neglect, starvation and mistreatment.
How could an entire society be that cruel? To be clear, the barbarity, the atrocities were NOT directly a result of war, but of an occupation: once occupied, but this was modern day Genghis Khan, prosecuted with modern German efficiency ...at murdering 6 million Jews, millions of Poles, and other eastern Europeans, under occupation. Millions more through the conflict of war.
One can't read this book and have lived in Europe since the war without pondering the effect of this indelible stain on the 20th century of German behavior. Rick commented that in his business, an international financial consultancy, efforts to create cross-european offices were thwarted by lingering regional (national) memories: the French work just fine with the Belgians, and the Poles with the Czechs, but no so well with the Germans...70 years later. It's worth contemplating, is the German contribution to the EU be driven by guilt for the atrocities of the 1940's?
Another lesson for today is evident with ISIS strategy: appeal to the basest dregs of Arab society, promote killing the Jews first, then conquer the world. History repeats itself yet again.