The new paperback edition of the famous war memoir by Jan Karski reads like the screenplay to a war movie. The book was published shortly before Karski was posthumously awarded the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.
Unexpectedly the new edition of the book may help to shed some light on the issues brought up by the unfortunate speech made by President Obama on that occasion. During an East Room ceremony honoring 13 Medal of Freedom recipients on Tuesday (May 29, 2012), Obama said that Karski
served as a courier for the Polish resistance during the darkest days of World War II. Before one trip across enemy lines, resistance fighters told him that Jews were being murdered on a massive scale and smuggled him into the Warsaw Ghetto and a Polish death camp to see for himself.
The phrase 'polish death camps' had drawn immediate complaints and angry reactions from Polish leaders and media who all agree Obama should have called it a "German death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland," to distinguish the perpetrators from the location.
The new edition of the book may help raise awareness about the historical background associated with the term 'Polish death camp', a recurring issue oftentimes revealing ignorance and incompetence.
In a letter to Polish President that followed the incident, the U.S. leader expressed regret for upsetting Poles. He also saw this situation as "an opportunity to ensure that this and future generations know the truth".
I inadvertently used a phrase that caused many Poles anguish over the years and that Poland has rightly campaigned to eliminate from public discourse around the world, Obama said in the letter, released by Komorowski's office on June 1, 2012.
He also emphasised that the decision to honor Karski with Amrica's highest civilian distinction was also "the reflection of the high esteem in which American people hold not only a great Polish patriot, but also the extraordinary sacrifices of the Polish people during the Nazi occupation of the Second World War".
Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World is a new version of the book which was originally written and published in the US in 1944 in the aftermath of Karski's mission to shed light on the extermination of the Jews taking place during the war in German death camps in Nazi-occupied Poland.
The report which Karski brought to America was based on his eyewitness experience as a courier for Polish resistance who had made his way into the Warsaw Ghetto and one of German extermination camps. Karski's report called "The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland" was one of the first accounts of the Holocaust and a desperate cry for help and rescue for the Jews.
In 1942 the Polish underground sent Karski on a secret mission to tell the Allies what was happening. In the West Karski spoke to large number of people, including the British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, as well as the Hungarian journalist Arthur Koestler, the later author of Darkness at Noon. In July 1943 he personally reported to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Karski's mission failed due to the unfathomable horror of the story. Felix Frankfurter is famously quoted as saying, "I did not say that he was lying, I said that I could not believe him. There is a difference." President Roosevelt made it clear that the priority at that time was to defeat the Germans, not to save Jews.
Story of the Secret State was a bookseller at the time of publication in 1944. In Poland it was published only in 1999. The memoir, itself a heroic act of witness, can be at times overwhelming in the details of the suffering of ordinary people, it is also however an unforgettable and deeply affecting record of brutality, courage, and survival under conditions of extreme bleakness.
The new edition of Karski's Story of the Secret State was praised by many critics with reviews published in Independent, Guardian, and Telegraph. Peter Conrad writing for the Guardian remarks that some parts of the book "resemble scenes tantalisingly directed by Hitchcock". According to Conrad, "written as a cry for help from Nazi-occupied Poland, Jan Karski's wartime memoir now tragically reads like a 40s espionage thriller."
Although this may go far from the original intention of the author, who said,
"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."