Jan Karski's account of life in the underground movement in Nazi-occupied Poland was first published in the United States in 1944, but the work remained unpublished this side of the Atlantic until last year, when it appeared as a Penguin Modern Classic. A year after the publication of this memoir, Karski became a citizen of the United States and taught as a professor at Georgetown University.
Born in 1914, the fearless, heroic Pole died in Washington DC in 2000. In the summer of 1939, he was a distinguished young graduate, with a Masters in Law and Diplomatic Science and fluent in German, French and English. On the morning of August 24, loud hammering at the door of his elder brother's Warsaw flat where he was staying, heralded a secret mobilisation order.
That evening the dashing second lieutenant (Polish artillery) had attended a party given by the Portuguese ambassador's son. Now he had four hours to ready himself for the journey to the city of Oswiecim, on the Polish-German border.
The Nazis were about to invade, though this wasn't readily accepted or apparent to all. "At that time, Europe was counting on appeasement and reconciliation, " Karski writes in the opening chapter. "Permission for a secret mobilisation was finally and reluctantly conceded to the Polish government in the face of the nearly naked German preparations for attack."
Not long after arrival in Oswiecim, Karski and his fellow solidiers were forced to flee their barracks after heavy German bombardment. They would subsequently travel by train to the city of Tarnopol, close to the Russian-Polish border.
Shortly after arrival, the Soviets crossed the nearby frontier, insisting that they were about to help rescue Poland. They told the Polish soldiers to hand over all their weapons. The public suicide of one of the officers who shot himself in front of the Red Army was the perfect demonstration that Poland was crushed.
There followed an arduous, lengthy train journey to Russia and a period of imprisonment and rough treatment at the hands of the Soviets. Karski eventually returned to his native Poland through prisoner exchange. Karski and his fellow soldiers were subsequently captured by the Nazis. They made a dramatic escape under cover of darkness, from the small window of a moving train as the locked carriages passed through a forest.
He was caught by the Nazis once again the following year. At this point, Karski was attempting to travel under an alias to France. As a courier, his duties were to liaise between the Polish underground government and the governement-in-exile in Paris, later Angers. Karski's detailed account of interrogation and torture by the Gestapo is particularly chilling and makes for one of the most compelling chapters in this illuminating 450-page 'Report to the World.'