'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.
On the night of 23 August 1939, I attended a particularly gay party. It was given by
the son of the Portuguese Minister in Warsaw, Mr Susa de Mendes. He was about twenty-five,
my age, and the two of us were good friends. He was the fortunate brother of five charming
and beautiful sisters. I saw one of them frequently and was looking forward with keen
anticipation to meeting her again that night.
I had not been back in Poland long. After my graduation from the University of Lwow in
1935 and the traditional year in the army, I went abroad, to Switzerland, Germany, and
then to England pursuing researches in the highly interesting and erudite subject of
demography. After three years spent in the great libraries of Europe, working at my
thesis, improving my knowledge of French, German and English, and familiarizing myself
with the customs of those nations, the death of my father recalled me to Warsaw.
Although demography – the science and statistics of populations – was, and has
remained, my favorite subject, it was slowly becoming apparent that I had little or no
aptitude for scientific writing. I dawdled and lingered in the completion of my doctor’s
thesis and most of my work was rejected as unacceptable. This was the only cloud – and one
that disturbed me little – in my otherwise clear and sunny prospect.
The atmosphere of the party was carefree, festive, and in some respects almost lyrical
in mood. The huge drawing room of the Legation was adorned in elegant if somewhat romantic
style. The wallpaper was a cool shade of blue and contrasted with the dark, severe Italian
furniture. The lights were subdued and everywhere were ornate vases of long-stemmed
flowers that added their scent to the perfumes of the gayly dressed women. The company was
congenial and soon cheerful and excited discussions spread about the room. I remember some
of the topics: a heated defense of the beauties of the Warsaw botanical gardens against
the alleged superiority of rival spots in Europe; exchanges of opinions on the merits of
the revival of the famous play, Madame Sans-Gêne; bits of scandal and the usual sorties of
wit when someone discovered that my good friends, Stefan Leczewski and Mlle Marcelle
Galopin, had vanished from the room – a custom of theirs. Politics were hardly touched.
We drank wine and danced interminably, mostly the airy, mobile European dances, first a
waltz, then a tango, then a figured waltz. Later, Helene Susa de Mendes and her brother
demonstrated the intricacies of the Portuguese tango.
During the course of the evening I made a number of appointments for the following
week. I finally succeeded in convincing Miss de Mendes that I was indispensable as a guide
to Warsaw. I made a luncheon and a dinner appointment with two friends, Mr Leczewski and
Mr Mazur. I promised to meet Miss Obromska the next Sunday and later had to excuse myself
when I recollected that it was my aunt’s birthday. I was to telephone Mlle Galopin to
arrange the time of our next riding hour.
The party ended late. The farewells were lengthy, and outside, various groups continued
to take leave of each other and to make appointments and arrangements for the balance of
the week. I came home tired but so full of intoxicating plans that it was difficult to
It seemed my eyes had hardly closed when there was a loud hammering at the front door.
I dragged myself out of bed and began to walk down the steps, breaking into an angry run
as the hammering increased in volume. I yanked open the door. An impatient, surly
policeman standing on the steps handed me a slip of red paper, grunted unintelligibly and
It was a secret mobilization order. It informed me that I was to leave Warsaw within
four hours and to join my regiment. I was a second lieutenant in the artillery and my
detachment was to be quartered at Oswiecim,1 directly on the Polish–German border.
Something in the manner of the presentation of the order, or possibly the hour at which it
arrived, or the fact that it threw so many of my plans into confusion, made me feel
suddenly very serious and even grim.
I woke up my brother and sister-in-law. They were not at all impressed or alarmed and
made me feel a little foolish because of the grave air I had assumed.
While I dressed and prepared myself we discussed the situation. It was obviously only a
very limited mobilization, we concluded. A handful of us were being called to the colors
simply to impress the country with the necessity of being prepared. They cautioned me
against burdening myself with too many supplies. My sister-in-law protested when I wanted
to include a few suits of winter underwear.
‘You aren’t going to Siberia,’ she said, looking at me as if I were a romantic
schoolboy. ‘We’ll have you on our hands again within a month.’
I brightened up. It might even turn out to be fun. I remembered that Oswiecim was
situated in the middle of an expanse of fine, open country. I was an enthusiastic
horseback rider and I relished the notion of galloping about in uniform on a superb army
horse. I carefully packed away my best patent-leather shoes. I began to feel more and more
as though I were going to a smart military parade. I completed my preparations in a mood
that was almost hilarious. I remarked to my brother that it was too bad that they could
not use any old men at the moment. He called me names and threatened to wrestle me and
take some of the cockiness out of my hide. His wife had to admonish us both to stop
behaving like children and I had to complete my preparations in a hurry because so much
time had been wasted.
When I got to the railway depot it looked as though every man in Warsaw were there. I
quickly realized that the mobilization was ‘secret’ only in the sense that there were no
public announcements or posters. Hundreds of thousands of men must have been called. I
remembered a rumor I had heard about two or three days before to the effect that the
government had wanted to order a complete mobilization in the face of the German threat
but had been prevented by warnings from the representatives of France and England. Hitler
was not to be ‘provoked.’ At that time, Europe was still counting on appeasement and
reconciliation. Permission for a ‘secret’ mobilization was finally and reluctantly
conceded to the Polish Government in the face of the nearly naked German preparations for
This I learned later. At the moment, the memory of the rumor disturbed me as little as
when I first heard it. Everywhere about me thousands of civilians were swarming to the
trains, each carrying an easily recognizable military ‘locker.’ Among them were hundreds
of spruce, animated reserve officers, some of whom waved to each other and called out to
friends as they, too, hustled to the train. I gazed about for a familiar face and, seeing
none, made my way to the train.
I had to almost force my way in. The cars were packed; every seat was occupied. The
corridors were jammed with standing men and even the lavatories were crowded. Everyone
looked full of energy, enthusiastic and even exhilarated. The reserve officers were trim
and confident, the mood of the civilians a trifle less exuberant as though many of them
did not care to have their business or work interrupted by such an expedition, however
painless it appeared. The engine chugged and the train began to crawl forward slowly to
the usual comments of ‘We’re moving, we’re moving!’ which finally rose to a full-throated
exultant shout of pure, meaningless excitement as we cleared the station and sped onward.