Story of a Secret State

9/20/13 UPDATE: One of my readers has brought it to my attention that my speculations about President Roosevelt detracted from Karski’s autobiography, so I have deleted that section. Also, I realized there was another very important aspect to Karski’s Underground work I forgot to mention, and so that has been added. The result, I hope, is a much better literary review of this truly wonderful book.


People have fought for their liberty since time immemorial. Whether it be under the oppressive yoke of a dictatorial council, a tyrannical king, or a sniveling mob, common folk have historically struggled against whomever asserted to be their political lord(s). It should come as no surprise that such uprisings took the form of underground resistance networks inside of an occupied country.



When the German National Socialists invaded Poland in 1939, it changed the course of history forever. Other than the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, little is commonly known in the “Western” countries about Poland during her occupation by the Germans. Jan Karski, a former operative of the Polish Underground, provides such a rare glimpse of his life in Poland during his 4 years there before traveling to Britain and the United States in 1943.

The author was originally a second lieutenant in the artillery of the Polish Army. Upon the simultaneous invasion by the National Socialists and the Soviet Communists, the Poles did not even have a chance to fight before they were captured. Karski managed to escape the clutches of the Russians by jumping from a speeding train. Following this, he eventually found himself recruited by the Underground, which he describes as:


“Although I did not know it at the time, this was my initiation into the Polish Underground organization. There was nothing extraordinary about it; nothing at all romantic. It required no decision on my part; no spurt of courage or adventure. It came about as the result of a simple visit to a good friend, largely dictated by my despair, gloom, and feeling of being utterly at loose ends.”


Because of this, Karski made the transition from soldier to spy. One of the very first skills he needed to learn quickly if he was going to survive was how to live with a cover ID:


“A ‘legend’ is the collection of data that composes an Underground member’s identity. It is furnished to all new members and to all those who find it necessary to change their identity. It consists of a fictional biography and a number of equally fictional dates and places necessary to constitute a new personality. It must be carefully memorized until it becomes a part of one’s normal consciousness.”


Besides mastering the indispensable skill of keeping his own counsel, Karski also had to perfect his ability to utilize legends flawlessly (which was particularly vital for him during his 1940 Solvakia arrest), as well as being willing to discard them as necessary:


“In the Underground, it became a rule not to live in one place too long. It became advisable to me to move from my quarters not only because I had been there for some time, but because a woman in the house had been arrested by the Gestapo. I had not the vaguest idea who she was or why she was arrested, but I thought it best to disappear. I did not register my new address but lived there and returned occasionally to the old one so that I would be seen there…[t]his was a common Underground ruse when one felt that the Gestapo was drawing too close for comfort. When a person became suspect, the Gestapo usually obtained their address from the Registering Office and arrived at night to make the arrest. By keeping in contact with his official apartment and not living there, an Underground worker can know when the Gestapo is after him without taking the chance of being caught. This tricked saved me. A few nights after I moved, I learned that two members of the Gestapo had called and asked for me by name. It was therefore imperative for me to change my identity again.”


In other words, he didn’t have a home, he had a network of hideouts. By constantly moving about, how was he able to maintain a living? Karski explains that:


“If danger was a constant specter to Underground workers, poverty was even more so: poverty and the malnutrition that had increased in Poland by the deliberate design of the Germans to the point where the health of the entire nation was seriously threatened. To facilitate requisition of the entire agricultural output of Poland, the Germans had forbidden the importation of foodstuffs from the country into the cities. Food cards were issued to urban dwellers for a ration that was not enough to keep anyone alive, much less in good health. The black market was indispensable to perform this function although the prices were far beyond the range most people could afford. Nor could the Underground supply us with even enough to maintain a minimum standard of living.”


Almost sounds like Stalin’s artificial famine that killed several million, doesn’t it? Karski describes that:


“It occurred to me that as long as I was living under a false identity and my ration card was under an assumed name, there was no reason why the process could not be repeated. With the help of a friend in the organization who worked in the municipal office and my confessor, Father Edmund, who dug up two birth certificates of dead babies born about twenty-eight years before, I managed to obtain two more sets of fake identity papers and ration cards. I registered myself at two new addresses and dropped around once in a while, according to a scheme I worked out with the landladies. The advantages of living in triplicate outweighed the annoyances. In case one of my identities was compromised, there were two fresh ones into which I could jump at a moment’s notice…I had no hesitation in doing this since there was not any coordinated food plan for the population except the impossible one imposed by the occupants, and everyone was left to his own devices. Any trick that would get someone more food was moral; black market operations, smuggling, ingenious methods of all kinds for eluding the German starvation program, all thrived.” [emphasis added]


So, in order to not get sick and maintain something resembling a halfway decent standard of living, it was necessary for Karski and others to essentially cheat the welfare state (notice also he specifically used the infant identity method). It was also imperative that Karski compartmentalize his life in order to safeguard his privacy:


“The first problem that confronted me after my return to Warsaw was that of creating a ‘legend’ adequate to satisfy not only the demands of the Gestapo but to take care of my personal and family relations. It is the better part of wisdom in secret work to allow as few people as possible to be acquainted with facts that could become detrimental, not merely to personal safety, but to the organization. Those in whom one did confide had to be carefully selected and judged not merely from the standpoint of their good intentions and sympathy with our aims, but by their ability to carry these out, remain silent, and not give way to carelessness, the temptation to gossip, or the numerous methods of persuasion employed by the Gestapo.” [emphasis added]


Not only did they have to rigidly practice INFOSEC, but also they had to first judge and then disassociate from themselves anyone and everyone who couldn’t keep their trap shut. Similar to this was their practice of no contact upward:


“The principle of ‘no contact upward’ was a precautionary measure, adopted in the formation of the Underground. It was originally designed against the infiltration of spies and provocateurs in our cells. The presence of any suspected individual, anyone who might, by the remotest possibility, have been a spy or provocateur presented us with a complicated problem. We could not eliminate all those who were touched by suspicion without causing a complete stoppage of all activity. However, to let them carry on their work without taking any precaution exposed the Underground to the possibility of falling en masse into the hands of the Gestapo. ‘No contact upward’ was a kind of compromise. The extent of damage any suspected individual could inflict was limited, since he was denied any contact with his superior officers. However, he could still carry on some of his duties by issuing orders to those inferior in rank. Naturally, if suspicion proved well-founded, the suspect would be eliminated. Thus the work of the Underground could go forward effectively without the constant apprehension that would otherwise have developed. The rule was extended to include the cases of those who had been arrested. Indeed, even further precautions were put into effect, the personal papers of all members having had contact with the ‘infected’ member were altered and that member was ordered to remain in isolation for a certain period of time.” [emphasis added]


This is what a genuine resistance effort requires – consistent internal security that seriously performs its task of evaluating and, if necessary, forcibly removing those harmful infections. So, what would happen if someone didn’t take their privacy seriously? Karski elaborates:


“In June 1940, the Germans staged a manhunt in the streets of Warsaw and seized about twenty thousand people who were taken to three large police stations where they were searched, questioned, and had their documents verified…[a]ll those whose documents were not in perfect order, who could not give a satisfactory account of their ancestry, employment, and political sympathies, or could not clear themselves of charges made against them, were sent to concentration camps…[w]e later learned that about one hundred members of the Underground were caught in this raid. They were, without a single exception, promptly released. Every one of those had his documents in perfect order, could prove his occupation, and supply a satisfactory account of his personal history. Every one had ready answers to every question that was asked of him and impressed the police by his clear, straightforward, and unhesitating manner.” [emphasis added]


How ironic, isn’t it? What this suggests is that the those were actively (albeit, subtly) working against the occupation were safer than the general population, because they made it a way of life to dot every “i” and cross every “t” so as to avoid being exposed by the secret police as guerrillas.

I should also mention that except for a few individuals who knew Karski before the occupation (such as the musician Dziepatowski, who was eventually tortured and executed by the Gestapo for killing one of their agents), nobody else in the Underground knew Karski’s actual identity, because it was standard practice for members of the Underground to adopt operational pseudonyms. In Karski’s case, he was known primarily as “Witold,” and alternatively as “Kucharski.” Perhaps American dissidents have intuitively copied this practice by using funny-sounding Internet pseudonyms (such as yours truly).

What of the Polish people themselves? How did they weather the German occupation? Karski explains the incessant pressures upon Underground operatives:


“He has neither security in his work, his life, nor his liberty. He is constantly at the mercy of German terrorism and exposed to the menace of what the Germans call ‘collective responsibility’ – the most brutal affliction of the occupied countries. By this is meant the theory that an entire community is responsible for the acts of individuals in it and must suffer redress for their ‘crimes’ if the perpetrators cannot be caught.”


This concept is also known to have been practiced in various Oriental countries, even during peacetime (for example, it was common for the punishment of the “sins” of a child to be levied upon his parents or even his entire family; out of this came the notion of “being disgraced”). Unfortunately, even the Polish had their equivalent of the Carousel of Carnivores (although, don’t get me wrong, nothing at all like how it is today in our situation); by this I mean collaborators:


“The overwhelming majority of the Polish population steadfastly refused to accept ‘this glorious opportunity to establish solidarity with the Reich.’ They continued to speak in Polish and were hopelessly slow at learning German. Faced by the prospect of having their generous offer humiliatingly ignored, the Nazis decided to make some concessions. Any person who had the remotest claim to German blood could, by applying to the proper German racial officials, secure equal food rations, certain privileges, and the boon of citizenship after the war. To the chagrin of the Nazis, only the merest handful of Poles were gathered in by this alluring offer. These were the Volksdeutsche. The Nazis made desperate efforts to augment their number, finally abandoning the slightest pretense to racial purity. Almost everybody was offered future German citizenship and concomitant present advantages in the form of special food and clothing rations for nearly any service at all. All the blandishments, the extra rations, and the enticing propaganda served to bring forth only a tiny handful of renegades. The Volksdeutsche were objects of unmitigated contempt. They were regarded either as criminal traitors or weak-kneed, sniveling wretches. Naturally, I was aware of and shared in this universal attitude.”


Put another way, the Carousel might as well be the Volksdeutsche. Obviously, the Underground dealt with such despicable wretches by executing them; however, Karski mentions here about a way to offload the costs of doing so upon the Germans:


“This time, instead of writing appeals to the Polish people to maintain intransigent resistance against Nazi oppression, I was penning letters to the Nazi authorities asserting the most ardent desire to help serve them. This was the method known as ‘voluntary enlistment.’ Each letter was signed with the name of a Volksdeutscher and contained an urgent request from the writer to be allowed to serve his country. They had to be written with considerable variation in order to prevent our fraud from being too apparent. They ran more or less true, however, to the form a Nazi convert would naturally use with his ‘masters’…I had long since become hardened to methods that affronted me at first but that I had finally learned to accept calmly because of their absolute necessity.”


Quite ingenious, isn’t it? Perhaps if the children of the chicken-hawks found themselves “suddenly” enlisted in the American military towards the end of 2001, perhaps the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq could have been adverted, or at least, greatly mitigated. Then again, who knows? Perhaps the Syrian debacle could lead to a potential war with Iran; if so, then this could provide an opportunity for testing variations on Karski’s method, although I’m assuming to do so would (more likely than not) violate mala prohibita, so be fair-warned.

The Underground maintained a “secret state” within itself; it was composed of five branches of government. The administrative branch essentially wielded an executive power that was more coercive than even the Germans were able to inflict topside. The military branch was primarily involved in propaganda, sabotage, and preparation for the eventual mass uprising. The Political Representation branch was none other than a parliament; one of their chief duties was to allocate funds towards the other branches. The Directorate of Civilian Resistance handled internal security against infiltrators and collaborators; Karski details that:


“It was authorized to pass sentences of either ‘infamy’ or death. A Pole was sentenced to ‘infamy’ who did not follow the prescribed ‘stiff attitude toward the occupant’ and was unable to justify his conduct when asked to do so by us. It meant social ostracism, and was also the basis for criminal proceedings to be held after the war. Sentences of death were passed on anyone who attempted active aid to the enemy and could be proved to have harmed the activities or personnel of the Underground. The tribunals also had the power to pass sentences of death on exceptionally viscous German officeholders. There was no appeal against the sentences of the tribunals and they were invariably carried out.” [emphasis added]


The “outskirts of the Underground,” as Karski called them, constituted a fifth branch of the secret Polish state; they were involved in maintaining a sense of civil society. There were also political parties, schools, and even marriages conducted per procuram.

Many of the praises for Karski’s autobiography is not about his life as an Underground operative, but strangely about the war atrocities he witnessed in 1943, typically described as the systemic genocide of the Jews. Karski himself admitted that he had no photographs or any kind of physical evidence to substantiate his claims; he tells us we can only rely on his word and that of his informants, for whatever that is worth. At one camp, he witnessed Jews haphazardly crammed onto train cars laced with quicklime. Once moist human flesh came in contact with it, the skin would be rapidly dehydrated and burned; it would also prevent the corpses from spreading diseases. Quicklime, coupled with asphyxiation, would kill every single person on board. After a trainload was sent off to die, it would be eventually be cleared out by younger Jews who, while under guard, would then stack the pile of bodies to be burned, the remnant of which were then buried in a single hole. This is what Karski and his informants offer as eyewitness testimony. I will leave it to the judgement of those who earnestly study all sides of the Holocaust to determine as to what exactly Karski witnessed, because I honestly just don’t care about Europe’s many historical ethnic conflicts.

Jan Karski’s Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World is a stunningly fascinating autobiography of a Polish Underground operative. What I can’t understand for the life of me is why all the public praise for it usually centers on the Holocaust? The Jews aren’t even mentioned until chapter 29, which more or less begins the tail end of Karski’s book. The vast majority of Karski’s tale is about his life in the Underground, and really reads more like a spy thriller (rather than a hand-wringing diatribe that is used by people like Abe Foxman to justify the victim mentality). I honestly had a hard time putting this book down, and I would even say it is so good (as a history book) that it rivals Paul Revere’s Ride. If you read Karski’s book, you will gain a treasure trove of knowledge that someday might every well help you secure your Liberty.

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2 Responses to Story of a Secret State

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