In publicising the crowdfunding campaign I’m doing for my novel, The Dark Era, I’ve highlighted the story in the book, how that links to stories within my own family, and I’ve also mentioned that this something of a tribute to the people of Poland, who sacrficed so much during World War II.
What I haven’t done until now is explain any of the heroic individuals of the Polish Resistance that inspired the story. In The Dark Era one of the characters goes by the name Karski, another is called Witold, while the name Pilecki is given to an entire nation of people (the good guys in this part of the novel). None of these names are insignificant.
‘Karski’ is a direct tribute to Jan Karski, a Polish resistance movement fighter during World War II. A quick look at his wikipedia reveals him to have been an extraordinary man:
In November 1939 on a train to a POW camp in General Government (a part of Poland which had not been fully incorporated into The Third Reich), Karski managed to escape, and found his way to Warsaw. There he joined the ZWZ – the first resistance movement in occupied Europe and a predecessor of the [Polish] Home Army (AK). About that time he adopted a nom de guerre of Jan Karski, which later became his legal name. Other noms de guerre used by him during World War II included Piasecki, Kwaśniewski, Znamierowski, Kruszewski, Kucharski, and Witold. In January 1940 Karski began to organize courier missions with dispatches from the Polish underground to the Polish Government in Exile, then based in Paris. As a courier, Karski made several secret trips between France, Britain and Poland. During one such mission in July 1940 he was arrested by the Gestapo in the Tatra Mountains in Slovakia. Severely tortured, he was finally transported to a hospital in Nowy Sącz, from where he was smuggled out. After a short period of rehabilitation, he returned to active service in the Information and Propaganda Bureau of the Headquarters of the Polish Home Army.
In 1942 Karski was selected by Cyryl Ratajski, the Polish Government Delegate’s Office at Home, to perform a secret mission to prime minister Władysław Sikorski in London. Karski was to contact Sikorski as well as various other Polish politicians and inform them about Nazi atrocities in occupied Poland. In order to gather evidence, Karski met Bund activist Leon Feiner and was twice smuggled by Jewish underground leaders into the Warsaw Ghetto for the purpose of directly observing what was happening to Polish Jews. Also, disguised as an Estonian camp guard, he visited what he thought was Bełżec death camp. In actuality, it seems that Karski only managed to get close enough to witness a Durchgangslager (“sorting and transit point”) for Bełżec in the town of Izbica Lubelska, located midway between Lublin and Bełżec. Many historians have accepted this theory, as did Karski himself.
Reporting Nazi atrocities to the Western Allies
From 1942 Karski reported to the Polish, British and U.S. governments on the situation in Poland, especially on the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Holocaust of Polish Jews. He had also carried out of Poland a microfilm with further information from the underground movement on the extermination of European Jews in German-occupied Poland. The Polish Foreign Minister Count Edward Raczynski provided the Allies on this basis one of the earliest and most accurate accounts of the Holocaust. A note by Raczynski entitled The mass extermination of Jews in German occupied Poland, addressed to the governments of the United Nations on 10 December 1942, would later be published along with other documents in a widely distributed leaflet.
Karski met with Polish politicians in exile including the Prime Minister, as well as members of political parties such as the Socialist Party, National Party, Labor Party, People’s Party, Jewish Bund and Poalei Zion. He also spoke to the British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, giving a detailed statement on what he had seen in Warsaw and Bełżec. In 1943 in London he met journalist Arthur Koestler, author of Darkness at Noon. He then traveled to the United States, and on July 28, 1943 Karski personally met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Oval Office, telling him about the situation in Poland and becoming the first eyewitness to tell him about the Jewish Holocaust.
This is just the bare-bones of his extraordinary bravery and contribution to the war effort but the story of Witold Pilecki maybe even more incredible:
Witold Pilecki (13 May 1901 – 25 May 1948; codenames Roman Jezierski, Tomasz Serafiński, Druh, Witold) was a Polish soldier during the Second Polish Republic, the founder of the Secret Polish Army (Tajna Armia Polska) resistance group in German-occupied Poland in November 1939 and a member of the underground Home Army (Armia Krajowa), which was formed in February 1942. As the author of Witold’s Report, the first intelligence report on Auschwitz concentration camp, Pilecki enabled the Polish government-in-exile to convince the Allies that the Holocaust was taking place.
During World War II, he volunteered for a Polish resistance operation to get imprisoned at Auschwitz in order to gather intelligence and escape. While in the camp, Pilecki organized a resistance movement and as early as 1941, informed the Western Allies of Nazi Germany’s Auschwitz atrocities. He escaped from the camp in 1943 after nearly 3 years of imprisonment. Pilecki took part in the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944. He remained loyal to the London-based Polish government-in-exile and was executed in 1948 by the Stalinist secret police Urząd Bezpieczeństwa on charges of working for “foreign imperialism”, thought to be a euphemism for MI6. Until 1989, information on his exploits and fate was suppressed by the Polish communist regime.
As a result of his deeds, he is considered as “one of the greatest wartime heroes”. In the foreword to the book The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery Michael Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, wrote as follows: “When God created the human being, God had in mind that we should all be like Captain Witold Pilecki, of blessed memory.” In the introduction to that book Norman Davies, a British historian, wrote: “If there was an Allied hero who deserved to be remembered and celebrated, this was a person with few peers”. At the commemoration event of International Holocaust Remembrance Day held in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum on 27 January 2013 Ryszard Schnepf, the Polish Ambassador to the US, described Pilecki as a “diamond among Poland’s heroes” and “the highest example of Polish patriotism”.
My aim with The Dark Era, and I guess with this blog, is to make these men and others like them more well known to people.
These are extraordinary