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The Library of Babel

A Spin-off of http://bookwormshead.blogspot.co.uk

Story of a Secret State - Jan Karski Now, this one was extremely good.
And it's hard to believe how "Story of a Secret State" had to wait for so long before being re-published.

Jan Karski - a nom de plume, pardon d'action - wrote this book with the extreme urgency of a man who has just managed to get through four years of war, starvation, captivity and, on the top of it, a dangerous clandestine patriotic activity.
A brilliant combination, isn't it?

Nevertheless, "Story of a Secret State" is written very well with its author never claiming to be the best one among those around him or stressing out his bravery and determination.
In fact quite the opposite; Karski admits his human fragility while being tortured, his fear of being captured while crossing borders and reckons how some people did heroic actions in Nazi/Soviet occupied Poland without getting the honour they would have deserved at the end of the war.

The way Karski tells us about the Polish Underground organization between 1939 and 1943 is amazing and very detailed. There are interesting insights on the way clandestine press worked and how boys, girls and women helped the Underground in many ways from carrying vital information to hosting its members.

Then there are the missions Karski himself took part in. These adventures are described in a detailed and precise way here, without forgetting a touch of irony when needed and not stepping back towards human tragedy.

This is the same free man who went to a concentration camp in incognito and later tried to convince Roosevelt and Churchill to speed up their intervention in continental Europe informing them about the horrors he witnessed in first person.
This is the man who entered the Warsaw Jewish ghetto while the Nazi were sending off its whole population to be exterminated and just before its fearless but unsuccessful insurrection.

And there's much more to be found here.

As for me, "Story of a Secret State" has a lot of extra meanings and personal links.
I had the chance to visit most of the places Jan Karski wrote about from Radom (!) to the Tatra mountains around Zakopane and always wanted to see Lvov where he was born.

And of course there is Warsaw with its recent history, its uprising, its destruction, its cultural vitality despite communism and its current redevelopment (although not always fulfilled in a proper way).

I visited the modern but rather messy Warsaw Uprising Museum and don't remember any mention to Karski there.
I walked in the area where the Ghetto used to be and below the massive socialist residential blocs known as the mammoth's wardrobes it was hard to picture how all it looked before.
I slept in that same Praga district of Warsaw which doesn't look very different today from how Karski portrayed it in the 1940s.

Even if you never visited Poland and have no intention to, this book has to read, if only to get a glimpse of how a whole nation managed to build up a parallel State hidden under the rubble of bombarded Warsaw and how the majority of Poles were not passive at all during World War II.

Behold! This book has nothing to do with nationalism etc.
This is an engrossing reading where history gets human features and feelings and doubts and despair and joy while it happens.

There is no fictional spy story (sorry Graham) which could be that good. And true.