Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 17, 2011

The Messenger (2009), by Yannick Haenel, translated by Ian Monk

I could not put this down – I read it all in one go in a day.

The Messenger  is the story of Jan Karski, a Polish Resistance operative who tried to bring to the world’s attention what was happening to the Jews of Poland. A remarkable story, it tells how he became a member of the Resistance and was then tasked with travelling to the UK and USA to seek help for the Jews before it was too late. He did not succeed, and has lived with the horror of having failed ever since.

But there is more to it than this. The book is written in three parts, firstly a reprise of Jan Karski’s interview with Claude Lanzmann in the 1985 film Shoah. This part resonates with Karski’s distress in having to witness yet again. It tells how he ventured into the ghetto and also – astonishingly – into one of the camps so that he could witness that he had actually seen what was occurring.

The second part summarises Karski’s book, Story of a Secret State, published in the US in 1944, its message ignored. In this part it tells about his efforts to fight against the invading Germans as a Polish soldier; his capture, interrogation and escape; his activities in the Underground; and his recruitment by two men from the Ghetto who beseeched him to carry the message out to the world that if the Allies did not act immediately it would be too late for the Jews. It tells of his efforts in the UK and the USA – the talks, the interviews, the meetings and the conferences with powerful and influential people – all of whom did not act, for various reasons.

Part 3 is a fictionalised ‘memoir’ which captures the distress, the anger and blaming which Karski had to learn to live with. It is very confronting because it lays the blame for failing to act squarely on the Allies. He says that Poland’s reputation as anti-Semitic is undeserved, in the sense that it was no more anti-Semitic than other nations and has been made the scapegoat, when (he says) Poland was the only country never to submit to the Nazis, or to collaborate with them.

Being Polish meant being against all forms of tyranny. A Pole is someone who fought against Hitler, but also against Stalin. A Pole is someone who has always fought against the Russians, no matter what they called themselves, Stalinists, Bolsheviks or Soviets; a Pole, above all, is someone who was never taken in by the lie of Communism, and someone who has not been taken in either by that other lie: American domination, the criminal indifference which is typical of so-called democracies. (p112)

(Despite this, Karski made America his home and made a career there as an academic.)

I do not know quite what to make of this scathing damnation of the Allies in general and Roosevelt in particular. He talks about suffering from Nazi violence and Soviet violence and the ‘insidious violence of the Americans. A cosy violence, made up of couches… and yawns’. (p117).   He makes passing acknowledgement that it was the Germans who were committing the atrocity, but his anger seems to be with those who (according to this account) knew about the fate of the Jews and didn’t do anything about it.

But when I read what it was that Karski as emissary was asking for, I feel a bit uneasy. The proposal was, since the war could no longer be considered in merely military terms because of the genocide against the Jews, that the Allies should initially do a leaflet drop on German cities telling the citizens about what was being done to the Jews – and that there would be terrible reprisals against the German people and the total destruction of Germany unless the atrocity was stopped at once. (p83)

Leaving aside the issue of whether such a strategy might have had any effect on Hitler and his henchmen, was it militarily feasible to do that? And, considering the Blitz and Dresden and Hiroshima and suicide bombers and Hamas v Israel, is it ever justifiable to use civilians in this way? Is the answer to that question different if the cause is noble? I do not know – I don’t know how military strategists can manage to put the human cost out of their minds when they’re planning strategy anyway.

It’s a very thought-provoking book because it demands an answer to the question of whether ‘the world’ can ever have a conscience, and whether ignoring Jan Karski’s message was a crime against humanity or a crime by humanity.

Author: Yannick Haenel
Translator: Ian Monk
Introduction: Mark Baker
Title: The Messenger
Publisher: Text Publishing 2011
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh $32.95

Fishpond: The Messenger


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kim Forrester, Lisa Hill. Lisa Hill said: A confronting book, see my review The Messenger, by Yannick Haenel « ANZ LitLovers LitBlog […]


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