I got this book courtesy of the good people at textpublishing. I heard great things about Haenel’s work so I decided to put it aside until such time that I was ready to devote my total concentration to it.
I have studied quite a bit about the Holocaust, doing a course at the Sydney Jewish Museum, visiting Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the Holocaust museum in Washington and reading various fictional and non-fictional accounts. I have met Elie Wiesel and revelled in his softly spoken brilliance. For a time I was overloaded with Holocaustisms and couldn’t stomach reading any more or thinking further about the unfathomable events which transpired in Europe during World War II.
So, it was with a bit of angst and trepidation that I opened The Messenger last week and started to read. Having completed the book I am unsure how to describe it. It is clearly faction – a fictional account of factual events. It is part documentary and part narrative, a story about Jan Karski, a non Jewish Pole who lands up involved with the Polish underground, trying to publicise the fate of the Jews of Poland to the rest of the world. Karski’s mission is doomed but makes for fascinating reading. He visits concentration camps, meets with dignitaries like Churchill and Roosevelt and tries desperately not to lose himself beneath all the hardship that he witnesses.
Haenel’s book is an attempt to explore some of the complex issues involved in bearing witness. Karski as a protagonist is a perfect example of the challenges that anyone has to endure in order to survive witnessing horror. He is torn apart by his desire to bear witness to what he has seen in a public fashion. He speaks about his experiences until he can, quite literally, no longer speak any more and is rendered silent. He realises the futility of his need to give voice to the horrors:
“In the end, what touched them was not the fact that the Jews of Europe were being exterminated, it was that I felt so miserable. I was the one who touched them, not the fate of the Jews, and even less that of Poland. Of course, they found it all terrible; of course, they wanted the Nazis to stop inflicting such horrors.”
Through his text, Haenel gives voice to some of the deeper issues surrounding the Holocaust – why did the Allies not intervene earlier? Why did they feign ignorance? Why did they not bomb the camps? Haenel has no answer, but the very fact that he raises these questions in the manner in which he does so, was intriguing.
“I have lived through the end of what was called ‘humanity’. You must be careful about that word, I used to tell my students, it may even no longer be possible to use it correctly, because it has served as an alibi for the worst atrocities, it has been used as a cover-up for the most abject causes, both in the West and in the Communist countries. The word ‘humanity’ has become so compromised during the twentieth century that, each time it is used, it is as if we start to lie. It is not even possible to talk about ‘crimes against humanity’, as people did in the sixties … speaking about ‘crimes against humanity’ implies that a part of humanity has been preserved from barbarity, but the barbarity affects the entire world, as was shown by the extermination of the Jews of Europe, in which not only the Nazis were involved, but also the Allies.”
What Karski comes to terms with is that he cannot escape his responsibility to keep telling the story: “A witness’s life is no longer his, it belongs only to his testimony, and this cannot be stopped. It is impossible for a witness to bear witness just once; when you start bearing witness, you have to continue doing so ceaselessly, your words can never stop, and everyone should be able to benefit from them.”
I was torn, with Karski, by this book; torn by Haenel’s massive task to explore these issues and torn by revisiting the history of the horrors of the Shoah. This is one of those remarkable must read books. It is the duty of every person to grapple with the complexities of these gross atrocities against people and to try, on some level, to ensure that such a nightmare is never repeated.