Page 1

IF WE ARE THE MESSAGE... An introduction by Mark Baker

Facing the mass graves of occupied Poland, Himmler boasted to his SS officers that their deeds would be ‘a page of glory in our history which has never been written and is never to be written’. The witnesses to this unwritten history had been silenced in the death camps, their execution in forested enclosures concealed by a conspiracy of euphemistic memoranda. Yet from deep in the earth the bloated corpses resisted oblivion and formed cracks in the soil, threatening to write their own version of history with the blood of their wounds. So the order was given to dig up the earth for a second time, exhume the corpses and incinerate them. The unformed words in the burned pages were returned to the ground or scattered in the ash that blew across the face of the world. There were others who tried to write the secret history of those years before it was given the title Holocaust. Emmanuel Ringelblum, an historian from Warsaw, preserved fragments of ghetto life by burying archival documents in steel milk containers.

The Messenger•book.indd v

15/11/10 7:48 PM

Members of the Auschwitz Sonderkommando kept diaries of their daily work and hid them beneath the crematoria. There were some who scratched out their testimonies on the walls of a gas chamber or on the ceilings of a freight train. Those few who escaped appealed to the living, or the not-yet-dead. Elie Wiesel describes one of the men who jumped from a train and returned to his village in Transylvania, where he was dismissed as a madman, a messenger from an imaginary inferno. Another of these unheeded messengers was Kurt Gerstein, who had witnessed one of the unwritten pages through the peephole of history: a hole in the door of the Belzec gas chamber where the Jews in agony could be heard ‘weeping as in a synagogue’ until they froze together like ‘basalt pillars’. Jan Karski first became a messenger for the Polish Underground but nothing could have prepared him for what he would later describe as his journey across the mythical River Styx that runs between Earth and the Underworld. Like a reluctant biblical prophet, he was tapped on the shoulder by two Jewish members of the Polish Underground, one a Zionist, the other a member of the Bundist socialist movement. They entrusted him with a message to ‘shake the conscience of the world’ and stop the murder of Jews. Their message was delivered in words and then in a vision which would forever be tattooed on Karski’s eyes after he was smuggled inside the Warsaw ghetto and a camp he confused with Belzec. Written in three parts, Yannick Haenel’s The Messenger unpacks the transformative moments of Karski’s life. It opens with a question informed by Karski’s tortured testimony given in the 1980s for Claude Lanzmann’s fi lm Shoah. Haenel recounts


The Messenger•book.indd vi

15/11/10 7:48 PM

the visual sequences of the fi lm, prefiguring a major theme of the book that explores the inability to sever language from sight and action. We see/hear/read of Karski in his New York apartment, as poised as a Polish aristocrat, before the camera/reader/mirror. He is invited to give his testimony. Karski sobs, resists returning to the past and flees the room. Haenel’s book is a meditation on this moment that forces itself on Karski—the impossibility and the imperative of remembering, what Haenel will describe as a ‘silence that speaks’ through the cracks of memory. The second section is a description of Karski’s book, Story of a Secret State, written in 1944. We learn how Karski wrote this book in a fury, dictating it in Polish to a translator and then directly in English, as though speaking the prophet’s message in tongue. The transmission of the message is hindered by many obstacles: there is the problem of language, which Primo Levi taught demands a new vocabulary to defamiliarise us with ordinary words that have taken on a new meaning after Auschwitz—words such as hunger, cold, man. But the main problem that will haunt Karski for the remainder of his life is that a messenger cannot deliver a message without a receiver. A Secret State sold hundreds of thousands of copies; Karski obtained private audiences with dignitaries as high as US President Roosevelt. Yet people received his message with a yawn of indifference, animated in some cases by malevolence toward Jews, or by the inability to interpret the gap between the message and its commanding imperative. ‘I cannot believe it,’ said US Supreme Court Judge Felix Frankfurter to Karski in 1943. ‘Do you think I’m lying?’ challenged Karski. ‘No,’ answered Frankfurter. ‘I just said I cannot believe it.’


The Messenger•book.indd vii

15/11/10 7:48 PM

Haenel wants to show that by refusing to recognise the message we have woven ourselves into its text. The message that warns of a crime against humanity has become a crime by humanity. It implicates us all, thereby redefi ning human history. And this is the point of the third and fi nal section of the book, in which Haenel himself becomes Karski by assuming his voice in the fi rst person. It constitutes a leap of the imagination from non-fiction to fiction, an attempt to ‘coincide brutally with the book in question’. Critics like Lanzmann will regard the invasion of those physical and mental crevices where Karski conceals himself from the gaze of the camera as the ultimate sacrilege. In Lanzmann’s conception there is a point of unknowability, a divide that separates the eyewitness from the actuality of the past. That is the meaning behind Lanzmann’s quip that, had he discovered archival footage of the death process, he would have burned it rather than permit the pretence that memory can escape its rootedness in the present. But Haenel is spurred by the ethics of the messenger—the belief that it is possible to eradicate the divide between time and place. The messenger must become the message by creeping along the cracks of silence and giving form to it through speech, vision, and deed. It is not too late, Haenel urges, to awaken humanity from its collective yawn and deliver Karski’s message from the broken heart of the twentieth century. Haenel offers several images for how we might dissolve the barriers between message and messenger, between their time and ours. He tells us that to overcome a fear of spiders one must become the spider. One can replay the life of Karski by becoming Karski. But is this the brazen conceit of an author? Is there any


The Messenger•book.indd viii

15/11/10 7:48 PM

way, as Haenel writes, for the extermination itself to be reversed, which was the core of the plea embodied by the founding message? And here, Haenel resorts to religious mythology to offer the most radical notion of his book, indeed, its entire interpretative thrust. The message can still reach its audience, he suggests, because the past is not irredeemably dead. If we are the message then we can reverse the death of humanity by bringing ourselves back to life through our actions. The past, says Haenel, can be resurrected by ‘rekindling a fi re from its embers’ and creating life through the word. In this sense, The Messenger offers a Christological account of the murder of Jews, who have (again) been nailed to the cross of history, enabling the promise of redemption from the fall of humanity. If Lanzmann chose to name his fi lm Shoah in order to resist the association of the word Holocaust with its origins as a ‘burnt offering’, then The Messenger reinstates the Jews in their historical role as messengers, be it in the guise of Christ, or in a more Jewish attribution as the archetypes of Exile. This is the ultimate message of The Messenger, shaped by an encounter between Karski’s Catholicism and his Judaism. This is not a book one merely reads; it is a book one receives—visually, aurally, and existentially. This is a message delivered by each and every one of us, to ourselves. ‘If a book does not change the course of history,’ Karski/Haenel asks, ‘is it really a book?’ Is this really a book? Haenel, like Karski before him, desperately wants us to answer that question. Mark Baker, 2010


The Messenger•book.indd ix

15/11/10 7:48 PM

THE MESSENGER by Yannick Haenel  

Mark Baker's introduction to THE MESSENGER