The Messenger by Yannick Haenel

In The Messenger, Yannick Haenel crosses the boundary between non-fiction and fiction while shining new light on the extermination of the European Jews by the Nazis, and challenging any notion of humanity we may hold onto.

The book tells the incredible story of Jan Karski, a courier for the Polish Underground, who escaped Europe in 1942 to travel to London and Washington to deliver the message entrusted to him by two Warsaw Jews – ‘Perhaps to shake the conscious of the world!’ – of the systematic extermination of the European Jews. After delivering his message to British political leaders, to the United Nations War Crimes Commission, and directly to President Roosevelt in Washington, he realised that ‘no one cared enough’ to stop the slaughter. Karski lived with the knowledge that his message was never understood for the rest of his life.

Told in three sections, Haenel’s book is a compelling way of telling history. The first section is Haenel’s re-telling of a filmed interview with Karski for a now-famous film, Shoah, made by Claude Lanzmann in the 1980s. The second part is a description of Karski’s own book, published in 1944 in America as Story of a Secret State, detailing his life as a courier and his journey to London and America. The third section is where Haenel imagines Karski’s inner dialogue as a much older man. ‘Not for a single day in my life have I managed to think of anything other than the message from the Warsaw ghetto’, says Karski/Haenel – and after reading the two earlier sections, we know this to be true.

Haenel has, by re-imagining Karski’s message for the twenty-first century, created a powerful and provocative meditation on evil and humanity. Would we hear Karski’s message today? Do we understand his message? Do we act?

Pip Newling

Cover image for The Messenger

The Messenger

Yannick Haenel

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