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  • L'Affaire Karski:Fiction, History, Memory Unreconciled
  • Richard J. Golsan

In late January 2010, Claude Lanzmann, the renowned creator of Shoah and director of Les Temps Modernes, published a scathing and indeed incendiary review of the most recent winner of both the Prix inter-allié and the Prix du roman FNAC in the pages of the weekly magazine Marianne. The book under attack, Jan Karski, was the fourth novel by the young novelist Yannick Haenel, who was himself also the director of an intellectual review La Ligne de risque. Prior to the appearance of Lanzmann's hostile review, Jan Karski had generally been greeted favorably by critics and had enjoyed a notable commercial success as well. Haenel's novel, dealing with the real life Polish Resistance hero after which it is named and who, not coincidently, figured prominently and strikingly in Shoah, seemed destined to avoid the kind of controversy that exploded in France (and later elsewhere in Europe and internationally) generated by the publication of Jonathan Littell's Les Bienveillantes some three years earlier. Following the appearance of Lanzmann's review, this situation changed abruptly.

In his review Lanzmann denounced Haenel for writing a "false novel" that deliberately "falsified history." Jan Karski was, Lanzmann insisted, "un livre obscène, malhonnête, une honte,"1 that not only defamed the memory of the Polish Resistance hero, but that of other historical figures as well, including most prominently Franklin D. Roosevelt. Where the latter was concerned, Haenel offered a portrait of Roosevelt that in Lanzmann's view constituted a "misère d'imagination" filled with "insultantes platitudes" (6).2 The real Karski and Roosevelt met in Washington in an historic meeting on 28 July 1943, during which Karski reported on the plight of occupied Poland. Toward the end of his visit with FDR, Karski also described the Nazis' destruction of European Jews, which he had witnessed first-hand in the Warsaw Ghetto as well as in the death camps. In Haenel's novel, rather than listen attentively to the Polish resistance hero, as he was widely reported to have done, Roosevelt is portrayed as profoundly indifferent to Karski's report. He is, moreover, self-satisfied and more interested in his secretary's legs than in what Karski has to say. For Lanzmann, these aspersions cast on FDR's character and behavior were nothing short of defamatory. As Lanzmann also pointed out in his review, there wasn't even a secretary present during the historic meeting between the two men. [End Page 81]

Lanzmann was equally critical of the portrait Haenel painted of Karski himself which, like that of Roosevelt, was in his view "haineuse et vulgaire" (5). Rather than paint the man as the heroic but also complex figure that Lanzmann argued he was, Haenel made him entirely one-dimensional, "tristement linéaire," turning him into an overly zealous and even monomaniacal "pleurnichard et véhément procureur" (4) focused exclusively on accusing the entire world—and the Allies in particular—of complicity in the destruction of Europe's Jews. On a personal, psychological level, Lanzmann insisted, the real-life Karski was neither that simple nor that straightforward. During the second day of filming for Shoah, for example, Karski "semblait se rengor ger de fierté […]. Il devenait mondain, satisfait, théâtral, parfois cabotin et cela contredisait le tragique qu'il incarnait jusque-là" (4). Lanzmann's point, he went on to clarify, was not to disparage Karski but to assert "Yannick Haenel est sans doute trop jeune pour savoir que le plus grand des hommes peut avoir plusieurs visages, être double ou triple" (5).

In addition to misconstruing and simplifying Karski in historical terms, Haenel, according to Lanzmann, grossly distorted Karski's historical mission. During his meeting with Roosevelt, Karski was primarily concerned not with Nazi crimes against Jews but with the fate of Poland during and especially after the war, when the Polish nation would be confronted with ever-increasing Soviet threats to its sovereignty and territories. This was, in fact, the reason for his mission to Washington, as arranged by the Polish government-in-exile in London.

Taking egregious liberties with the characters and attitudes of real historical figures...


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