Abigail Lewis, review of Annette Becker’s “Messengers of Disaster: Raphael Lemkin, Jan Karski, and Twentieth Century Genocides”

Annette Becker. Messengers of Disaster: Raphael Lemkin, Jan Karski, and Twentieth Century Genocides. Trans Käthe Roth. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2021. 304 pp. Cloth $39.95. ISBN 9780299333201.


The central question driving Annette Becker’s newly translated book Messengers of Disaster: Raphael Lemkin, Jan Karski, and Twentieth Century Genocides, is not what people knew about the Nazi extermination of Jews during the Holocaust, but rather, why did they not believe credible reports of genocide?[1] Why were so-called “messengers of disaster” ignored? Why, in short, was the Holocaust unthinkable to so many?

Becker focuses on two Polish “messengers”: Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish lawyer, and Jan Karski, a Catholic student and resister, both of whom risked their lives to tell British, American, and Polish officials about the systematic extermination of Jews as it was happening. Each had different reasons for doing so. Lemkin understood the Nazi genocidal project within the larger context of violence against particular groups, including the Armenian genocide and the persecution of Jews in Eastern Europe in the interwar period. Karski’s concern, on the other hand, was Poland writ large. Lemkin is well known as the architect of the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide. He had already begun to write what became the 1948 definition in the early 1930s based on his research on and experiences with violence directed against specific groups of people. However, Becker shows that it was Karski who most actively reported on the on-the-ground reality of genocide to top officials, including President Roosevelt. However, Karski’s goal was not to report on the specific persecution of Jews. He almost incidentally reports on genocide as part of his reports on the situation in Poland. Karksi did not have the same moral imperative that Lemkin, a Jewish international lawyer with a specific interest in and concern for genocide as a legal concept, had. Nonetheless, from Becker’s telling Karski understood early on what was happening in Poland and what was happening to the Jews. Even if his goal was not to report on the Holocaust specifically, he recognized something that many in Europe struggled to grapple with even after the Holocaust: namely, that the Nazi genocide had aimed to eradicate European Jewry.

The reason so few people were willing to believe “messengers” like Lemkin and Karski, Becker argues, owed to the legacy of World War I. The war and its aftermath, she explains, had a double-effect. On the one hand, reports on German atrocities in Belgium, in particular, over-mythologized mass violence; as a consequence, some members of the general public were primed to disbelieve reports of similar atrocities being committed in Poland a generation later. On the other hand, antisemitic violence in Eastern Europe in the 1920s and 1930s also underscored the very real possibility of mass antisemitic violence, at least to a few. Paradoxically, Becker concludes, the war therefore created a mental universe that simultaneously “over-mythologized” and “underestimated” mass violence; it gave people like Lemkin and Karski clarity about genocide while also sewing public mistrust in atrocity reports. Or, as Becker puts it: “although the mental universe resulting from WWI and the 1920s and 1930s impeded, in most cases, comprehension of the specific fate of Jews, it enhanced the precocious lucidity of those few who were conveying the indescribable.”[2]

To trace this double-edged story, and to further understand public knowledge of the Holocaust as it was happening, Becker relies on the very sources that American, British, French, and Polish officials and citizens were reading and seeing at the time. This entailed visiting several public archives in the U.S., the U.K., and Israel as well as archives held with the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arlosen and the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva. Specific sources Becker cites to sketch a picture of what foreign offices knew and how they knew it include photographs and microfilms that were received by foreign affairs and state department officials. One of the most interesting insights of Becker’s book is that reports about the Holocaust from Lemkin, Karski, and others did reach a general audience in the U.S. and Britain. Despite war censorship, she finds that this information was “within reach of the general public.”[3]

Becker gauges public awareness of the Holocaust by looking at how articles, photographs, and even drawings depicting the concentration camps appeared and recirculated in the press. In one serendipitous find, she discovered that the same atrocity photographs from Poland, which she had seen in the National Archives in London, were reproduced in a pamphlet published at the end of 1941, and sold at rallies to support Polish Jews. In another example, she found cartoons in the American and British press depicting concentration camps from 1944 that bluntly commented on the reality of incarceration and mass murder. She discusses two cartoons by Helen Hokinson that were published in the New Yorker in May 1944, each showing a woman returning books to the library and commenting on the Holocaust. In one, the woman tells the librarian: “I don’t think I can stand another concentration camp” and in another: “I think the whole thing was terribly dated. Nobody ever commits murder with prussic acid anymore.”[4] Becker reads these cartoons as a barometer for what the American and British public both knew and believed about the Nazi extermination of Jews. She concludes that they show the public understood, but still made light of, the Holocaust. These examples underscore the tendency for many to disbelieve messengers like Lemkin and Karski.

Becker’s book covers an impressive amount of ground narrating the wartime histories of Lemkin and Karski and tracing the dissemination of information about the specific fate of Jews in Poland. It also does an exemplary job of framing the issue of “disbelief” from a position of wanting to understand its root causes, rather than to make a moral argument about it. Indeed, disbelief, Becker points out, was often rooted in people’s suffering. The Poles had suffered so terribly under Nazi occupation that the Polish government in exile in London did not want to hear about the specific persecution of Jews. Similar reasons could help explain disbelief on the part of the Americans and British as well. Everyone was impacted by Nazi aggression and the war. In this sense, Becker’s book adds to others, including Joan B. Wolf’s Harnessing the Holocaust: The Politics of Memory in France, and Annette Wieviorka’s The Era of the Witness, which help explain why the postwar period into the 1960s was one of silence, with few people wanting to acknowledge the history of the Holocaust.[5]

By focusing on Karski and Lemkin, Messengers of Disaster also highlights the personal stories behind the emergence of our greater understanding of genocide, in both legal circles and among the public at large. This influence is still felt in contemporary discussions of mass violence. For example, in a recent essay about the history of Lviv and traumatic memory, the late Ukrainian writer Victoria Amelina, wrote:

My family, too, survived what we now—thanks to Lemkin’s work—must label a genocide. I’m referring of course to the Holodomor, the famine organized by Stalin in 1932-33. If it were not for Lemkin, I probably wouldn’t be able to reflect on my family’s story in the way I do now. I wouldn’t have the language to understand and identify Stalin’s crimes. And that’s how I connect the Holodomor my family endured in eastern Ukraine to the Holocaust in Lviv, where I was born. It turned out that those who had lived and lost their loved ones in Lviv helped me to better understand my own family story and mourn my losses.

Amelina, who was killed this past summer in a Russian missile attack in Ukraine, concluded her essay by asking how she could “return the favor” to Lemkin. Her answer, she explained, was to “to listen to the silences rising from the city’s ground, and do my best to translate them into a tongue the living understand.” Messangers of Disaster is a worthy history of how figures like Lemkin, Karski, and others first gave language to the reality of genocide and helped people like Amelina understand their own traumatic pasts, and in turn, continue to help tell stories of contemporary violence to the living.

[1] Annette Becker, Messengers of Disaster: Raphael Lemkin, Jan Karski, and Twentieth Century Genocides, trans Käthe Roth (University of Wisconsin Press, 2021). Originally published as Messagers du desastre: Raphael Lemkin, Jan Karski, et les genocides (Paris: Fayard, 2018).
[2] Becker, Messengers of Disaster, 6.
[3] Becker, Messengers of Disaster, 6.
[4] Becker, Messengers of Disaster, 140-142.
[5] In Harnessing the Holocaust: The Politics of Memory in France, Joan B. Wolf, finds that Jews in France returned to a society that did not want to listen to the particularities of their traumas. Further, French universalist laws, which gave Jews back their civil rights in 1944, implicitly denied them the ability to highlight their experiences as Jews. Wolf argues that it was not until the Six Day War in 1967 that French Jews began to assert the specificity of their suffering as Jews. Similarly, many survivors recount returning home to societies that did not want to listen. Annette Wieviorka argues in The Era of the Witness that it was not until 1961 following the televised Eichmann Trial that survivors’ testimonies finally became heard and valued as evidence. See Joan B. Wolf, Harnessing the Holocaust: The Politics of Memory in France (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003). Annette Wieviorka, The Era of the Witness [L’ere du temoin (Paris: Plon, 1998)] trans. Jared Stark (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006).

Abigail Lewis
Abigail Lewis

Abigail Lewis is a historian of twentieth-century European History. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2022 and she serves as the Director of Undergraduate Studies at the Nanovic Institute for European Studies at Notre Dame. Abigail’s research focuses on photography and visual culture in France during and after the Nazi Occupation and the Holocaust. She is currently completing a book manuscript entitled, Double Exposure: French Photography and Everyday Choices from Nazi Occupation to Liberation, 1940-1950.  Her work has also appeared in French Politics, Culture & Society, In geveb, H-Diplo, and the Mosse Program Blog. As a graduate student, Abigail received generous support from the Mosse Program, including the Mosse Teaching Fellowship, which allowed her to design her own lecture course on Visual Culture and European History, and the Mosse Graduate Exchange Fellowship with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. 

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