"I was an insignificant little man. My mission was important.”
Jan Karski in his interview with Claude Lanzmann / 1978
By Dorota Szkodzińska for Polish History Museum
In July 1942, the German Nazis began mass deportations of Jews from occupied Warsaw to the Treblinka death camp. Jan Karski, a young diplomat-turned-courier for the Polish Underground took on a mission of mind-boggling significance. He volunteered to carry to the Free World an eyewitness report of the destruction of the Jewish people of Poland. Twice he penetrated the Warsaw Ghetto and later the Izbica Lubelska transit camp. Against overwhelming odds, using multiple false identities, Karski reached London by the end of November. There he prepared detailed written reports for the London-based Polish Government-in-Exile and briefed British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. He was then sent to Washington where he met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt for an hour in the Oval Office. At the time Karski was sounding the alarm, most of Poland’s Jewish citizens had already been killed. But there was still time to save the few who survived. Karski, who lived to age 86, considered the inaction of the Free World to be mankind’s “second Original Sin.” His recorded testimony remains one of the most eloquent statements against war and calls for action when confronted with acts of discrimination and degradation, injustice and brutality – preconditions for political murder and genocide.
Growing up in the booming textile capital – a turn-of-the-century “promised land” for people of diverse nationalities and religions – Karski learned the lessons of tolerance and cooperation while young.
Karski's Roman Catholic family shared a tenement house with Jewish families; Karski’s pious mother often reminded him to look out for the younger Jewish children.
Karski’s eldest brother, Marian Kozielewski joined Marshall Piłsudski’s Legions and had a hand in Piłsudski’s successful campaign for national independence in 1918. In the photo Karski’s siblings: from left Cyprian, Laura and Marian.
Karski’s origins were humble. His father, Stefan Kozielewski, was a leatherworker and craftsman who died when the boy was 6. It was Marian, Karski’s eldest brother, who became a father to the young Karski. Both Karski’s mother Walentyna, and his brother, Marian, instilled in him an idealism prevalent for that generation, where God, Honour and Homeland were perceived as the three pillars on which the Second Republic stood.
Family heritage, innate talent, and the favourable position of his brother Marian in interwar Poland, defined Karski’s youth. He graduated from the University with flying colours, his dream of being a diplomat closer to realisation.
Years later, Karski admitted that his ambition was one of the reasons that he failed to stand up for the persecuted Jewish students at the University. Karski was afraid of having his face scarred. Anti-Jewish sentiments run rampant among nationalists all over Europe, including Poland, and various forms of persecution of the Jews were employed.
In 1936, Karski began working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The job opened the doors to Warsaw’s high society. Subsequently, he spent more than a year abroad, interning at diplomatic posts in Geneva and London.
On the night of 23 August, 1939, Karski received a secret mobilisation order which put an end to his youthful dreams.
On 1 September 1939, war broke out. At 5 a.m. German planes bombed the barracks at Oświęcim where Karski’s unit was stationed. A few hours later, the second lieutenant and his battalion were retreating to the East.
On 23 August 23 1939, the secret German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact was signed in Moscow, dividing Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence. A secret protocol set the rules of partition for territories including Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland and Romania. This pact set the stage for the Soviet invasion of Poland from the East while the country was waging a losing war with Hitler’s army.
"[We were overwhelmed by feelings of] shame and disgrace. It all happened so quickly. The whole nation wasn’t prepared.”
On 17 September 1939, the Soviet army invaded Poland. Karski and his battalion were heading to Tarnopol, Ukraine, when they ran into the Red Army. The Soviets promised cooperation but ended up taking the Poles as prisoners of war and sending them to a camp in Kozielsk, Russia. The officers were treated worse than the enlisted men. When the Germans and Russians announced a prisoners-of-war exchange, its rules were strict – only privates could participate. Without hesitation, Karski exchanged his officer outfit for a private’s, claiming to be a factory worker from Łódź. This ruse saved his life. The Polish officers left behind were murdered en masse at Katyń Forest near Smolensk (Katyn, Russia) in one of the most heinous crimes of the war. Karski escaped German captivity by jumping out of a moving train. He reached Warsaw on foot. Like most of the brightest and most patriotic Poles, Karski immediately joined the Polish Underground, the largest and most significant wartime resistance movement in occupied Europe.
Karski began his work for the Polish Underground in late 1939. His keen intelligence and superb memory propelled him to becoming one of several chosen emissaries between the Polish Government-in-Exile and the Underground. During his first mission in 1940, he delivered reports about the situation in occupied Poland to the Polish Government, then in Angers, France. He returned with the Government’s organisational guidelines for the Underground leaders. Karski memorised the crucial information and dictated reports upon reaching his destination.
Using multiple false identities, means of transport and ingenuity, risking his own life, Karski undertook four missions as a Polish Underground courier: Missions No. 1 & 2. 1940 - yellow line Warsaw-Angers-Warsaw; Mission No. 3. 1940 - blue line Warsaw-Angers, aborted in Demjata, Slovakia; Mission No. 4. 1942 - red line Warsaw-London via Brussels, Paris, Perpignan, Barcelona, Madrid, Gibraltar.
On his first mission to the Polish Government-in-Exile in Angers, France, in 1940, Karski was tasked with reporting on the general situation of Poland under occupation. At this time, he alerted Polish authorities about the grave situation of the Polish Jews.
Karski reported the details of the situation to the Polish Government-in-Exile. Under German-Nazi occupation, Polish citizens not only faced the danger of being caught and killed due to their membership in the Underground resistance, but also in everyday dealings. Compulsory food rationing meant hunger. The black market made everyday goods available to those who still had money.
Occupiers tried not only to undermine the morale of Polish citizens, but also weaken the Polish nation culturally and economically. All institutions of higher education were closed, education in the Polish language banned and punishable with death. Seizure of property was practised on a daily basis. Consequently, life under occupation meant constant fear of random round-ups and executions, of violating the new Nazi rules and reprisals and subsequent death.
The Polish Government-in-Exile in Angers, France, entrusted Jan Karski with memorising the draft structure of the Polish Underground, the division of responsibilities and communications. Emissary Karski transmitted the whole concept to the political leaders in occupied Poland. On the basis of these directives, the first and the most significant resistance movement in wartime Europe took shape.
Karski set off on foot across the Tatra Mountains on a third mission back to Angers in June 1940, with information gathered from key Underground leaders. The weather was vicious, so he stopped for the night in the Slovakian village of Demjata, where a bribed host turned him in to the Gestapo. Arrested and tortured, Karski attempted suicide in order not to betray secrets, but was saved and transported to a hospital in Nowy Sącz, Poland. Jan Słowikowski, a young physician involved with the resistance, and a group of co-conspirators, organised a daring escape.
Demoralisation of ordinary Polish citizens, a great majority of them (70%) inhabitants of the impoverished countryside, was prevalent. Life under occupation spelled constant fear, suspicion and mistrust. Polish-Jewish relations, strained before the war, steadily declined as Hitler’s henchmen began the implementation of the “Final Solution” in occupied Poland.
The leaders of the Underground were aware of the attitude of many Polish Christians towards their Jewish countrymen. They viewed anti-Semitism as a blight on the nation. In official leaflets and illegal publications, they warned those who collaborated in the implementation of anti-Jewish terror about potential consequences.
An official proclamation of the Underground Front for the Rebirth of Poland authored by Karski’s mentor and confidante, Zofia Kossak, co-founder of a Catholic underground group "Front For The Rebirth of Poland" and "Council to Aid Jews" ("Żegota"), author of bestselling books of historical fiction.
"The world looks at this atrocity, more horrible than anything ever seen in the annals – and stays silent…. This silence cannot be tolerated any longer. Whatever its motives, they are despicable. In the face of crime, one cannot remain passive. Who remains silent in the face of slaughter – becomes an enabler of the murderer. Who does not condemn – then consents."
German-Nazi regulations meant that those who were merely withholding information about hidden Jews – let alone helping and hiding them – faced serious, even mortal, consequences. The entire family of the one who helped was at risk.
The German Nazis began mass deportations of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka Death Camp on 22 July 22 1942.
In autumn 1942, Karski undertook his last, and most important mission – one that could have saved the remaining Jews of Poland. He witnessed the ongoing destruction of the Jews of Poland, so that he could deliver an eyewitness account of the “Final Solution.” He was twice smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto to see the plight of the Jews.
"Naked bodies on the street. I asked my guide, ‘Why are they here?’ He said 'Well, they have a problem. If a Jew dies and the family wants a burial they have to pay tax on it. So they just throw them on the street. They cannot afford it. So then they say ‘Every rag counts’, so they take their clothing."
Jewish leaders who smuggled Karski into the Ghetto arranged for him to visit a German Nazi transit camp to witness Jews being herded onto trains, to be sent to their deaths. Karski entered the Izbica transit camp in disguise. For years he thought he had been in the concentration camp in Bełżec, as he described it in his 1944 book, "Story of a Secret State." Later he recalled this dreadful experience in his interview for Lanzmann’s "Shoah."
"They were pushing with butts, shots, pushing them into the trucks. They were raising their bodies, pushing them on their heads, into the trucks. Two trucks filled, the train moved. I was sick.".
Against overwhelming odds, using multiple false identities, means of transport and ingenuity, Karski reached London by the end of November. There he prepared detailed written reports for the London-based Polish Government-in-Exile and briefed British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. Karski’s superiors then sent him to Washington where Karski meet with President Franklin Roosevelt for an hour. He pleaded with both leaders to stop the Holocaust. Sadly, his message largely fell on deaf ears.
On 10 December 1942, the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs submitted a note to the governments of the United Nations describing the ongoing massacre of the Jewish nation in occupied Poland, based, among other reports, on Karski's eyewitness account.
After a week, the Allies formally condemned Germany's policy of the extermination of the Jews in Europe. British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden read the terms of the declaration in the Commons and members stood in silence as a demonstration of united support for it. The BBC broadcast the Declaration in the evening news.
"The attention of the 12 Allied Governments having been drawn to numerous reports from Europe that the German authorities, not content with denying to persons of Jewish race in all the territories over which their barbarous rule has been extended the most elementary human rights, are now carrying into effect Hitler’s oft-repeated intention to exterminate the Jewish people in Europe. ... The above-mentioned governments and the French National Committee condemn in the strongest possible terms this bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination. They declare that such events can only reaffirm their solemn resolution to ensure that those responsible for these crimes shall not escape retribution, and to press on with the necessary practical measures to this end."
Karski delivered his shocking eyewitness account to dozens of people – politicians, journalists, writers – the leaders of the Free World. He reported to British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and even to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself. The emissary pleaded with leaders to act. Transmitting the demand of the Jewish leaders, he gave a detailed account of what he had seen. “I was a camera”, “I was a machine”, “I was like a gramophone record” – he used to say later.
“I was like a gramophone record.”
A few months after Karski’s meeting with Szmul Zygielbojm, in April 1943, the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto rose in a revolt known as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. With light and scarce weapons, they held up for three weeks. In the middle of May 1943, the enemy burned the entire ghetto and all who were inside. Nothing but smouldering ruins remained.
Szmul Zygielbojm took his life in London. He left a letter stating that his suicide was a protest against the passivity of the Allies toward the fate of the Jews, hoping that his death would save the lives of some remaining Jews.
Everybody would have expected - just like Jan Karski did - that President Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of the lords of humanity, could stop the Holocaust and save the remaining Jews by using the power of his nation’s armed forces as commander in chief. Yet, it was not until late in the war that the U.S. Government took action and established the War Refugee Board, ultimately rescuing approximately 200,000 European Jews.
In 1943, Karski met with United States Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. Karski was devastated by how this judge of men declined to accept the possibility of human cruelty on a monumental scale.
“My mind, my heart, they are made in such a way that I can’t accept it. I am a judge of men. I know humanity. I know men. Impossible! No! No!”
His identity having been discovered by German-Nazis, Karski could not return to Poland. The Government-in-Exile gave him a new assignment: To convince Hollywood to make a film about the Polish war effort in order to sway public opinion toward a Poland threatened with Soviet domination. After the film failed to materialise, Karski went to work day and night on a book about the Polish Underground and his wartime experience. “Story of a Secret State” was published in the US by Houghton Mifflin, became an overnight sensation, selling 400,000 copies. It was quickly translated into French, Swedish, Norwegian and Icelandic.
Once "Story of a Secret State" became a bestseller, Karski was invited to deliver lectures on the Polish Underground and the situation in Nazi-occupied Poland all over the US and Canada. Then overnight, the situation changed.
In 1945, the US government recognised the new Soviet-imposed Polish puppet government in Lublin. Karski and the Poland he represented were swept under the carpet at the behest of the “Uncle Joe” Stalin. In Poland under Soviet domination there was no place for opposition. Consequently, all the surviving fighters of the Underground State were labelled as the “besplitted dwarfs of reaction” and ruthlessly eliminated by the new ruling elite.
Unable to return to Poland, Karski began his new life in America. He struggled, renovating homes to supplement his income. He was invited by Georgetown University’s president Edmund A. Walsh to pursue an academic career. Georgetown became Karski’s home for over 40 years, where he taught in the School of Foreign Service, influencing generations of future leaders.
In 1965, Jan Karski married Polish-Jewish dancer-choreographer Pola Nireńska, the love of his life. Most of her Jewish family was murdered in death camps during the war. Only Nireńska and her parents managed to escape. She left Poland early in the interwar period, following her dream of becoming a dancer, while her parents emigrated to Palestine in the 1930s, having an inkling of the coming threat to the Jews of Europe.
For over 30 years, Karski remained largely silent about his World War II experience. Only through the persistence of French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, who making a documentary about the Holocaust, did Karski agree to tell his story to a wider audience. The eight-hour interview set the stage for Karski’s “second mission”, speaking out about the Holocaust and the inaction of the leaders of the Free World. As a professor, he emphasised the importance of individual conscience and values and denounced the heartless pragmatism of nations, organisations and states.
"I don't go back to my memories ... I don't speak about it."
“The Lord assigned me a role to speak and write during the war, when - as it seemed to me - it might help. It did not. When the war came to its end, I learned that the governments, the leaders, the scholars, the writers did not know what had been happening to the Jews. They were taken by surprise. The murder of six million innocents was a secret, a ‘terrible secret’. ... Then I became a Jew. But I am a Christian Jew. I am a practising Catholic. … My faith tells me the second Original Sin has been committed by humanity: through commission, or omission, or self-imposed ignorance, or insensitivity, or self-interest, or hypocrisy, or heartless rationalisation. This sin will haunt humanity to the end of time. It does haunt me. And I want it to be so.”
In June 1982, Jan Karski planted his tree on the Avenue of the Righteous among the Nations on the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem. In subsequent years, many significant honours were bestowed on him: the Anti-Defamation League Courage to Care Award (1988, which in 2012 was renamed the Jan Karski Courage to Care Award); Pius XI Award (1990); the Eisenhower Liberation Medal (1991); the Wallenberg Medal (1991); and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2012) conferred by President Barack Obama.
“Now, I, Jan Karski - by birth Kozielewski - a Pole, an American, a Catholic, have also become an Israelite! Gloria, Gloria in excelsis Deo. This is the proudest and the most meaningful day in my life. Through the honorary citizenship of the State of Israel, I have reached the spiritual source of my Christian faith.”
Professor Karski was a just man, a real national hero free of any form of chauvinism – he was “the pride and nobleness of the Poles of yore,” as Adam Michnik said upon receiving the Jan Karski Eagles Award. In the 1980s and 1990s, the professor was involved in bridging a painful divide between Poles and Jews in America and worldwide, working on Polish-Jewish dialogue after the war. Karski had the courage to go against the tide, he did not shy away from criticising Polish compatriots’ behaviour and Poland’s politics.
In 1989 communism disintegrated; first in Poland, then in the rest of Central Europe. The decline started in 1980 with the establishment of Solidarność (Solidarity), free workers unions, inspiration of John Paul II and the persistent work of the pro-democratic opposition in Poland. Karski - who was persona non grata in the Polish People’s Republic - finally gained the recognition he deserved.
Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, where Karski taught the history of communism and global affairs for 40 years, is one of the premier universities for young Americans and international students who are interested in international politics and world affairs. Many of today’s most prominent politicians, community and business leaders were Karski’s students.
Karski died on 13 July 2000, but his legacy endures. As long as young and old need to learn about the horrors of the Holocaust, which occurred in war-torn, occupied Poland, Karski’s mission continues. The need for Karski’s wisdom endures worldwide as people seek inspiration and guidance about how to act when conditions are at their worst. They learn how to become messengers for truth. Jan Karski - Humanity’s Hero - calls each of us to act on behalf of oppressed peoples everywhere.
Numerous individuals and institutions have put their hearts and souls into the commemoration of Professor Karski and his deeds; today, these initiatives are proliferating. The Polish History Museum in Warsaw runs the Jan Karski Unfinished Mission programme in cooperation with the Jan Karski US Centennial Campaign, which grew into the Jan Karski Educational Foundation. The purpose of these cooperative efforts is to shine the spotlight on this great man and to propagate the Karski legacy with international educational activities, public events and artistic performances, leading up to the centennial year of his birth in 2014 - and beyond.
“We must tell our children about how this evil was allowed to happen - because so many people succumbed to their darkest instincts; because so many others stood silent. But let us also tell our children about the Righteous Among the Nations. Among them was Jan Karski -a young Polish Catholic - who witnessed Jews being put on cattle cars, who saw the killings, and who told the truth, all the way to President Roosevelt himself. Jan Karski passed away more than a decade ago. But today, I’m proud to announce that this spring I will honour him with America’s highest civilian honour - the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”
Contributor: Curation—Dorota Szkodzińska, Polish History Museum
Contributor: Edition—Wanda Urbańska, director of the Jan Karski US Centennial Campaign
Contributor: Under the supervision of—Ewa Wierzyńska, leader of Jan Karski. Unfinished Mission program, Polish History Museum
Contributor: IT support—Artur Szymański
Contributor: We would like to thank all partners in the project:—The Museum of the City of Łódź, The Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, E. Thomas Wood, Carol Harrison, Hoover Archives, The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Contributor: Exhibit's origins—The exhibit is one of the projects of Jan Karski. Unfinished Mission program run by Polish History Museum. More information on www.JanKarski.org and www.JanKarski.net.
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