Posts tagged Martha Gellhorn

Jan Karski: Hero of the Holocaust (Part I)

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Jan Karski as a young man

There are some people whose experiences during World War II are so fantastical, so filled with drama and danger, that one wonders how they managed to simply keep going.  Jan Karski is one such man.

Karski, described by British historian Michael Burleigh as “one of the bravest men of the war,” and whose life was summarized by Elie Wiesel as “a masterpiece of courage, integrity and humanism,” died twenty-one years ago today, age 86.

Born Jan Kozielewski in 1914 in the city of Łódź, in what was then part of the Russian Empire, Karski (an alias he adopted during the war and kept thereafter) was the youngest of eight children from an educated, upper middle class Polish Catholic family.  A scholastic standout, he trained in his youth to serve in the diplomatic corps. Like all Poles, he performed mandatory military service, and was a reserve lieutenant in the mounted artillery.

In late August 1939, as Hitler’s agitation over the Danzig Corridor escalated, Karski’s unit was mobilized and ordered to a military installation in Oświęcim on the Polish-German border.  Oświęcim is better known by the name the Germans later gave it: Auschwitz, the very symbol of the Holocaust.

The Poles were quite confident they could handle the Germans.  “England and France are not needed this time.  We can finish this alone,” Karski’s commanding officer confided.  In fact, they had no answer for Germany’s blitzkrieg tactics.  Within hours on September 1, Karski’s unit was overwhelmed, leading to a long, disorganized and demoralized retreat.  The retreat lasted for weeks, until Karski reached Tarnopol.  There he and his comrades surrendered—to the invading Russians, who previously agreed to partition Poland pursuant to a secret protocol with Germany.

Karski, who hadn’t even fired a single shot in anger, soon found himself on a cattle car headed to a Soviet POW camp in what is now Ukraine.  The camp was highly stratified, but not in the way one might expect. It was the common soldier who had the best accommodations (such as they were), and the officers, considered by the Soviets to be the oppressors of the proletariat, who had the worst housing and the hardest tasks.

Looking to escape, but resigned to the fact that any escape under the circumstances was well nigh impossible, Karski was thrilled to learn of a proposed prisoner swap with the Germans.  Polish POWs in German custody would be exchanged for Poles held in Soviet custody of Germanic descent and Poles born in the territories now incorporated into the Reich.  There was only one catch: the Russians were only willing to exchange Polish soldiers of the rank of private—no officers need apply.

Karski convinced a Polish private with no desire to participate in the exchange to switch uniforms with him (the Russians weren’t paying particularly close attention anyway).  Karski’s decision was prescient.  The world would later learn that shortly after the swap, Polish officers remaining in Soviet custody were segregated.  Stalin, desirous of eliminating any possible future source of resistance among the intelligentsia and officer corps, personally ordered the slaughter of 22,000 Polish officers and government officials in the Katyn Forest in April and May 1940.

Once the POW swap was effected, Karski found himself out of the frying pan, but now in the proverbial fire.  The Germans promised their captives “work” and “food” but it was all a ruse, Karski suspected, and he wasn’t about to give the Germans a chance to prove him right.  En route to Germany, Karski jumped from a moving train at night, notwithstanding guards posted on the train with machine guns.

World War II was not even three months old and Karski had effected not one but two daring escapes.  His sole focus: to join the Underground and continue the fight for Poland’s freedom.  His goal was Warsaw, and the first stop on his trek was the city of Kielce.  [About this same time Tom Buergenthal and his parents were living as refugees in the part of Kielce which would shortly become the Kielce Ghetto.]

In a memoir Karski published in 1944, Story of the Secret State, Karski details his life in the Polish resistance. It was a choice fraught with danger.  Perhaps no country, with the possible exception of Russia, suffered so much at the hands of its German occupiers.  The country simply ceased to exist as a sovereign state—part absorbed into Germany, part absorbed into Russia, and the rest—the Generalgouvernement—treated as occupied territory. Karski is at pains throughout his memoir to explain that there was no Quisling, no serious collaboration with the Nazis on any level at any time.

Karski’s memoir graphically depicts the incredibly dangerous life of a resistance fighter.  In Chapter 5 he describes how his close friend Dziepatowski initiated him into the Underground.  Dziepatowski’s fate: “[H]e was caught and subjected to appalling tortures, but did not reveal a single secret.  Finally he was executed.”  Three chapters later Karski meets with Marian Borzeçki (called Borecki in the memoir), a former high ranking government official.  His fate: “Toward the end of February, 1940, Borecki was caught by the Gestapo. . . .  He was dragged off to jail and submitted to the most atrocious Nazi tortures.  He was beaten for days on end.  Nearly every bone in his body was systematically and scientifically broken. . . .   In the end he was shot.”  Karski describes in detail the elaborate mechanisms the Underground employed to prevent a betrayal or arrest from jeopardizing the larger operation.  “Liaison women” had the task of connecting one Underground member with another; since members were constantly adopting new identities and new domiciles, only the appropriate liaison woman knew how to reach the appropriate person and arrange a meeting.  Karski observes: “The average ‘life’ of a liaison woman did not exceed a few months.”

Even for those who had no involvement with the Underground, life in occupied Poland was one of privation.  The diet of those who fared worst consisted “exclusively of black bread mixed with sawdust.  A plate of cereal a day was considered a luxury.”  During all of 1942, Karski never once tasted butter or sugar.

Karski’s own brush with the Gestapo wasn’t long in coming.  Because of his language skills, extensive travels across Europe and retentive memory, Karski was chosen to be a courier—carrying vital information (in his head) from the Underground’s various factions to the Polish government-in-exile in France.

Karski’s first courier mission, over the Tatra Mountains into Slovakia with the help of an experienced mountain guide, then to Hungary, Yugoslavia, Italy and France, went without a hitch.

A subsequent courier trip was less successful.  Unbeknownst to Karski on this mission, a previous mountain guide had fallen into the hands of the Gestapo, and told everything he knew—the routes used, the safe houses along the way, etc.  It was only a matter of time before Karski fell into a trap.  Captured, along with his guide, in Slovakia, he was quickly subjected to harsh interrogations.  Fearing, after one particularly brutal session that resulted in four lost teeth and several broken ribs, that he would be unable to hold in his secrets much longer, Karski decided to kill himself with a razor he had surreptitiously stolen from the washroom.

Waiting until the watchman completed his rounds, Karski slashed both his wrists.  (I have previously written about incredible courage it takes to end one’s life just to protect the lives of others here).  As the blood poured out of his arms,

“I thought of my mother.  My childhood, my career, my hopes.  I felt a bottomless sorrow that I had to die a wretched, inglorious death, like a crushed insect, miserable and anonymous.  Neither my family nor my friends would ever learn what had happened to me and where my body would lie.  I had assumed so many aliases that even if the Nazis wished to inform anyone of my death they probably could not track down my real identity.”

Ironically, it was the very act of trying to kill himself that ultimately saved his life.  Remaining in the Gestapo prison—with or without revealing any of the secrets he held—would have undoubtedly ended with his execution.  Instead, the night watchman heard his groans, and Karski was rushed to a nearby hospital.  There sympathetic Slovakian doctors and nurses protected him.  Later he was inexplicably transferred to another hospital just over the border, in Poland. (Karski speculates that he was brought there to give away the Underground in the vicinity.)

Once in Poland, word of Karski’s predicament was communicated to the local Underground.  With a well-placed bribe to the hospital guard, Karski was able to make good an escape into the arms of the local resistance fighters.  Responding to his gushing expressions of gratitude, his saviors were a bit more business-like: “Don’t be too grateful to us.  We had two orders about you.  The first was to do everything in our power to help you escape.  The second was to shoot you if we failed.”

Karski’s tale, while remarkable, is hardly unique.  Millions of such escapes, captures, and tortures occurred throughout occupied Europe during the war.  What makes the story special for me, however, is first, the fact that Jan Karski was my professor as an undergraduate at Georgetown University, and second, that I never knew anything about his incredible experiences while I was his student.  In fact, it was not until his death in 2000 that I learned for the first time in an alumni magazine about Karski’s earlier life.  I wondered: had I been so obtuse that I missed any references—direct or oblique—to these matters during his classes?  Was I really that clueless at the time?

It was not until I later read his biography that I was comforted to learn that “most of Professor Karski’s students probably knew little or nothing about his past.  Story of a Secret State was out of print, he would not voluntarily bring up his wartime exploits, and even his faculty colleagues generally had only a dim knowledge of what he had done during the war.”

The Professor Karski I did meet in the fall of 1973 was still the “tall . . . man of striking appearance” noted by the Polish Ambassador to the U.S., Jan Ciechanowski, in 1943, whose “burning eyes reflected a keen intelligence.”  He was still “too thin” as Martha Gellhorn (Hemingway) once observed when she interviewed him around the same time.  He always did have “his omnipresent cigarette” in the words of his biographers (even in class—that was a different era after all).  Add it all up, and Professor Karski was one intimidating presence.  Even if I had known something of his background, I’m sure I would never have been able to bring myself to ask him about it.

Only now do I wish I could travel back in time and engage Professor Karski in person and learn what a truly inspiring human being he really was.  And this is only the beginning of Karski’s remarkable story.

Karski as I remember him

[Coming in Part II: Karski sees Hell up close and personal; a meeting with President Roosevelt; years of triumph and tragedy.]

The Ides of March

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[Blogger’s Note: Most of my forthcoming scheduled appearances are now being postponed until further notice.  In my own contribution to “social distancing,” I plan to stay home as much as possible, and write more blogs.]

The 15th of March has had a bad connotation for quite some time—since at least 44 BC to be exact, when Julius Caesar was assassinated.  Shakespeare turned the date into a meme of sorts in his 1599 play about Caesar—as something to “beware of.”

March 15, 1939 was a particularly grim day, all told, in the lives of many.

Odd Nansen

On that day Odd Nansen was in Prague, Czechoslovakia, having just returned on the 13th from a mission in Bratislava.  In both cities he was toiling away at helping refugees.  Nansenhjelpen, the organization he founded and ran, had been fighting an uphill battle since 1936.  By this time Nansen and his wife Kari were pursuing both legal means (visas) and not so legal means (smuggling) in their efforts to assist desperate refugees fleeing persecution.  In fact, a transport of eighty refugees was set to depart Prague for Norway—on March 15.

In the early morning hours of the scheduled departure date Nansen was awakened by a call notifying him that German forces had crossed the Czech border, and would arrive in Prague shortly.  And shortly they did arrive, in force, directing traffic, shutting down all trains, commandeering all local hotels.  The Nansens were summarily ejected from their hotel room/office.  With some inside help, and a bribe to grease things, they soon secured a room in the nearby Hotel Alcron.

With all trains halted, Nansen’s first order of business was securing the release of his eighty trapped refugees.  By a stroke of luck, a German general, Erich Hoepner, was also staying at the Alcron, and Nansen obtained a meeting with him.

According to author Maynard Cohen, writing in his book A Stand Against Tyranny:

“Odd Nansen began with a description of the refugees in the forest outside Prague, how at that moment they lay in the snow beneath the open sky outside Prague, having forsaken their quarters in fear of the Gestapo.  He spoke of the sick and the old, the women and children, who had fled from country to country and city to city to avoid their ever-following pursuers.”

Hoepner relented, and allowed the women and children to depart by train; the men were illegally smuggled across the border into Poland.*

Less than three years later, Nansen would find himself a prisoner of the Nazis.**

Meanwhile, somewhere along the Czech/Polish border, four-year-old Tommy Buergenthal was stuck, along with his parents, was in his own purgatory.

Tom Buergenthal with his parents

Tom’s parents (following an ominous visit to the local police station), had decided that Czechoslovakia was no longer safe for them and they headed out for Poland.  They got as far as the border, where they became trapped in a no-man’s-land, the 50-yd strip that separated the Polish border post from the Czech border post.  As stateless refugees they had no valid travel documents.  Tom relates in his memoir, A Luck Child:

“As soon as we got to the Polish side of the border, the Polish guards would order us back to the Czech side.  The Czechs, in turn, would not allow us to reenter.  And so it went on for days. . . .  Back and forth we went, day and night.  We would sleep in the field adjacent to the road between the border posts or in one of the ditches [which ran alongside the road].”

It was only when heavily armed German troops arrived at the Czech border on March 15th did things change.  When Tom’s parents were able to convince the Germans (“the very people we were trying to escape”) that they were Polish, the German in charge browbeat the Polish guards into admitting the Buergenthals.  “That is how we got into Poland.”  It may have seemed like deliverance at the time, but the Kielce Ghetto, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen lay ahead.

Ilse Weber

Elsewhere in Prague Ilse and Willi Weber, along with their five-year-old son (also named Tommy), were similarly scrambling to escape.  Willi had applied to the Palestine Office in 1938 for a certificate allowing his family to emigrate to Palestine, and it was granted.  Before he could take advantage of his good luck, however, the Czech government ruled that Jews from the Sudetenland (absorbed into Germany in October, 1938 pursuant to the Munich Pact) should be given first priority.  Willi was assured he would automatically qualify for the next certificates—scheduled to arrive March 15.  When, as Willi later wrote, “Adolf’s hordes arrived” on that fateful day, the Palestine Office in Prague left.  While some certificates ultimately did arrive in Prague a bit later, their price had almost quadrupled, beyond the reach of the Webers.

In 1942 the Webers were deported to Theresienstadt.  There over 30,000 prisoners would perish, most from starvation.  As Willi noted, “most of the dead were old people; the young always figured out how to help themselves in some way, and those who worked received bigger rations.”  Ilse and young Tommy Weber were later sent to Auschwitz, where they were both gassed upon arrival. Willi, also transported to Auschwitz, survived the war.***

Martha Gellhorn, the American journalist and war correspondent, had also been in Prague, arriving in June 1938.  Did she ever meet Odd Nansen? Perhaps: her biographer, Caroline Moorehead, writes that “she found herself drawn . . . into the fate of the refugees: the frightened Jews and dissidents who had recently fled Austria and Germany and now had nowhere to go.”  According to Gellhorn herself, in February 1939, “in the beautiful bolt-hole [hideaway] of Cuba,“ she began to write a short story about the refugees of Prague.  It ultimately grew into a novel, A Stricken Field, published in 1940.

Martha Gellhorn

In an afterword to her novel, Gellhorn quotes from a letter she wrote on March 19, 1939—four days after Odd Nansen’s heroic act; four days after Tom Buergenthal’s family’s escape from no-man’s-land into an even darker future; four days after the hopes and dreams of the Weber family were so terribly dashed:

“We live in a world unlike any other at any time.  A world so cruel and mad that one cannot believe it will survive. . . I think, no doubt selfishly, that right now there is nothing to do about it except help one’s friends.”

Right now we are all concerned with the coronavirus.  So much is unknown: how fast will it spread; who will it infect; will hospitals be prepared; who will die?  All of this is truly unnerving.  But would any of us trade our world, with all the promise it holds, for the far more difficult and uncertain one inhabited by the Nansens, the Buergenthals, the Webers, or the refugees of Prague? Of course not.

And if they could face their unknown futures resolutely, perhaps we can take some courage from their example, and focus on “help[ing] one’s friends.”

* Hoepner was hanged on August 8, 1944, for his part in the July 1944 assassination plot against Hitler.  As further punishment, his wife and daughter were sent to Ravensbrück, and his son was sent to Buchenwald.

** Odd Nansen was arrested on the Ides of January, 1942, as I have written about here.

*** I have previously written about Ilse Weber here.

Odd Nansen: Dec. 6, 1901–Jun. 27, 1973

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Odd Nansen

Odd Nansen died 46 years ago today, on June 27, 1973, age 71.

Each year on his death I like to draw from literature a description that I feel aptly describes some aspect of Nansen’s character (which I’ve done here, here and here).

Last year’s blog made a passing reference to Ernest Hemingway in my tribute to Odd Nansen, so perhaps it is only fitting that this year I draw from Hemingway’s third (of four) wives, Martha Gellhorn.  Gellhorn was one of the first, and most widely read, female war correspondents of the Twentieth Century.  She was the only woman to land at Normandy on D-Day, and among the first correspondents to report on the Dachau concentration camp following its liberation by American forces in April 1945.

Gellhorn was a prolific writer, but her greatest novel is A Stricken Field.  Based on her own experiences in Prague, Czechoslovakia immediately before the war, A Stricken Field follows the experiences of one Mary Douglas, an American correspondent.  We watch Douglas’ frustrating and ultimately futile efforts to help Prague’s refugees (much like Nansen tried to help Prague’s refugees, 1936—39) while she tries to report on a Czechoslovakia that has been callously abandoned by the western Allies as the price for “peace in our time.”  Gellhorn quickly wrote her novel at the famous farm she and Hemingway shared in Cuba, Finca Vigia (“Lookout Farm”), and published the work in 1940.

In one of the final scenes of the book, Mary Douglas, in a funk over her bitter experience, nevertheless finds some reasons for hope:

“I’ve seen enough in the last five years, Mary thought, to make anyone despair.  But disaster doesn’t harm the really good ones: they carry their goodness through, untouched, and nothing that happens can makes them cowardly or calculating.  I’ve seen some fine people in these disaster years.  I’ve seen one tonight.  There’s that to remember too, when despair sets in.”

I’ve known, indirectly, one such person, who carried his goodness through, untouched, during the disaster years of World War II:  Odd Nansen.  His example is always worth remembering whenever despair sets in.

 

Odd Nansen’s grave marker

Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • October 10, 2021: Sons of Norway (Maine Nordmenn)
  • October 25, 2021: Regency Hadassah, Monroe, NJ
  • October 26, 2021: The Adult School, Madison, NJ
  • December 9, 2021: The Adult School, Madison, NJ (Virtual)
  • January 13, 2022: Our World Lecture Series, Kiawah Island, SC
  • January 25, 2022: Temple Akiba of Culver City, CA (Virtual)
  • May 19, 2022: Bat Shalom Hadassah, Jackson, NJ
  • October 18, 2022: Shalom Club, Great Notch, NJ

People are talking


“Thank you so much for making the visit to Guilford [College] and presenting the honorable life of Odd Nansen. . . . Without your effort, we would never have been able to know Odd Nansen. With it, we have a history to rely upon as a moral compass for acting with integrity in the face of human rights violations. May we live up to it!”

– Jane K. Fernandes
President, Guilford College
Greensboro, NC

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