Posts tagged Warsaw Ghetto

The Warsaw Ghetto Claims Its Final Victim (Part IV)

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I have previously sketched the history of the Warsaw Ghetto: its formation in 1940 (here); the mass deportations of its inhabitants to death camps in 1942 (here); and the desperate uprising of its remaining inhabitants in 1943 (here); all as seen through the eyes of diarist Mary Berg.

Mary Berg (All photos courtesy of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Berg was one of the very few who survived the Warsaw Ghetto, initially because her relatively wealthy family could afford more and better food, etc., and ultimately because of her American-born mother’s U.S. citizenship.

On March 1, 1944, as part of a prisoner exchange with Germany, Mary and her family began their voyage to freedom, first by train from their internment camp in Vittel, France, to Lisbon, Portugal, and then by boat to New York City.  Mary carried with her few personal possessions, but among these were 12 small, spiral notebooks, written in her own cryptic shorthand (in case they fell into the wrong hands) which described “the most important facts” of her four-year stay in the Ghetto.  In her head she also carried “all the most important dates and names” which she had memorized.

Mary also had a mission, as she related in the very last entry of her diary:

“I shall do everything I can to save those who can still be saved, and to avenge those who were so bitterly humiliated in their last moments.  And those who were ground into ash, I shall always see them alive.  I will tell, I will tell everything, about our sufferings and our struggles and the slaughter of our dearest, and I will demand punishment for the German murderers . . . who enjoyed the fruits of murder, and are still wearing the clothes and shoes of our martyrized people.”

Mary had just landed in New York on March 15, 1944, when she met Samuel L. Shneiderman, a Polish journalist who had escaped Europe in 1940.  When Shneiderman learned of her shorthand diary, he offered to work with her to transcribe and complete her narrative, adding explanatory context where necessary, etc.

Mary Berg in the Warsaw Ghetto with friend Romek Kowalski

Mary’s diary, originally published as Warsaw Ghetto: A Diary, was among the earliest personal accounts of the Holocaust.  It was first translated from Polish into Yiddish, and serialized in mid-1944 and appeared in English, in book form, in February, 1945.  Mary’s surname was shortened from Wattenberg to Berg to protect family members who might still be at risk in Poland.  The book was eventually translated into seven other languages.  It immediately garnered glowing reviews.  The New York Times Book Review recommended Warsaw Ghetto to everybody “without qualification.”  The New Yorker called it “one of the most heartbreaking documents to come out of the war. . . a brave and inspiring book.”  Accolades poured in from the Chicago Tribune, Dallas News, Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the Book of the Month Club News, among others.

By turns poignant, searing, tender, eloquent, and wise beyond its teenage author’s years, Mary’s diary is every bit as moving in its way as Anne Frank’s, with which it shares many similarities.  Mary Berg has even been called “Anne Frank before there was an Anne Frank.”

Meanwhile, Mary was focusing on fulfilling her earlier vow. Little more than a month following her arrival in New York City, she was leading a crowd of thousands in a march to City Hall to commemorate the first anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.  Her book’s publication in early 1945 only increased Mary’s profile, and soon she was doing everything, everywhere, all the time (as attested by her voluminous scrapbook, of which more later):

  • Being interviewed on New York City radio;
  • Sharing a panel on “Forging a World Bill of Rights” with Nobel laureate Pearl S. Buck;
  • Appearing in Marquis Who’s Who;
  • Serving as a delegate in a Model UN (representing Poland) on behalf of her college, Monmouth Junior College;
  • Speaking at a United Jewish Campaign rally;
  • Serving as commencement speaker at her 1947 graduation from Monmouth;
  • Purportedly working on a second book, of her initial impressions of America.

In other words, Mary had become “widely enough known that she was considered a New York celebrity” according to Amy Rosenberg, writing in Tablet Magazine.

Mary in the Warsaw Ghetto with a member of the Jewish police.

In a February 23, 1945 guest column Mary, writing for Outlook, the school newspaper of Monmouth Junior College, dwelt on the importance of freedom:

“[W]e should always remember that wonderful American privilege of freedom.  Let us teach it all over the world.  Let us show everybody how wonderful it is to have it.  Let us, America, be the best example.  That is how we can prevent future wars, and it depends entirely on us.”

Then something unexpected happened.

By the early 1950s Mary’s diary had gone out of print and she had disappeared from public life.

What is more, Mary disassociated herself from anything having to do with her diary or her past life.  She resolutely refused to participate in Holocaust-related events.  She refused to speak with researchers.  Soon she disappeared from view altogether, and on occasion denied being Mary Berg. There was even concern that she might label her own diary a fabrication.

Ultimately, Mary, who was now married and went by the name Mary Pentin, ended up living and working as an antiques dealer in York, PA.  Variously described as “eccentric,” “quirky,” “difficult,” and “prickly,” she disclosed to no one her past, and not only showed no interest in reissuing her diary, she actively discouraged it.  Her location and status were so completely concealed that Amy Rosenberg’s July, 2008 article in Tablet Magazine was entitled “What Happened to Mary Berg?”

As early as 1959, Berg was arguing with her old collaborator, Samuel Shneiderman, trying to prevent the publication of a Polish language version.  After expressing his disappointment over her attitude (“You have not shown the slightest consideration for me personally and the tremendous effort I put into this book”), Shneiderman nevertheless elected to proceed without her blessing (which he was permitted to do under his contract with her), explaining: “I feel it is my moral obligation to make this book available for the . . . reader, as a book of highly educational value concerning anti-Semitism.” Berg later broke off all contact with Shneiderman and his family.

In 1995, Susan Pentlin—the similarity in surnames is entirely coincidental—a professor at Central Missouri State University, and teacher of Holocaust courses, composed a note to Mary, again seeking her approval of a reissue of the English language version, which she planned to annotate in much same the way I annotated From Day to Day.  (The publishing rights were held by Shneiderman’s heirs, who were amenable.)  Pentlin knew from Shneiderman that her quest was an uphill battle.  She assured Mary that she would respect Mary’s wish to remain private.  “You can trust me not to divulge any information you prefer me not to. . ..  I will not give your present name and address to anyone. . ..  Please believe me, I would never want to do anything that might cause you pain,” Pentlin wrote.

Mary Berg’s handwritten reply in full:

“Your participation in all those Holocaust conferences to satisfy your ego and feelings of self-serving importance is pathetic.  Instead of continuing to milk the Jewish Holocaust to its limits, do go and make a difference in all those Holocausts taking place right now in Bosnia or Chechnia [sic] or have you no sympathy for Moslems being slaughtered?  Why don’t you organize conferences in memory of the Armenians or Kurds or Rwandans?  By teaching about the Holocaust you’ll stop its occurrence in the future, right?  But the future is now.  When the Jews were victimized, they wanted the world to save them.  Are the Israelis dropping bombs on the Serbs to save Bosnian Moslems?  Don’t tell me this is different.

So bug off and stop invading my privacy.

Your request is denied.  M.P.”

What had happened to the vow Mary made in her final diary entry (“I will tell everything”)?

What had happened to her college exhortation (“It depends entirely on us”)?

What had happened to the person who maintained a scrapbook of all her achievements that was so voluminous she engaged the services of a clipping agency?

What prompted such a cynical response to Susan Pentlin?

The precise reason for this volte-face will probably never be known.

Was it a case of survivor’s guilt? While at the Vittel internment camp she had written: “We, who have been rescued from the ghetto, are ashamed to look at each other.  Had we the right to save ourselves?  Here everything smells of sun and flowers and there—there is only blood, the blood of my own people.”

Was it dejection that, despite her avowed mission to “save those who still can be saved,” her diary and her appearances had failed to alter the fate of a single Hungarian Jew, thousands of whom were murdered even after her diary’s publication?

Was it disillusionment that, despite her demand for “punishment for the German murderers,” so many Nazis were let off scot-free as the Cold War with the Soviets heated up?

Perhaps she simply lost faith in mankind.

Perhaps her obsessive secrecy and angry responses were a case of delayed PTSD. Perhaps the flurry of activity following her arrival in the U.S. was merely an attempt to keep her demons at bay, and they finally got the better of her.  Perhaps, as Amy Rosenberg suggests, “even those who escaped were never free.”  In her final diary entry Mary mentions the unique feeling of freedom, now that New York City was in sight, which almost took her breath away, a feeling that was nevertheless still very tenuous:

“In the last four years I have not known this feeling.  Four years of the black swastika, of barbed wire, ghetto walls, executions, and, above all, terror—terror by day and terror by night.  After four years of that nightmare I found it hard to enjoy my freedom at first.  I constantly imagined that it was only a dream, that at any moment I would awaken in the Pawiak [prison] and once again see the aged men with gray beards, the blooming young girls and proud young men, driven like cattle to the Umschlagplatz on Stawki Street to their deaths.”

Mary Wattenberg died ten years ago this month (the exact date is unknown), age 88.  There was no official obituary, and it was only following her death that her friends and neighbors in York learned for the first time that she was even Jewish, let alone a Holocaust survivor, and the author of a famous diary.

Perhaps the Warsaw Ghetto had claimed its final victim.

Mary’s diary was reissued in 2006 as The Diary of Mary Berg, and is still available.  It is both an eye-witness record of an immense tragedy, and, despite Mary’s personal misgivings, a way of “educating future generations about the past [that] will empower them to build a new world without hate,” in the words of Susan Pentlin.

Soon: Part V: How Mary’s secret life was finally uncovered. 

The Warsaw Ghetto (Part II): Deportations Recommence

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In an earlier blog (here) I described the creation of the Warsaw Ghetto, and its partial liquidation beginning on July 22, 1942 and lasting until September 21, 1942, resulting in the deaths of 250,000—300,000 Jewish inhabitants, all as described in the diary of Mary Berg.

By January 18, 1943, nearly four months had passed without a single deportation (Treblinka was being kept busy by deportations from other Jewish ghettos in Poland, including Tom Buergenthal’s Kielce Ghetto).  On that date, Mary and her family were moved to an internment camp in France.  And on the same day those remaining behind were left to face renewed deportations.  Here is how The Holocaust Encyclopedia describes the events:

“On 18 January 1943 a second wave of deportations began.  This time Jews who were ordered to assemble in the courtyards of their apartment buildings refused to comply and went into hiding.  The first column that the Germans managed to round up in the early hours, consisting of some 1,000 people, offered up a different kind of resistance.  A group of fighters . . . armed with pistols, deliberately infiltrated the column, and when the signal was given, the fighters stepped out and engaged the Germans in hand-to-hand fighting.  The column dispersed, and news of the fight soon became common knowledge.  The whole action lasted only a few days, by which time the Germans had rounded up about 5,000-6,000 Jews from all parts of the ghetto; after the events of the first day hardly any Jews responded to the German order to report.

The fact that the action was halted after a few days, and that the Germans had managed to seize no more than 10 percent of the ghetto population, was regarded by Jews and Poles alike as a German defeat. . . .   [T]hese deportations had a decisive influence on the ghetto’s last months.  The Judenrat and the Jewish police lost whatever influence they still had; the fighting organizations were the groups that were obeyed by the population.  The Jewish resistance also impressed the Poles, and they now provided more aid to the Jewish fighters.  The ghetto as a whole was engaged in feverish preparations for the expected deportations.  The general population concentrated on preparing bunkers. . . .   Much thought went into the planning of the sophisticated entries and exits of the subterranean hiding places. . . .   Water, food, and medicines to last for months were stockpiled.”

While it is appropriate to focus on the heroic actions of the poorly armed but highly motivated resistance fighters of the Warsaw ghetto, one should not lose sight of the enormous human suffering even those few days in January 1943 produced.  According to historian Martin Gilbert, among those deported were 150 doctors and all the patients at the ghetto hospitals.  The crowds also included a well-known cantor of pre-war Warsaw, Meir Alter, and Alter’s father.  On the way to the Umschlagplatz, the transit assembly area, Alter fils supported Alter pere, who was blind and moved with difficulty.  When the SS escort asked why the old man did not walk by himself, Alter explained that his father was blind.  “The Nazi fired a shot, ‘killing the blind man instantly. . . . ‘”

Similarly, on January 19, when the Germans once again entered the ghetto, David Wdowinski went into hiding.  Again, there were the familiar German voices, the heavy footsteps, the alarming hammering, according to Wdowsinski.  As he later recalled:

“A child began to cry.  Fright, alarm—we’ll be betrayed.  The mother closed her hand tightly over the child’s mouth and nose.  The crying stopped.  The child was quiet, very quiet.  The German went away.  The quiet child was a little bluish and from his mouth issued a small stream of bloody foam.  It was never to cry again.  So went a Jewish child into another world.”

To be continued.

The Warsaw Ghetto (Part I)

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“Today I attended a concert by Vera Gran. . . .  She sings classical songs and modern songs by the young composer Kuba Kohn, a product of the ghetto.  His music expresses all the sadness and resistance of the ghetto.  It has a new and original note that could only be born in this atmosphere of suffering, torture, and dogged endurance.” (Diary of Mary Berg, December 14, 1941)

Today marks the 82nd anniversary of the official establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest Jewish ghetto created by the Nazis during World War II.  Over 400,000 Jews (equal to approximately 30% of the total prewar population of Warsaw) were confined to an area of roughly 1.3 sq.mi., representing about 2.4% of the total prewar area of metropolitan Warsaw.

Warsaw Ghetto

Before it was all over, and the Ghetto finally destroyed by the Nazis in retaliation for the Warsaw Uprising (April—May, 1943), virtually all of the Ghetto’s inhabitants—noncombatants all—would be dead.

To put the scale of this tragedy into some perspective, the Jewish death toll in the Warsaw Ghetto alone is equivalent to:

  • 100 times the number of Allied troops killed on D-Day;
  • Over 20 times the number of Americans killed during the entire Battle of the Bulge, America’s deadliest battle in World War II;
  • All American soldiers killed during World War II.

One of the reasons so little has been written about the Warsaw Ghetto is that so few survived the experience—less than 1% of the initial inhabitants.  As one historian observes: “The heroic struggle and suffering of the Jews in the Polish ghettos constitute one of the most tragic and least known chapters of the war.”

Fortunately, a diary written by 15 year-old Mary Berg (born Miriam Wattenberg), spanning the period October 10, 1939 to March 5, 1944, offers a detailed and poignant, picture of life inside the Warsaw Ghetto. Mary’s family had been living comfortably in Lodz, Poland (her father was a successful art and antique dealer) when the war began on September 1, 1939.  When Lodz came under attack the family fled to Warsaw, which soon also came under German bombardment.  After 27 days of increasing punishment, Warsaw surrendered, and Poland became an occupied country.  By the following July, Mary writes that a de-facto Jewish Quarter has developed in part of Warsaw, beyond which one dares not go, on pain of being “hunted by the Germans or attacked by Polish hooligans.”

Five months later, in November 1940, rumors began to circulate that the Jewish Quarter would soon be isolated and its residents locked in.  Even then—more than a year of living under Nazi rule, many Jews did not fully realize the extent of their predicament:

“Some people say that this will be better for us, because the Germans will not dare to commit their crimes so openly and because we will be protected from attacks by Polish hooligans. But others, especially those among us who escaped from the Lodz Ghetto, are aghast: they have already tasted life in a secluded Jewish quarter under German domination.” (November 2, 1940)

At the time the Warsaw Ghetto was established, the Wannsee Conference—which would coordinate and implement the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question”—was still more than a year in the future.  Moreover, the major killing centers, such as Treblinka and Auschwitz, had not yet been built.  Nevertheless, life in the Ghetto became a constant struggle for survival, and the Nazis seemed more than willing to let starvation and disease take its toll.

The official per capita food ration was set below subsistence levels.  Those with some financial resources—like Mary’s family—could resort to the black market.  A well-established smuggling operation began almost as soon as the nine-foot-high, barbed-wire-topped, brick walls enclosing the Ghetto went up.

On the other hand, those without such resources simply starved:

“On Leszno Street in front of the court building, many mothers often sit with children wrapped in rags from which protrude red frost-bitten little feet.  Sometimes a mother cuddles a child frozen to death, and tries to warm the inanimate little body.  Sometimes a child huddles against his mother, thinking she is asleep and trying to awaken her, while, in fact, she is dead.  The number of these homeless mothers and children is growing from day to day.” (November 22, 1941)

Even those with some resources found the ever-increasing price of smuggled goods put most food items beyond their reach:

“Only a few people in the ghetto are still eating normally: the managers of public kitchens, the very wealthy, and the food smugglers.” (February 2, 1942)

In such a weakened state, in such crowded conditions, and without all but the most rudimentary medical supplies, disease festered in the Ghetto.  As Mary observes on the first anniversary of the enclosure:

“Of the former one hundred students in our class,* only about twenty-five remain.  Many are unable to pay the tuition fees and a great number have perished of typhus.” (November 15, 1941)

By mid-1942, 83,000 Jews would be dead, victims of disease and starvation.

Apparently, even this murder rate was not sufficient for the Nazis—things needed to be speeded up.  But as bad as conditions were, even Mary, despite all she had witnessed, could not conceive that the ultimate aim of the Nazis was to wipe out the Ghetto entirely:

“[M]ost people think that a pogrom like the one in Lublin cannot happen in Warsaw, because there are too many people here.**  According to official figures, there are 450,000 inhabitants in the ghetto, but actually there are many more, because this number does not include the unregistered fugitives from provincial towns and the loads of Jews from Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Austria.  It is estimated that the total is really more like 500,000.  To exterminate such a number of people seems impossible, inconceivable.” (May 8, 1942)

Inconceivable, so Mary thought.  But then again, Mary had not—could not—conceive of a Vernichtungslager—an extermination camp.  A place like Treblinka.

On July 22, 1942, the Grossaktion Warschau (Great Action Warsaw) began.

Umschlagplatz

Each day, Ghetto inhabitants were rounded up, marched through the Ghetto, assembled at the Umschlagplatz station square, and crammed into boxcars—5-6,000 victims per day, for 60 days (July 23—September 21), all ostensibly for “resettlement in the East.”  In reality, the victims were transported 50 miles to Treblinka, recently completed and equipped with gas chambers disguised as showers, and capable of murdering entire transports at a time.  Adam Czerniaków, head of the Judenrat, the Jewish Council charged with operating the Ghetto, chose to die by suicide at the inception of the Grossaktion rather than be party to such deportations.

In the space of 60 days, somewhere between 250,000 and 300,000 men, women, and children were sent to Treblinka and gassed.

Fortunately, Mary possessed one advantage that few others in the Ghetto had.  Her mother, Lena, had been born in the United States, and thus was an American citizen, a status which gave the entire Wattenberg family protection and privileges.

Accordingly, on July 19, 1942, Mary, along with other American citizens and foreign nationals, was moved to the Pawiak prison, also located within the Ghetto.  Conditions there were rough—overcrowding, poor food, etc., but at least the inhabitants of Pawiak were excluded from the Grossaktion. Nevertheless, from her vantage point Mary could witness the daily scenes of terror as the deportations continued, involving many of her closest friends.

The deportations ceased after September 21, leaving approximately 63,000 Jewish inhabitants remaining in the Ghetto. The respite was short-lived, however, for on January 18, 1943, the Aktion commenced once again.  On that same date Mary, her family and other foreign internees were transported from Pawiak to an internment camp in Vittel, France. More than a year later, she and her group were finally exchanged for German prisoners being held in the United States.  She arrived safely in New York City on March 16, 1944, where her diary ends.

And yet, much like Tom Buergenthal, Mary Berg remained haunted by the past:

“After four years of that nightmare I found it hard to enjoy my freedom at first.  I constantly imagined that it was only a dream, that at any moment I would awaken in the Pawiak and once again see the aged men with gray beards, the blooming young girls and proud young men, driven like cattle to the Umschlagplatz on Stawiki Street to their deaths.” (March 5, 1944).

Mary Berg

TO BE CONTINUED.

*A number of informal—and illegal—schools were established in the Ghetto, where “every subject is included in the curriculum.”

** Approximately 30,000 of the 34,000 Polish Jews in the Lublin Ghetto were sent to their deaths at the Belzec extermination camp between March 17, 1942 and April 11, 1942.  A few individuals managed to escape the liquidation, and made their way to the Warsaw Ghetto.  This undoubtedly explains why Mary mentions the issue in her diary one month later.

Jan Karski: Hero of the Holocaust (Part II)

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Jan Karski

After Jan Karski escaped from the hospital in Poland in mid-1941, he spent the next seven months recuperating and in “quarantine” in a remote country estate.  In the cat and mouse moves of the Gestapo and the Underground, the Underground had no way of knowing if Karski’s escape was indeed legitimate, or had been “staged” by the Gestapo in hopes that he would lead them to more Underground members.  Only enforced isolation until the trail went cold could ensure that that did not happen.  Karski’s successful escape came at a steep price, however.  Thirty-two Poles, some connected with the getaway, others wholly innocent, were executed by the Gestapo in retribution.

By mid-1942 Karski was well enough to resume his role as courier.  In late August, prior to his next departure, prominent Jewish leaders, living outside the Warsaw Ghetto and passing as Gentiles, learned of Karski’s impending mission.  They implored him to carry their story—the story of the Jewish genocide—to the Polish government-in-exile as well.

Both Karski and these leaders had no illusions that stories based on mere hearsay would have any impact on skeptical minds.  Only as an eyewitness could Karski hope to be a convincing messenger.  Accordingly, they offered to smuggle him, first, into the Warsaw Ghetto, and then smuggle him into a death camp as well.  But they offered two warnings.  First, he would be risking his life in these attempts.  Second, and equally important, he was warned that, as long as he lived, he “would be haunted by the memory of the ghastly scenes [he] would witness.” Karski agreed without hesitation: “Unless I had first-hand acquaintance with what I had to report I did not feel equal to the task.”

Karski and his Jewish guide entered the Warsaw Ghetto—the largest Jewish ghetto in occupied Europe—via a secret tunnel.   What Karski saw there unnerved him.  “These were still living people, if you could call them such.  For apart from their skin, eyes and voice there was nothing human left in these palpitating figures.  Everywhere there was hunger, misery, and the atrocious stench of decomposing bodies, the pitiful moans of dying children, the desperate cries and gasps of a people struggling for life against impossible odds.”

As Karski’s guide pointed out atrocity after atrocity, he would intone over and over: “Remember this.  Remember this.”

Warsaw Ghetto

On Karski’s second, and more dangerous, trip, he dressed in the uniform of a Ukrainian guard (in his memoir Karski calls it an Estonian uniform; because the memoir was published while the war was still ongoing, he chose to alter certain facts).  Thus disguised, Karski brazenly walked into what he believed was a death camp.  Instead, it was “merely” a holding/transit camp located near Bełżec.  This is to say the camp was “merely” the Eighth Circle of Hell, rather than the Ninth and final circle of Dante’s Inferno.

“We passed an old Jew, a man of about sixty, sitting on the ground without a stitch of clothing on him. . . .  Silent, motionless, he sat on the ground, no one paying him the slightest attention. . . .  He might have been dead or petrified except for his preternaturally animated eyes, which blinked rapidly and incessantly. Not far from him a small child, clad in a few rags, was lying on the ground.  He was all alone and crouched quivering on the ground, staring up with the large, frightened eyes of a rabbit.  No one paid any attention to him, either.

The Jewish mass vibrated, trembled, and moved to and fro as if united in a single, insane, rhythmic trance. . . . Hunger, thirst, fear and exhaustion had driven them all insane.  I had been told that they were usually left in the camp for three or four days without a drop of water or food.”

Karski watched as the entire population of the camp—thousands of men, women and children—were herded into boxcars—up to 130 per car, goaded along with shouts, clubs, bayonets, and gunshots where necessary.  Soon, “all that was left was the stench of excrement and rotting straw and a queer, sickening, acidulous odor which, I thought, may have come from the quantities of blood that had been let, and with which the ground was stained.”

By early October 1942, Karski was ready to leave on his mission to the government-in-exile in London.  He fully expected to give his report, including his explosive first-hand testimony, and return for another mission.  In fact, he would not return to his native land for another 32 years.

After debriefing his fellow Poles, Karski shared his story with British officialdom and intelligentsia, including Foreign Minister Anthony Eden and writers H.G. Wells and Arthur Koestler.  Then General Sikorski, head of the government-in-exile, unexpectedly ordered him to the United States, to share his experience yet again.

When Karski arrived in New York City on June 16, 1943, his ultimate goal was an audience with President Franklin Roosevelt.  But getting the attention of the world’s most powerful man and the Commander-in-Chief of all U.S. forces in the midst of a global war seemed almost impossible for a lowly courier. Karski had one important asset at his disposal however—Poland’s Ambassador to the U.S., Jan Ciechanowski.  Well-connected, Ciechanowski was able line up crucial meetings with people close to and influential with the President.

On July 5, Karski met with several prominent Jews in the Roosevelt Administration, including Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.  This meeting produced a memorable exchange that highlights Karski’s dilemma.  Lingering at a dinner which lasted until 1:00 am, and after the other guests had departed, Frankfurter asked Karski: “Please tell me exactly what you have seen.”  Karski spent the next 30 minutes telling all.  Finally, Frankfurter replied: “Mr. Karski, a man like me talking to a man like you must be totally frank.  So I must say: I am unable to believe you.”  The Polish Ambassador, astonished, asked how Frankfurter could call Karski a liar to his face? “Mr. Ambassador,” Frankfurter replied, “I did not say this young man is lying.  I said I am unable to believe him.  There is a difference.”

Karski continued to meet with prominent government and academic figures, including a Jesuit priest, Fr. Edmund Walsh.  Walsh had helped found Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in 1919.  Another government official was William Bullitt, former U.S. Ambassador to both France and the Soviet Union.  Bullitt encouraged FDR to meet the unknown courier with “bloodcurdling” stories to tell.

Seventy-eight years ago today, on July 28, 1943, Ambassador Ciechanowski received a call at 8:00 am, informing him that President Roosevelt expected to see him and Karski at the White House at 10:30 am.

What followed was a 75-minute meeting with the President.  According to Karski, “He was amazingly well-informed about Poland and wanted still more information.  His questions were minute, detailed, and directed squarely at important points.”  What Karski did not get, however, was a promise—to aid the Jews, to alter policy, to end the Holocaust.  The Allied position at the time can be summarized thus: 1) the best way to help the Jews was to defeat Germany as quickly as possible; 2) in the meantime, threats of future retribution against the perpetrators would have to suffice.  [The Moscow Declaration on Atrocities, warning the Nazis that their war crimes would not go unpunished, was finally issued on November 1, 1943.]

Accordingly, Karski concluded that his mission to save the Jews was a failure.  “I wanted to save millions, and I was not able to save one man,” he once lamented.  On the other hand, Karski’s biographers cite John Pehle, the head of the War Refugee Board, to the contrary—that Karski had made a difference, that Roosevelt’s encounter with Karski had moved the President deeply, deeply enough to set up the War Refugee Board in early 1944.

Karski returned to London in November 1943, only to be informed that he had been unmasked by the Nazis, and was now a marked man in Poland.  Even London was too dangerous.  Accordingly, Karski was ordered back to the U.S. in February 1944, where he remained for the duration of the war.  He used the time to write his memoir, Story of a Secret State.  The book was published in November 1944 to favorable reviews (it was Book of the Month Club’s primary selection for January 1945), and a print run of 400,000 copies.

When the war ended, Karski was “consumed with bitterness over the futility of his wartime efforts.”  Not only had he not saved a single life, Poland, which had suffered so much at the hands of the Germans, simply switched totalitarian masters, with Stalin’s communists now in charge.  “I imposed on myself a pledge never to mention the war to anybody,” Karski stated—a promise, as we know, he kept for many years.

When possible careers at the U.S. State Department and the United Nations proved unavailable, Karski once again contacted Fr. Walsh at Georgetown University.  Walsh offered him a full scholarship to pursue a PhD.  Once it was awarded, in 1953, Karski was offered a teaching post at Georgetown, a position he would hold for more than 40 years.

Karski’s vow of silence lasted until 1978, when he finally agreed to a series of interviews totaling eight hours with Claude Lanzmann for Lanzmann’s documentary film about the Holocaust, Shoah.  Three years later, in 1981, but before Shoah had been released, Karski accepted Eli Wiesel’s invitation to attend the International Liberators’ Conference in DC.  There he spoke publicly for the first time since the end of the war of his experiences.  The following year he was recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations for his work.

These events were the cracks in the dike which soon became a flood of remembrance and public speaking, and a long-deferred public recognition.  Honorary degrees (including one from Georgetown), awards, and citations all followed.  Among the more notable:

  • Order Virtuti Militari, Poland’s highest military award (twice)
  • Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest civilian honor
  • Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor
  • Honorary citizenship from the State of Israel (Karski called it “the proudest and most meaningful day in my life”)

But it was a triumph mixed with tragedy.  Jan’s eldest brother, Marian, who was a major figure in the Underground and whom Karski had once helped emigrate to America, died by suicide in Washington, DC in 1964, a victim of the same bitterness over Poland’s fate that Karski shared. Karski’s wife of 27 years, Pola, who lost most of her brothers and sisters in the Holocaust, also died by suicide, in 1992.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Karski’s life, however, were the memories he could never forget, and was fated to be haunted by, as long as he lived.  In his memoir he wrote:

“The images of what I saw in the death camp are, I am afraid, my permanent possessions.  I would like nothing better than to purge my mind of these memories. For one thing, the recollection of those events invariably brings on a recurrence of the nausea [I felt that day].  But more than that, I would like simply to be free of them, to obliterate the very thought that such things ever occurred.”

Anyone who has seen the tears on Karski’s face during his Lanzmann interview understands the pain these memories caused.

When Karski’s courier mission finally reached London in late 1942, he was quickly summoned to meet with General Sikorski.  At their meeting Sikorski asked to see Karski’s wrists. He remarked: “I see that the Gestapo gave you a decoration too.  You have things to remember.”  Karski responded: “I shall never forget . . . nor will my children and their children.” Professor Karski never had any biological children.  But the generations of his students, together with the students of his life, are, in a sense, his spiritual children so long as they adhere to his admonition: Never Forget.

_______________________________________________________

Postscript.  Years ago while vacationing on Cape Cod I happened upon a sidewalk book sale.  Never one to pass something like this by, I waded through the offerings, finding little of interest, until I came across a biography of Karski entitled Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust.  I was excited to discover that Karski had personally inscribed the copy.  As a young undergraduate I knew little about how special Jan Karski was.  With the aid of his 1944 memoir and this 1994 biography, that deficiency has been rectified.  And what is more, I sense Karski’s inspiring presence every time I look upon his inscription. 

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