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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.

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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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