Published in the Delaware County Daily Times Tuesday, October 8, 2019
By Joseph Batory, Times Columnist
He is little known in history. But he is a remarkable Polish hero from WW II. Tragically, much of Jan Karski’s daring bravery and attempts to stop the Holocaust were in vain because Allied leaders (not their finest hour) ignored Karski’s vital information.
Karski was a member of the Polish Army when Poland was invaded by the Nazis from the West and the Russians from the East in September of 1939. He was soon captured by the Soviets and sent to a prisoner of war camp.
The resourceful Karski then escaped and joined the Polish underground resistance. He became a courier carrying secret information from the resistance in Poland to the Polish government in exile. In late 1940, he was captured again, this time by the Germans. He was brutally tortured by the Gestapo and while hospitalized managed to escape with help from the Polish underground.
Then, in 1942, Karski became involved in two incredibly dangerous missions— he was twice smuggled into the Warsaw ghetto where the German occupiers of Poland had imprisoned 400,000 Jews in a 1.3 square mile area. And Karski saw firsthand the horrendous treatment of Jews under the Nazis. He also infiltrated and viewed a “transportation camp” of Jews to the Belzec killing center.
In a 1978 PBS documentary, Karski gave this account of his two visits to the Warsaw ghetto:
“My job was just to observe. And remember. The odor. The children. Dirty. Lying in the streets. I saw a man standing with blank eyes. I asked the guide: What is he doing? The guide whispered: ‘He’s just dying.’
“ I remember degradation, starvation and dead bodies. We were walking the streets and my guide kept repeating: ‘Look at it, remember, remember.’ And I did remember. The dirty streets. The stench. Everywhere. Suffocating.”
Karski then traveled to London where he presented the first-ever and most accurate description of the horrible Nazi holocaust to senior British authorities including Foreign Minister Anthony Eden. He vividly described what he had seen and warned of Nazi Germany’s plans to mass murder Jews …but there was little interest or action by the UK.
Then, in July 1943, Karski visited the United States and did a thorough briefing of president Franklin Roosevelt in the Oval Office. Unfortunately, Roosevelt also ignored the information and did not even ask Karski one pertinent question regarding what was happening to the Jews. Karski’s follow-up meetings with many USA government officials also fell on deaf ears. A skeptical Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter told Karski that “I am not saying that you are lying, but I do not believe you.”
Karski summarized his deep frustration: “… The Jews were abandoned by all governments, church hierarchies and societies……”
Karski chose not to return to the Soviet dominated Poland after WW II. He became a US citizen and earned a Ph.D. from Georgetown University where he subsequently worked as a highly respected professor of European Studies for 40 years. He became committed to perpetuating the memory of the Holocaust victims, identified whole-heartedly with the tragedy and suffering of the Jewish people, and was unable to come to terms with the world’s silence at the slaughter of six million Jews.
Poland eventually awarded Karski its highest honors, the Order of the White Eagle and Virtuti Militari.
And Karski’s heroism was finally recognized posthumously by the USA with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.
On June 2, 1982, Yad Vashem (The World Holocaust Remembrance Center) recognized Jan Karski as Righteous Among the Nations.…..The Commission for the Designation of the Righteous emphasized that Karski had risked his life in order to alert the world to the murder of Jews and noted that Karski incurred enormous risk in penetrating into the Warsaw ghetto and a sorting camp….. Karski, after he reached the West, brought his hope for rescue to the doorstep of the free world’s leaders…..but to no avail.
Prior to his death in 2000, in 1994, the heroic Karski was awarded honorary citizenship in Israel. In a speech he gave on the occasion, he stated:
“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. In a way, I also became a part of the Jewish community… And now I, Jan Karski, by birth Jan Kozielewski – a Pole, an American, and a Catholic – have also become an Israeli.”
Joseph Batory has been widely published on “politics, history and education.”