Restoring the Memory of a Holocaust Hero

At great personal risk, Jan Karski of Poland told the world of the horrors he saw in his native country. We must remember him and honor his legacy.

by Linda Tucker

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Jan Karski

It is incumbent upon us to ensure that our children and grandchildren understand the ramifications of the Holocaust, but equally important, we must  show them that they have the power and personal responsibility to become heroes in their own time – not only by resisting prejudice but by combating it.

We do this in part by sharing the actions of those who, during the Holocaust, stood up to bigotry and hatred. There are several famous heroes form this time, such as Raoul Wallenberg or Oskar Schindler. But another hero, less well-known, is Jan Karski, the Polish resistance fighter who at great risk to his life, brought the Nazi atrocities in occupied Poland to the attention of the Western Allies. Karski’s wartime role in attempting to stop the Holocaust by providing accurate accounts of the mass extermination of Jews in Poland is hailed worldwide. To honor his legacy the Polish Parliament has proclaimed 2014 as the Year of Jan Karski, commemorating the centennial of his birth on April 24, and restoring the memory of his accomplishments.

Jan Karski joined the Polish Underground, carrying important messages to the Polish state-in-exile. In 1942 he was ordered to report on the situation in occupied Poland to the government-in-exile in London, including what was happening to the Jews.

After a meeting with several Jewish leaders who beseeched him to tell the Western powers about the hopeless situation of the Jews, Karski decided to witness it himself. Smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto he saw firsthand the suffering the Jews endured and was moved immediately to make sure the leaders of the world knew how dire the situation was. He delivered his report to London and then went to meet with British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, providing him and other politicians with the details of what he saw. He also went to the United States to meet with President Franklin Roosevelt, urging him in vain to act against the overwhelming massacre of the Jews. Karski then continued his mission to arouse public opinion about the scale of the tragedy, reporting to the media, various members of the clergy, and the Hollywood film industry, also to no avail.

But in 1944, while in the United States, Karski wrote a book on the Polish Underground with an extensive chapter on the Holocaust. Courier from Poland: The Story of a Secret State was received with great success, revealing to the world what the Polish state-in-exile had accomplished.

The Georgetown University Press issued a reprint of the book last year with a foreword by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and an afterword by National Security Advisor Zbigniew Braezinski. The new edition includes a biographical essay and former unpublished photos.

Karski continued to remain in the States after the war. He became a naturalized citizen and a professor at Georgetown University, where he taught for 40 years in comparative government and international affairs. For the rest of his life Karski was haunted by the horrors he had seen in Poland and by his failure to stop the Holocaust. In a 1995 interview Karski said, “The allies considered it impossible and too costly to rescue the Jews. The Jews were abandoned by all governments, church hierarchies and societies, but thousands of Jews survived because thousands of individuals in Poland, France, Belgium, Denmark, and Holland helped to save them. But no one did enough.”

Karski’s honors and awards for attempting to stop the Holocaust are many. In Poland he received the Order of the White Eagle, the country’s highest civil decoration and a military decoration for bravery in combat. In June of 1982 he was recognized by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Museum of the Holocaust, as a member of the Righteous Among Nations for his enormous risk in penetrating the Warsaw Ghetto and for committing himself totally to rescuing the Jews. In 1994 he was made an honorary citizen of Israel in honor of his efforts on behalf of Polish Jews during the Holocaust.

“Through this honorary citizenship of the State of Israel, I have reached the spiritual source of my Christian faith. I have become part of the Jewish community. I, Jan Karski, a Pole, an American, a Catholic, have also become an Israeli.” But Karski had felt he’d become a Jew years before, when he addressed American military officers who had liberated the concentration camps, and explained how he failed to complete his wartime mission. “And thus I myself became a Jew. And just as my wife’s entire family was wiped out in the ghettos of Poland, in its concentration camps and crematoria, so have all the Jews who were slaughtered become my family. But I am a Christian Jew – I am a practicing Catholic. My faith tells me the second original sin has been committed by humanity. This sin will haunt humanity to the end of time. And I want it to be so.”

Initially created in 2011, the Jan Karski Centennial Campaign was intent on restoring the memory of the Polish hero and on increasing the interest in his legacy. The goals of the campaign, to culminate this year, were to promote educational activities to instill the values of leadership, courage, and integrity including workshops, the republication of Karski’s Story of a Secret State, and most importantly, to obtain for Karski the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom. Through the tremendous efforts of the campaign participants, the medal was presented by President Barack Obama in Karski’s name to Daniel Rotfeld, the former Foreign Minister of Poland on May 29, 2012.

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Its goals accomplished, the Centennial Campaign became the Jan Karski Educational Foundation, with its president in the United States the Polish-American author Wanda Urbanska, and its executive director in Poland, Wojtek Bialozyt.

Tributes to Jan Karski have already begun and will continue throughout 2014. An exhibition of Karski’s legacy and achievements, “The World Knew: Jan Karski’s Mission for Humanity” will travel throughout the year to Great Britain, Russia, France, Chile, Estonia, Norway, Portugal, the Czeck Republic, Sweden, Spain, and the United States. On April 24, one hundred years after Karski’s birth, Georgetown University will hold a centenary anniversary tribute to its beloved professor.

But most importantly, on November 5 and 6 there will be an international conference held in Warsaw ending the Year of Jan Karski, organized by the Karski Educational Foundation in cooperation with the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The conference will be mainly devoted to the role of collective memory in nation-building and reconciliation based on examples from Polish-Christian and Jewish history.

Karski felt it was his personal responsibility to illuminate the tragic history of occupied Poland, while the world turned its back on the genocide of Jews. Here was a man who held fast to his Catholic faith and to his mother country while becoming a part of a very different community that needed rescuing. Karski’s life has become a model for future generations to come.

Linda Tucker is a freelance writer who articles have appeared in Hadassah magazine and The Jewish Week, among others.