Clicking on banner ads keeps JWR alive
Jewish World Review July 21, 2000 /18 Tamuz, 5760

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Michael Barone
Mona Charen
Linda Chavez
Ann Coulter
Greg Crosby
Larry Elder
Don Feder
Suzanne Fields
James Glassman
Paul Greenberg
Bob Greene
Betsy Hart
Nat Hentoff
David Horowitz
Marianne Jennings
Michael Kelly
Mort Kondracke
Ch. Krauthammer
Lawrence Kudlow
Dr. Laura
John Leo
David Limbaugh
Michelle Malkin
Jackie Mason
Chris Matthews
Michael Medved
Kathleen Parker
Debbie Schlussel
Sam Schulman
Amity Shlaes
Roger Simon
Tony Snow
Thomas Sowell
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Ben Wattenberg
George Will
Bruce Williams
Walter Williams
Mort Zuckerman

Consumer Reports

The Righteous Among the Nations

Jan Karski’s heroism must never be forgotten -- THE JEWISH PEOPLE lost a hero last week — and he was not Jewish. He was a Polish Catholic and an ardent Polish patriot who risked his life during the Holocaust to bring word of the ongoing atrocities against Jews and non-Jews in his native land to those in power in the West.

His name was Jan Karski.

Karski died last week in his adopted home of Washington, D.C., at the age of 86. But as much as his incredible exploits during World War II will be celebrated, it is more important for us to understand the lessons that are inherent in the events inextricably tied to his memory. Indeed, to recite the story of Jan Karski is to find that Jewish heroes are found in the most amazing places.

Jan Kozielewski was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1914, to an ardently Polish nationalistic family. Yet, despite the anti-Semitism that characterized Polish nationalism in that period, Karski was taught by his mother to treat Jews with respect. Her teaching followed him throughout his life.

When Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland in September 1939, Karski, who was university-educated and had begun a diplomatic career, was captured by the Soviets. He lied his way out of a prison camp for Polish officers and escaped to German-occupied Warsaw where he joined the Polish resistance to the Nazis. Had he stayed in Soviet hands, he would have been murdered along with the rest of his comrades in Josef Stalin’s 1940 Katyn massacre of Polish officers and intellectuals.

In the course of his perilous duties as a courier for the Polish Home Army, Karski took on the job of monitoring what was happening to Poland’s Jews under the Nazis.

In 1940, he was captured by the Gestapo and tortured, but miraculously escaped from a hospital after a failed suicide attempt. Back at work for the underground, Karski later traveled through the sewers twice to see with his own eyes the suffering in the Warsaw ghetto.

Incredibly, he also had himself smuggled into a Nazi concentration camp — the death camp at Ibiza in eastern Poland — where, disguised as a guard, he witnessed the mass murder of Jews.

In late 1942, the Polish underground sent him to the West to tell their allies what was going on in Poland. Traveling under the name “Karski,” which he adopted as his identity in the West, the agent was smuggled out of Nazi Europe and then paraded before influential figures in London and Washington to speak of what he had seen.

There, he encountered something he had not anticipated: disbelief. Karski was brought before U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter to tell him about the plight of Poland and its doomed Jews. Frankfurter, one of the most important Jews in America and a confidante of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, simply refused to accept Karski’s story. After asking a series of detailed questions, Justice Frankfurter simply told Karski, “I am unable to believe you.”

He told his biographers E. Thomas Wood and Stanislaw M. Jankowski (authors of the 1994 book, Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust ) that the Polish ambassador to the United States who was present protested the idea that Karski was lying. Frankfurter merely replied, “Mr. Ambassador, I did not say this young man is lying. I said I am unable to believe him. There is a difference.”

Frankfurter's attitude aptly illustrates the failure of American Jewry to act during the Holocaust. Even when faced with direct eye-witness testimony, Frankfurter was unable — or unwilling — to believe that the worst was happening, and therefore equally unwilling to put pressure on his president to take action to save Jews.

Also clear was FDR's disinterest in the ongoing crimes against humanity, when Karski told the president about the unique suffering of the Jews, who were singled out for mass murder. In a meeting at the White House, he told Roosevelt of “the most horrible concentration camp” — Auschwitz — and listed the names of all the other death camps, and gave his opinion that only Allied retaliation could possibly deter the Germans from spilling more innocent blood.

Purchasing this book
-- linked in 11th paragraph --
helps fund JWR

After an hour and a quarter, the president merely told Karski, “Your story is very important,” and wished him luck. Though he left the room in awe of the president, he was soon disabused of the notion that action would be taken. Shocked at the failure of the Allies to do something about the crimes he had reported, Karski spent the last two years of the war telling anyone who would listen of what he had seen, even writing a best-selling book. But he came to view his mission as a complete failure. The Jews were not saved, nor was Poland, which the Soviet Union turned into a Communist satellite state.

Unable to return home, he began a new life in the United States, where he taught at Georgetown University. But in his bitterness, he vowed that he would not again speak about the Holocaust. Like most Jewish survivors of the Shoah, it would take decades before Karski could break his silence.

“At that time, I hated humanity,” Karski told his biographers. “I broke with the world.”

It was a turn inward that was only ended when he consented to be interviewed by French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann for the epic documentary “Shoah.”

Following the success of that film, Karski’s story was once again brought to light. In the last two decades of his life, he was showered with honors, and spoke frequently in public about what he had seen and done.

For those of us who had the honor to hear and to meet him, to come face to face with Jan Karski was an extraordinary experience. A tall, spare-looking man with piercing eyes, when he spoke of what he witnessed during the Holocaust, his scarred face came alive with an intensity that is difficult to describe.

Karski’s tale resonated so much with us because it exemplified many of the key historical themes of the Holocaust, especially the indifference of the Allied governments to the deaths of millions of Jews and the failure of many American Jews to speak out about it. Yet this Polish Catholic risked his life so that the victims' plight would be heard.

Karski’s refusal to be part of the conspiracy of silence and to turn his eyes away from the suffering of the Jews shows us that decency and courage are possible, even under the worst of circumstances.

May his memory be for a blessing.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. He was the recipient of the American Jewish Press Association's highest awards in two categories: First Place in the Louis Rapoport Award for Excellence in Commentary and Editorial Writing for his column "Israel's China Syndrome -- and Ours" and First Place for Excellence in Arts and Criticism for his column "Jewish Art, Jewish Artists." The awards were given to Mr. Tobin at the AJPA's 2000 Simon Rockower Awards dinner at Washington D.C. on June 22, 2000. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

Jonathan Tobin Archives


© 2000, Jonathan Tobin