Archive for April 26th, 2013

More on the man who tried to stop the Holocaust: Jan Karski’s visit to Stanford

Friday, April 26th, 2013
Share

photo(1)On Wednesday, we wrote about the Polish hero who tried to stop the Holocaust, Jan Karski.  No sooner posted than we got a letter from the former director of the Hoover Archives, Elena Danielson, who remembered one of his visits to Stanford (she’s pictured at right with Karski).  “Most of all, I was impressed by how gracious he was to us lowly archives staffers who brought him cardboard boxes full of the history he had saved half a century earlier,” she recalled. “He made us feel like keepers of the flame. His concern for human dignity was not just theoretical, it was part of his approach to life.”  The Jan Karski Papers collection was established at Hoover in 1946.

A story on Karski’s longstanding relationship with Hoover is here.  It begins: “A letter dated April 16, 1945, and signed by Stanford University president Donald Tresidder, formalized a relationship between Jan Karski and the Hoover Library (now known as the Hoover Institution) on War, Revolution and Peace that was to last until the end of Karski’s life. The letter confirmed a temporary appointment ‘to collect materials relating to political, economic, social, and other developments in Poland and other areas in Europe which have been attacked and occupied by Axis forces.'”

From Elena’s email:

Jan Karski was already a hero for those of us on the Hoover Archives staff when the East European curator Maciej Siekierski organized the visit by Jan Karski, seen in this photo from the mid-1990s [photo by Zbigniew Stanczyk]. Karski began working directly with Herbert Hoover back in 1945 to document the history of Poland in World War II. As a result, the Hoover Archives hold the largest collection of 20th century Polish archives outside of Poland, and the heart of the documentation is concern for human rights.

Hoover’s own interest in Poland went back to his humanitarian relief work there in World War I. Starting in 1945 Karski traveled to  London, Paris, and Rome, as well as Switzerland to coordinate the collection of documentation on the Nazi horrors in central Europe as well as the Soviet crimes. Those documents at Hoover preserved the truth about the Katyn massacre and the Gulag, information suppressed in Russia until 1992.  Karski used the same discretion, tact and diplomatic finesse to save the Polish embassy files abroad that he had used in his secret missions during the war.

jan_karskiThose skills were still evident in old age when I met him. He dressed meticulously, spoke in carefully chosen words, and conveyed the seriousness of his work to preserve the truth about the war. His sense of humor showed in ironic flashes. He told a story, now I’m retelling it from memory so I hope I have this about right, from 1942. He was in Switzerland conferring with OSS chiefs about his trip to the U.S. to see Roosevelt. He persuaded the OSS that they had to buy  him better shoes if they wanted him to be taken seriously by the president of the United States. Something like that. Most of all, I was impressed by how gracious he was to us lowly archives staffers who brought him cardboard boxes full of the history he had saved half a century earlier. He made us feel like keepers of the flame. His concern for human dignity was not just theoretical, it was part of his approach to life.