The man who tried to stop the Holocaust: Jan Karski’s “report to the world”

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Last year, Georgetown University Press republished Jan Karski‘s nearly 500-page Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World.  Alex Storozynski, president of the Kosciuszko Foundation, wrote about the man who tried to stop the Holocaust in the Huffington Post here.  The Kosciuszko Foundation kindly awarded Humble Moi a grant for An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz a few years back – let me take a moment here to thank the organization; they do good stuff.

Karski was a liaison officer of the Polish underground, who infiltrated both the Warsaw Ghetto and a German concentration camp and then carried the first eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust. We’ve written about him here and here.  An excerpt from Storozynski’s weekend piece:

First published in 1944, Karski’s book reads like a spy novel on steroids. But you can’t make this stuff up. The truth is indeed more horrible than fiction. That’s why first hand accounts of the war such as The Diary of Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel‘s Night, and Karski’s Story of a Secret State must be kept alive for posterity’s sake. Georgetown University Press has reissued Karski’s report to the world with a foreword by Madeleine Albright, an essay by Yale professor Timothy Snyder, and an afterword by Zbigniew Brzezinski that give context to Karski’s memoir 70 years after it was first published.

With the World War II generation nearly gone, opportunities to preserve their memories are fading. Brzezinski was a teenager and his father was a diplomat in Canada during the war when Karski came to visit. Brzezinski was stunned to see that Karski’s “wrists were badly slashed and cut and were healing.” After being arrested and tortured by the Germans, Karski was not sure if he could keep the Underground’s secrets, so he tried to kill himself.

karski2Polish Underground operatives were often equipped with cyanide in case they were captured, and Poles who collaborated with the Germans were killed. Whenever the Underground attacked the occupying German army, the Nazis took retribution with mass murders of Polish civilians. Poles where randomly put up against the wall and shot for minor infractions. Albright writes, “The Nazi’s demanded submission, the Underground mandated resistance. The residents of occupied Poland lived under two wholly incompatible systems of justice and law.” …

The Polish Underground told the world what was going on. Karski secretly traveled to the West, smuggling details about the Holocaust to the Allies. As early as 1942, Karski snuck microfilm out of Poland that resulted in a pamphlet called The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland.

Snyder points out that Karski’s “incontestable heroism reminds us that the Allies knew about the Holocaust but were not much interested.”

Read the rest here.


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4 Responses to “The man who tried to stop the Holocaust: Jan Karski’s “report to the world””

  1. Harold Says:

    From the Times Literary Supplement, 2010 (quoted in the NYRB):
    Claude Lanzmann, director of the film “Shoah” interviewed Jan Karski, who carried the terrible news about the Warsaw Ghetto and the camps to the Allied Powers.
    Earlier this year [2010] the Franco-German cable channel Arte broadcast the nine-hour Shoah and on March 17, a new film of some fifty minutes, Le Rapport Karski, also by Lanzmann . . . . The film consists of a second interview he conducted with Karski that did not appear in Shoah. In it the agent [Karski] confirms that Roosevelt didn’t ask “any specific questions about the Jews”, but that he gave him the names of several officials and dignitaries he was to meet in Washington, including the Justice of the Supreme Court Felix Frankfurter who, when told by Karski what was happening in Poland, replied “I am unable to believe you.” He also reveals that he [Karski] was in awe of the President – I was totally overwhelmed”. It makes for fascinating viewing and confirms the courage of the man whom Roosevelt greeted with the words, “Mr. Karski, I know about you.” ⎯Times of London Literary Supplement (Oct. 8, 2010)

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks for this, Harold.

  3. Michal Says:

    Many thanks for this article. The more information is published about Jan Karski, the better. Hopefully everyone will also realize that the Polish Resistance included many decent, honourable and brave people.

    Anyone watching the soon-to-be broadcast German television serial ‘Generation War’ will no doubt come away with an entirely different impression.

  4. Poland First To Fight Says:

    Shame the western powers were not interested in Karski’s report!

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