Posts Tagged ‘Jan Karski’

“Karski & the Lords of Humanity”: The story of the man who tried to stop the Holocaust

Thursday, April 21st, 2016

He tried to tell us.

I had a lot of work to plough through tonight, but duty and interest called me for a brief foray out to the Stanford campus – specifically, to the new McMurtry Building to see the 2015 film, Karski & the Lords of Humanity, sponsored by the Hoover Institution Archives and the Center for Russian, East European & Eurasian Studies. It was showing for free. The theater was only a third full – and it’s a shame. The name Jan Karski (1914-2000) should be a household word, and it’s not.

This short movie isn’t perfect (the drawings are overused to portray action, and it begin to grate), but the film serves as a good introduction to a man still too little known.

The brief New York Times review last fall only begins to describe it:

One of the many interviewees in “Shoah,Claude Lanzmann’s definitive nine-and-a-half-hour 1985 documentary about the Holocaust, was Jan Karski, a Pole whose undercover missions in World War II gave early information to the Allies about the extermination of Polish Jews. Slawomir Grunberg’s stately documentary “Karski & the Lords of Humanity” focuses exclusively on Karski’s courageous adventures in intrigue and espionage.

The handsome, dapper, erudite and multilingual Karski (1914-2000), who was blessed with a photographic memory and educated as a diplomat before serving in the military, was an ideal candidate for the Resistance. Often working for the Polish government in exile in London, he conducted many missions, among them a trip incognito to the Warsaw Ghetto, illustrated here with utterly harrowing photographs. Karski presented his eyewitness account in person to officials in Britain and, eventually, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. His exploits — surviving brutal torture by the Gestapo; a daring hospital escape; smuggling microfilm; using medical mean to disguise his accent — are fleshed out with vivid animated sequences, while experts offer testimony.

My Hoover Archives friends recall meeting the tall, distinguished Pole from Georgetown University during his visits. Little known fact: the Karski papers are at the Hoover Archives. Anyone can see them, with a request.

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

Sunday, March 30th, 2014

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.

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

Friday, April 26th, 2013

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.

The man who volunteered for Auschwitz: the greatest story never told

Sunday, June 10th, 2012

Some time ago, I discovered the peculiar connection between Czesław Miłosz and the Franciscan priest, Father Maximilian Kolbe – I wrote about it for the Poetry Foundation here.

Kolbe had the distinction of being the only person who ever volunteered to die at Auschwitz.  This claim is not generally made for him, but my sources were good.  I visited a researcher at Auschwitz,  Piotr Lipiński, and he explained that the death camp wasn’t the sort of place that fostered altruism.  More convincingly, he explained that the Communist authorities who assumed power after the war were very eager to find someone else – someone besides a priest, that is – who had made such a terrible deal.

The Communist government was anxious to bury the stories of Polish wartime heroes – it’s one reason, for example, the name of Irena Sendler, the woman who saved 2,500 children from the Warsaw ghetto, did not become known until after 1989.  (I’ve written about her, oh, here and here and here and here and here and here.)  Or the name of Jan Karski, who received a Presidential Medal of Freedom last month.

So here’s another one to add to the list: Captain Witold Pilecki, who had the distinction of being the only known person to smuggle into Auschwitz, so he could report back to the Allies about the conditions there.  They didn’t listen.  They thought he was exaggerating.

Probosz as Pilecki

Since 1989, Poles, too, have been learning about him, thanks to a 2006 movie, The Death of Witold Pilecki, with Marek Probosz portraying the hero.  The movie, with English subtitles, hasn’t had wide circulation.  Your better chance might be a new book:  The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery.  It’s been published by Aquila Polonica in Los Angeles.  That means it’s probably not going to get much mainstream publicity.  (NPR did a 2010 broadcast about him – it’s here.)  This heavily illustrated, 400-page book is the first translation into English of his report.

Auschwitz, of course, was not originally a camp for Jews, but rather P.O.W.s.  Pilecki, who was one of 150,000 Polish prisoners,  was at Auschwitz from September 1940 to April 1943, and would have seen its transition before he escaped.  Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland, wrote the foreword to the book:  “When God created the human being, God had in mind that we should all be like Captain Witold Pilecki, of blessed memory. May the life of Witold Pilecki inspire us all to do one more good deed, of any kind, each and every day of our lives.”

Norman Davies writes in the introduction:

Also a husband and father of two

“I myself became fully aware of the greatness of Witold Pilecki while conducting research on the Warsaw Rising of 1944.  Here was a man, who almost single-handedly had held up the German panzers on one of Warsaw’s main thoroughfares for a fortnight; using the pseudonym ‘Roman’, he then disappeared into his dugout and continued the struggle until the Rising capitulated over two months later. Only then did I realise that this was the same heroic character, who four years earlier had deliberately arranged to be arrested by the SS and be transported to Auschwitz.  In 1943, having engineered his escape, he wrote the first version of his Report on Auschwitz, which I had read and which had been the first of several attempts to inform the outside world of what was really happening. Pilecki was a Polish officer and Catholic who viewed his fight against his country’s oppression as synonymous with his patriotic and religious duty. If there was an Allied hero who deserved to be remembered and celebrated, this was a person with few peers.”

Like so many others (including Sendler) he was tortured by the Communist authorities. Pilecki was executed at their hands in 1948.  Compared with the Communists, “Auschwitz was easy,” he said after his sentence was pronounced.  His body has never been recovered.