SEPTEMBER 29, 2014

I have been privileged to meet men and women of distinction, of great integrity and high moral character, and yet, we have only met one person whom we could truly call noble: Jan Karski. Karski was the Messenger. A member of the Polish underground, he brought news to the Polish Government-in-Exile of what was happening in the homeland. He was a genuine Polish hero, a gallant man who struggled for his beloved land and also for the Jews whose voice he became at their most critical moment.

Karski—a diplomat by training recruited into the Polish underground by his brother, a ranking Polish Security official in Warsaw—was blessed with a exceptional memory. He knew much and said little. Arrested, he withstood torture. Rescued, he continued his underground activities.

On the eve of what turned out to be his last mission abroad, Karski was asked if he would carry information regarding the Jews to London. He met with two Jewish leaders, who ordinarily would be at odds with each other. One was a Bundist, the other a Zionist. These men were clearly desperate. They wanted Karski to carry their plea to the world. They asked for the Allied governments to stop the murder of the Jews. They demanded:


  • A public announcement that preventing the physical extermination of the Jews become part of the allied war strategy;
  • All available data on the Jewish ghettos, concentration camps, names of German officials directly involved in the crimes, statistics, facts and methods use should be spelled out;
  • Public appeals to the German people to exercise pressure on their government to stop the extermination;
  • If the murders continued and the German masses did not rise up to stop it, they would be considered collectively responsible for it;
  • In the event that none of the other steps forced a halt in the murders, the Allies were to carry out reprisals in two forms; through the bombing of selected sites of German cultural importance and through the execution of Germans in Allied hands who still professed loyalty to Hitler after learning of his crimes.

Karski responded: “It is against international law. I know the British. They will not do it. It is hopeless. It weakens your case.” The Zionist responded: “Say it. We don’t know what is realistic or not realistic. We are dying here.” So, Karski was transported to a juncture where the death trains headed to Belzec. Entering in the uniform of a Ukrainian guard, he was more than shocked by what he saw. He was unprepared to witness and fled immediately- worried that his behavior would betray him as an outsider.

To add to his credibility, Karski agreed to enter the Warsaw ghetto, which he did twice. He recalled:

“It was not a world. There was no humanity. Streets full, full. Apparently all of them lived in the street… Selling, begging each other. Crying and hungry.”

Karski was also transported to a juncture where the death trains headed for Belzec. Entering in the uniform of a Ukrainian guard, he was shocked by what he saw. He was unprepared to be a witness and fled immediately fearing that his behavior would betray him as an outsider.

In the West, Karski transmitted his messages on behalf of the Poles; he also spoke to Jewish leaders first in England and then in the United States and he met with Allied leaders. He was sent to the United States to tell American leaders of the situation in Poland, seeking to garner support for the Polish government-in-exile and for an independent Poland after the war — and on his own mission – a mission on behalf of the dying Jews.

Karski did get to meet with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but Roosevelt found little interest in an independent post-war Poland, and even less interest in saving the Jews. Both were peripheral to the global battle against Hitler. Anyone who heard Karski describe the meeting with FDR will remember his ability to mimic the President’s gestures, to capture his voice, albeit with a Polish accent. “I was a nobody,” he would say. But his words were urgent– and unheeded.

Public exposure in the United States made it impossible for Karski to return to Poland as a courier. So he spent the rest of the wartime period, writing and lecturing. His work, Story of a Secret State made the best-seller list and was chosen by the Book of the Month Club. He appeared in The New York Times, American Mercury and Harper’s Bazaar. Many of his articles were illustrated. He spoke to over two hundred audiences from Rhode Island to Florida. In all of them he spoke about the Jewish tragedy. Each lecture was reviewed by the local press.

“The Lord assigned me a role to speak and to write during the war—as it seemed to me it might help. It did not. Furthermore, when the war came to its end I learned that the governments, the leaders, the scholars the writers did not know what had been happening to the Jews. They were taken by surprise. The murder of six million innocents was a secret. Then I became a Jew. But I am a Christian Jew. I am a practicing Catholic. Although I am not a heretic, still my faith tells me that the second original sin has been committed by humanity: through commission or omission or self-imposed ignorance or insensitivity, or hypocrisy, or heartless rationalization. This sin will haunt humanity to the end of time. It does haunt me and I want it to be so. To be in the presence of nobility, even at a distance, is to be ennobled.” — Jan Karski

Posted by Michael Berenbaum | Holocaust scholar, professor, rabbi, writer, and filmmaker

Michael Berenbaum specializes in the study of the memorialization of the Holocaust. He was a close friend of Karski, studied under Karski at Georgetown and then worked with him as he was the project director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Michael delivered the eulogy at Karski’s funeral, where he was buried with a Jewish star from an armband warn in the Warsaw Ghetto by Jews, and sent by the Polish Government.

Originally published here.

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