July 17, 2000

 

Courageous member of the wartime Polish underground who gave the Allies an early first-hand account of the Holocaust - and was ignored

Jan Karski speaking at 1997 at the Wannsee Villa in Berlin where the "final solution" was planned

 

JAN KARSKI

Jan Karski, Polish resistance hero, was born on April 24, 1914. He died in Washington on July 13 aged 86

 

A courier for the Polish underground Resistance during the Second World War, Jan Karski was among the very first reliable eyewitnesses to the Holocaust to reach the West. Risking his life to discover at first hand what Hitler's Germany was doing to the Jews, he delivered to the Allies a graphic account of Nazi atrocities - only for the information to fall on deaf ears.

Anthony Eden in Britain, President Roosevelt in the US, and even prominent American Jewish leaders, all listened politely, but all were disinclined to believe Karski's gruesome narrative of mass murder in the Warsaw Ghetto and in the Belzec extermination camp. Their first priority remained the defeat of the Third Reich, rather than the rescue of European Jewry. The slaughter went on.

Karski was blessed - or cursed - with a photographic memory. His precisely observed descriptions of Jewish suffering made horrifying reading: "The Jews, when caught, are driven into a square. Old people and cripples are singled out, taken to the cemetery and there shot. The remaining people are loaded into goods trucks, at the rate of 150 people to a truck with space for 40. The people are packed so tightly that those who die of suffocation remain side by side with the still living and slowly dying. . . None of those taken away are ever heard of again."

Having told the Allies what he knew, Karski spent the remainder of the war in America, publicising the cause of the Poles. He wrote a bestselling book about the Polish underground, and his accounts of Nazi atrocities won more attentive listeners in time. But, with his cover blown, Karski was unable to return to his homeland and could only watch and wait as millions more, Poles and Jews, were killed.

After the war he was honoured as a "righteous Gentile" by the State of Israel and many would rank him alongside the better-known Oscar Schindler as one of the most courageous heroes of those dark years. The Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, not generally well-disposed to right-wing Catholic Poles, called the life of Jan Karski "a masterpiece of courage, integrity and humanism". He was hardly exaggerating.

Karski's real name was Jan Kozielewski and he was born in 1914, the youngest of eight children. His father was the owner of a small leather-goods factory in the industrial city of Lodz. Educated by the Jesuits, devout by nature, brought up in the cult of Pilsudski, he was a pretty conventional young Pole of his day. He was no anti-Semite, but nor did he have any particular reason to help the Jews.

After law studies at the University of Lwow, Karski embarked on a diplomatic career, serving briefly in Bucharest, Berlin, Geneva and London. As a reserve officer in the horse artillery, he found himself under arms on September 1, 1939. Like so many of his comrades caught up in the Blitzkrieg, he did precious little fighting and a lot of walking, finally being taken prisoner by the Red Army. After a spell in a Soviet camp and a stint in a German one, he managed to escape, and joined the Polish underground.

With his knowledge of foreign lands and languages, not to mention his astonishing ability to memorise and relay whole reports verbatim, the underground realised that he would make a good courier. At the end of 1939 he was sent to make contact with General Sikorski's Government in Paris.

He showed courage and resourcefulness on the difficult clandestine journey there and back. But during his second trip, in June 1940, he was betrayed to the Gestapo in Slovakia and beaten so horribly that he tried to commit suicide by slitting his wrists with a razor concealed in the heel of his shoe. He was eventually sprung by the Polish underground, but it was some time before he could be used as a courier again. When he was, in October 1942, it was to prove the crucial event in his life.

Besides communications from the underground in Poland to the Government in London, couriers also carried in their heads reports from the various political parties and organisations to their counterparts in the West. Leon Feiner, one of the Jewish leaders in Poland, said that not even Jews in the West would believe his reports concerning the Nazi policy of extermination, and suggested that Kozielewski, or Karski, his pseudonym for this mission, should see for himself.

Karski agreed, and in July 1942 he crawled into the Warsaw Ghetto through a tunnel. Dressed in rags and wearing the yellow star on his breast he wandered about, with Feiner hissing "Remember this!" in his ear as he pointed to dead children lying in the streets and old men dying of hunger in the gutter. He also witnessed a "Jewhunt" by two plump blond members of the Hitlerjugend.

The experience was so traumatic that he found himself doubting his own memory, so he went back into the Ghetto a few days later. But that was not to be the end of it. Feiner said that Karski must see what lay at the other end of the railway on to which contingents of Jews were packed every day.

Disguised as a Ukrainian guard, Karski was taken into an extermination camp by a real guard bribed by the Polish underground. The atrocities he saw in his brief spell inside the wire provoked such a reaction that he nearly gave them both away. "A quivering cargo of flesh," is how he later described the scenes before him. As well as starvation, stabbing and shooting, Karski watched as Jews were packed into rail cars that were coated on the floors with quicklime, sealed and moved a short distance away. After a few days the cars were opened, the dead Jews burnt, and a new layer of quicklime laid for the next group.

The sense of the importance of his testimony sustained him through the hazardous trek across Nazi Europe. But when he told people in London what he had seen, they mostly thought he was exaggerating - except for Victor Gollancz, who had a nervous breakdown shortly after his meeting with Karski, and Arthur Koestler, who used much of the material in Arrival and Departure. Anthony Eden was polite but impassive. "How could I tell Eden what to do with this information?" Karski asked many years later. "I was a young man, a little guy, merely a courier. I had no leverage talking to those most powerful men."

America, where Karski went in July 1943, was worse. His report seemed to upset everyone's agenda. Roosevelt, with whom he had a long private interview, was only interested in the arcana of underground conspiracy. The Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, a Jew, spent an hour listening to Karski's story, then told him: "I am unable to believe you." Other prominent Jewish leaders accused him of lying. Faced repeatedly with incredulity or cynicism, Karski went into a form of denial and stopped talking of the scenes he had witnessed.

Because his cover had been blown while he was in America, he could no longer function as a courier. Thereafter the Polish Government used him to publicise the Polish cause in the US, through lectures and articles. An American agent came up with the idea of a book about the Polish underground, and Karski began work on this at the end of 1943. The agent and the publishers were looking to produce a bestseller, and they got one. Story of an Underground State sold 400,000 copies, and Karski found himself speaking to audiences of a thousand or more during his promotional tour. It was a bitter success. For while he now had a forum, it was far too late to affect the fate of either the Jews or Poland.

In 1945 Herbert Hoover enlisted Karski's help in collecting documents for what was to be the archive of the Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, and a couple of years later he was given the post of Professor of Political Science at Georgetown University, which he held until his retirement in 1984.

Karski was naturalised as an American citizen in 1954, and worked for the United States Information Service, giving talks throughout South-East Asia on the Soviet system of oppression, as well as for the CIA. But he turned down several government posts, preferring to remain in academia. In 1974, with the help of a Fulbright Scholarship, he travelled to Europe to write his monumental The Great Powers and Poland 1919-45. But he kept his personal experience of the war bottled up.

In 1977 he was approached by Claude Lanzmann, who was researching material for what was to be the film Shoah. In the following year Lanzmann spent two days filming an interview with Karski. The painfulness of the experience for Karski is clearly visible in the footage included in the final version. But the pain was worse in 1985, when the film came out - it was then that Karski realised that his testimony had been sensationalised to increase its impact.

Lanzmann's discovery of Karski turned him overnight into a figure of enormous interest to those studying the Holocaust. He was the principal feature of Eli Wiesel's 1981 Washington Conference. Invited to Israel in 1982 to plant a tree in the Avenue of the Righteous, he was made an honorary citizen of the country in 1994. "Now I, Jan Karski, a Pole, an American, a Catholic, have also become an Israelite!" he said at the ceremony. "Gloria in excelsis Deo!"

Karski was invited to speak all over the world, and awarded many honorary degrees, citations and decorations, and in 1994 a full-scale biography of him was published. In the same year he was awarded the highest honour for any Pole, being made a Knight of the White Eagle by Lech Walesa. But his instinct was to avoid the limelight, an instinct reinforced by his wife. "You did what you had to do," she used to say, "Now shut up."

Karski had started out in life as a fairly average man, with the usual share of prejudices. But his wartime experiences opened his eyes, and initiated a mistrust of almost any opinion. For some, this sat oddly with his fervent Catholicism. "I am a Christian Jew," he would answer them. He could be just as disconcerting to those who asked silly questions about the Holocaust, for his attitudes to this, as to everything else, transcended stereotype. He never forgot the horrors he had witnessed - and was haunted by the feeling that he had failed in his duty to save the Jews and to save Poland.

Karski last visited his homeland in May to sign copies of his seminal book which had finally been published in Polish - 55 years after it first appeared in English.

His personal life was ravaged by the war. Shortly after its end, he married the daughter of a South American diplomat in Washington, but this marriage lasted only two years. In 1965 he married the dancer and choreographer Pola Nirenska, herself a survivor of the Holocaust. She committed suicide in 1992.

 


 

  

1944

Jan Karski Dies at 86; Warned West About Holocaust

 

By Michael T. Kaufman,, July 15, 2000

 

Jan Karski, 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 to a mostly disbelieving West, died on Thursday in Washington. Mr. Karski, a retired professor of history at Georgetown University, was 86 years old.

He died of heart and kidney ailments at Georgetown University Hospital, the university said.

In the late summer of 1942, Mr. Karski, then a 28-year-old clandestine diplomat in Warsaw for the Polish government-in-exile in London, was preparing for a secret mission to carry information from Nazi-occupied Poland to London and Washington. Before leaving Warsaw, he was visited by two leaders of the Jewish underground who had managed to leave the Ghetto briefly to tell him about what they called "Hitler's war against the Polish Jews."

They said that by their calculations, more than 1.8 million Jews had already been killed by the Germans and that 300,000 of the 500,000 Jews jammed into the Warsaw Ghetto had been deported to an obscure village about 60 miles from Warsaw where the Germans had set up a death camp.

They asked him if he could carry their information to Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. They also asked if he would be willing to enter the Ghetto and see for himself what was happening. Mr. Karski, a Roman Catholic from a patriotic Polish family who seems to have been blessed with a photographic memory, agreed.

By that time he had already endured a horrible war.

Karski was his nom de guerre; he had been born Jan Kozielewski, the youngest of eight children, in Lodz, Poland's second-largest city, on April 24, 1914. He was a prize student and was recruited into the Polish diplomatic service, where he was quickly given coveted assignments to London and Paris.

But as war approached, he enlisted in the army and was serving as a cavalry officer in 1939 when German soldiers, followed less than two weeks later by Russian troops, invaded Poland and divided the country. Mr. Karski was captured by the Soviets and placed in a detention camp. He escaped and joined the Polish underground; most of the Polish officers imprisoned with him were later executed by Soviet troops.

Mr. Karski became a skilled courier for the underground, crossing enemy lines as a liaison between the Polish fighters and the West. He was captured by the Gestapo while on a mission in Slovakia in 1940 and was savagely tortured. Fearful that he might reveal secrets, he slashed his wrists and was put into a hospital. An underground commando team helped him escape, and he resumed his work as a clandestine liaison officer.

In October 1939, the Germans enclosed the main Jewish areas in Warsaw with barbed wire. In less than a year the Ghetto was walled in, trapping half a million Jews. By July 1942 the first mass deportations of Jews to extermination camps had begun.

In the third week of August 1942, Mr. Karski entered the cellar of an apartment house on the so-called Aryan side of the Ghetto wall and met with a youth from the Jewish Combat Organization, then secretly being formed in the Ghetto. The youth gave him some ragged clothes and an armband with a blue Star of David and led him through a recently dug tunnel. As they emerged, Mr. Karski saw the Ghetto streets and tenements crowded with haggard, hungry and dying Jews

 

Where Nazi Boys Shot Jews for Sport

 

Decades later, when asked to describe what he had seen, Mr. Karski would usually simply say, "I saw terrible things."

But on some occasions, for example in "Shoah," Claude Lanzmann's classic documentary about the Holocaust, he would tell of seeing many naked dead bodies lying in the streets, and describe emaciated and starving people, listless infants and older children with expressionless eyes. He remembered watching from an apartment while two pudgy teenage boys in the uniforms of the Hitler Youth hunted Jews for sport, cheering and laughing when one of their rifle shots struck its target and brought screams of agony.

One of the Jews who had prompted Mr. Karski to enter the Ghetto, and who escorted him, was a lawyer named Leon Feiner. Mr. Karski recalled that Mr. Feiner kept murmuring, "Remember this, remember this." There was also another escort whose name Mr. Karski never learned. They both urged Mr. Karski to tell what he was witnessing to as many people in the West as he could, though they knew the facts would be hard to believe.

At the time of Mr. Karski's visit, the expulsions from Warsaw had temporarily subsided, but they were to intensify in September as the liquidation of the Ghetto resumed in earnest. Mr. Feiner was among the hundreds of thousands who died.

There were five points that the two men in the Ghetto asked Mr. Karski to pass on to the Allied leaders:

* Preventing the extermination of the Jews should be declared an official goal of the Allies fighting Hitler.

* Allied propaganda should be used to inform the German people of the war crimes taking place and to publicize the names of German officials taking part.

* The Allies should appeal to the German people to bring pressure on Hitler's regime to stop the slaughter.

* The Allies should declare that if the genocide continued and the German masses did not rise to stop it, the German people would be held collectively responsible.

* Finally, if nothing else worked, the Allies should carry out reprisals by bombing German cultural sites and executing Germans in Allied hands who still professed loyalty to Hitler.

Mr. Karski later said that the Jews' proposals were "bitter and unrealistic," as if they knew such a program could not and would not be carried out, and that he had told them their five points went beyond international law.

For the rest of his life he remembered the response of the man accompanying Mr. Feiner: "We don't know what is realistic, or not realistic. We are dying here! Say it!"

Mr. Karski asked what he should say to Jewish leaders abroad. Unhesitatingly his hosts told him that such leaders should consider hunger strikes, fasting to death if necessary, to shake the conscience of the world.

 

In Ukrainian Outfit, A Scent of Death

 

Mr. Feiner then asked if Mr. Karski was still ready to carry out another fact-finding mission: Would he be willing to see for himself what was happening at one of the camps to which the trainloads of Jews were being sent?

Mr. Karski consented, and a few days later he and a member of the Jewish resistance went by train from Warsaw to Izbica, a small town near Warsaw.

There, his Jewish guide turned him over to the owner of a hardware store who was a member of the Polish underground. Mr. Karski was given the uniform of a Ukrainian militiaman working under the German command who had been bribed to take the day off. Another Ukrainian guard -- also bribed -- then led him to a large area encircled by barbed wire.

Mr. Karski heard keening cries of men and women and thought he smelled burning flesh. Soon he witnessed the arrival of several thousand starving and frightened Jews who had been brought to the camp from Czechoslovakia. He watched as their valises and bags were taken away from them. Then he saw Jews being beaten and stabbed.

Ranks of uniformed men pressed the crowd onto waiting box cars that had been coated with quicklime. Those who fell or fainted or who could not move were thrown into the cars. When no more bodies could fit inside, the doors were shut. Mr. Karski was told that the trains were heading for a camp not far away where their human cargo would be led into gas chambers. But he was also told that sometimes the trains were just left on sidings until those inside starved or suffocated.

 

A Perilous Journey, A Bleak Reception

 

Mr. Karski returned to Warsaw to prepare himself for his dangerous journey to London. He was given a key whose soldered shaft contained microfilm of hundreds of documents. He went to a dentist and had several teeth pulled so that the resultant swelling could provide him with a reason why he couldn't talk if he was stopped by Germans; he was certain his Polish-accented German would give him away.

Using local trains, he went to Berlin, the capital of the Reich, then through Vichy France to Spain, where a rendezvous led to passage to Gibraltar and then to London.

He turned over the key containing the microfilm, described resistance activity and assessed as bleak the prospects of cooperation between the anti-Communist Polish underground and the partisans, who were sponsored by the same Soviets who in 1939 had joined Hitler in invading and dividing Poland.

He spoke of the Jews, saying their fate was far more perilous than that of non-Jewish Poles. But for many of his Polish diplomatic superiors, the plight of the Jews remained marginal to Poland's struggle to regain its conquered land. Some even feared that any emphasis on the victimization of the Jews might detract attention from Poland's tragedy and diminish their own appeals for help.  

And when Mr. Karski carried his information about the destruction of the Jews to British authorities, he was met by even greater reluctance to act.  

"In February 1943, I reported to Anthony Eden," he later wrote about a secret meeting with the British foreign secretary. "He said that Great Britain had already done enough by accepting 100,000 refugees."  

In London, Mr. Karski met with Szmuel Zygelboym, who represented the Jewish Socialist Bund in the National Council of the Polish government-in-exile, to present the Polish Jews' urgings of active resistance.

Mr. Zygelboym listened in pain but then said, "It's impossible, utterly impossible." If he went on a hunger strike, he said, the authorities would send the police and drag him away to an institution. But he added: "I'll do everything I can do to help them. I'll do everything they ask."

A few months later, on May 12, 1943, just after the Germans put down the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Mr. Zygelboym sent a letter to the president and prime minister of the Polish government-in-exile, and then took his own life.

He wrote, "By my death I wish to make my final protest against the passivity with which the world is looking on and permitting the annihilation of the Jewish people."

 

Did Western Leaders Ignore 'Conscience'?

 

In July 1943, Mr. Karski arrived in the United States. Two months earlier, attempts by the Germans to liquidate those Jews still remaining in the Warsaw Ghetto was met with armed resistance. In a desperate, uneven struggle over three weeks, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, more than 10,000 Jews were killed in the fighting or in fires set by the Germans to destroy the Ghetto. The 56,000 Jews remaining were taken to the Treblinka death camp.  

"Almost every individual was sympathetic to my reports concerning the Jews," Mr. Karski said. "But when I reported to the leaders of governments, they discarded their conscience, their personal feeling.  

"They provided a rationale which seemed valid. What was the situation? The Jews were totally helpless. The war strategy was the military defeat of Germany and the defeat of Germany's war potential for all eternity. Nothing could interfere with the military crushing of the Third Reich. The Jews had no country, no government. They were fighting, but they had no identity."  

He kept telling what he knew, honoring the promise he had given to the two men in the Ghetto. A secret meeting was arranged between Mr. Karski and President Roosevelt. He said that commanders of the underground Home Army were estimating that if there was to be no Allied intervention in the next year and a half, the Jews of Poland would "cease to exist." He did not tell Roosevelt of his own experiences or observations.  

Mr. Karski believed that he failed to move Roosevelt to any real action. But John Pehle, who became head of the War Refugee Board, a federal agency that helped settle surviving Jews, said later that Roosevelt had decided to establish the board as a consequence of his talks with Mr. Karski. The mission, Mr. Pehle said, "changed U.S. policy overnight from indifference to affirmative action."  

Mr. Karski was planning to return to Warsaw and resume his clandestine work, but his superiors told him that his identity had become known to the Germans and ordered him to remain in the United States.  

His mission then was to promote the cause of Poland, which once freed of German occupation would have to contend with Stalin's designs. He gave interviews, wrote magazine articles and drew on his own experiences to write a book, "Story of a Secret State," which was published at the end of 1944 by Houghton Mifflin and became a Book of the Month Club selection.  

Within a year the war came to an end, and so did the Polish government-in-exile that Mr. Karski had served. The Yalta agreement had consigned postwar Poland to the Soviet sphere, and Mr. Karski, who knew and scorned Communism, did not return to his native land.

 

A Life in Academics, A Family Tragedy

 

Instead, at the age of 39, he enrolled at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown. He received his doctorate in two and a half years and stayed on, teaching at Georgetown until his retirement in 1984. He became a citizen in 1954.  

In 1965 he married Pola Nirenska, a dancer and choreographer who had been born Pola Nirensztajn in Poland, the daughter of an observant Jewish father. All her many relatives had been killed in the Holocaust, but she had survived the war in London and had become a major force in dance in Washington -- teaching, choreographing her own work and leading her own company -- when they met.  

In 1992, Pola Nirenska, then 81 years old, jumped to her death from the balcony of their apartment in Bethesda, Md. Her last dance piece, presented in Washington in 1990, was inspired by Holocaust victims she had known and was called "In Memory of Those I Loved . . . Who Are No More."  

Soon after her death, Mr. Karski established a $5,000 annual prize to be awarded by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research to authors documenting or interpreting Jewish contributions to Polish culture and science.

Jan Karski leaves no immediate survivors.


Go to: Vietnam Medal of Honor Citations

Go to: Obituaries

neil@mishalov.com

© 2000 by Neil Mishalov