When I was a boy of 12 or so, a tall thin man came to our house. He was a friend of my father’s, and a Pole, perhaps a diplomat, well bred, cultured, educated; I could tell from his refined accent and impeccably tailored suit. We still thought in those terms back then.

Like many of my father’s friends he had a scarred face and that old world dignity rarely encountered on this side of the Atlantic. I had met such men before. They would kiss my mother’s hand and click their heels softly, not brashly like the German officers on television, but in a way that conveyed respect and grace. But this man was different; he commanded my father’s respect like no one I’d ever seen. My father had dined with Kennedy and Johnson, but he never spoke of them as he did of Jan Karski. They were mere presidents; Karski was a hero.

Jan Karski, you see, had been tortured and had escaped from the Gestapo. He had crossed German lines many times carrying microfilm and documents for the underground. He had warned Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill of the holocaust, not that Roosevelt or Churchill did anything about it. If I am to write about torture, as we have for the past few days, then I should write about Jan Karski, about how human will, courage, can triumph over extraordinary evil.

More below:

Despite the perceived Polish tendency toward anti-Semitism, Karski is a hero to both Poles and Jews. Actually, I think this prejudice is more a matter of politics than race.  Jews were often associated with intellectual liberalism while there is a strong conservative ethos that has grown from the extreme patriotism that a country invaded as often as Poland cannot help but foster. Even my father displays it on occasion. Yet he, like every Catholic Pole I’ve met, was as proud of what Karski did to try to stop the holocaust as what he did to save his nation.

Karski was born Jan Kozielewsk; the name Karski was simply one of his many wartime covers. He received a Master’s degree in Law and Diplomatic Science in 1935 at the University of Lwów. He then served in diplomatic posts in Germany, Switzerland and Britain, for the Polish Diplomatic Service.

Karski, an officer in the Polish army, was mobilized at the outbreak of World War II in 1939. He was taken prisoner by the Soviet Army. Two months later, in November, he escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp and returned to the General Government in German-occupied Poland. There he joined the underground Home Army (AK). His knowledge of foreign languages proved to be very useful when he was sent as a courier between the Polish government-in-exile in London and the AK in Poland.

From Karski’s obituary in the New York Times:

In the late summer of 1942, Mr. Karski, who was then a 33-year-old clandestine diplomat of 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, he was visited by two leaders of the Jewish underground who had managed to briefly leave the Warsaw Ghetto. They told 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, who was blessed with a photographic memory, agreed.  -snip-

Mr. Karski became a skilled courier for the underground, crossing enemy lines to serve 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 tortured. Fearful that he might reveal secrets to the Germans, he slashed his wrists. His suicide attempt failed and he was put into a hospital. An underground commando team helped him to escape and he resumed his work as a clandestine liaison officer. -snip-

Decades later, when asked to describe what he had seen, Mr. Karski, a fastidious man who hated violence even in films or on television, would usually simply say, “I saw terrible things.” But on some occasions, such as in his appearance in “Shoah,” Claude Lanzmann’s documentary film 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 teen-aged 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.

Karski described his experience in the Ghetto. He wrote this in 1943:

Women breast-feeding infants in full view of everyone. Only they have no breasts… their chests are completely flat there. Infants with eyes of madmen are looking at us. This was not this world, this was not mankind.

The streets are crowded, filled, as if everybody lived outdoors. They are displaying their poor riches, everyone is trying to sell whatever he or she has: three onions, two onions,’ a couple of tacks. Everybody is selling something, everybody is begging. Hunger. Terrible children. Children running by themselves, children sitting by their mothers. This was not mankind, it was a kind of hell.

Through this part of the central ghetto German officers used to pass. Off duty German officers made a shortcut walking across the ghetto. So uniformed Germans were walking. Dead silence fell. Everybody was watching them passing, frozen with fear, with no movement, not a word. The Germans were contemptuous, you could sense that they did not regard those dirty subhumans as human beings. Suddenly panic broke out. Jews were fleeing from the streets we were walking along. We were rushing towards one of the houses, my companion murmured, “The door — open the door’ — someone opened it and we entered. We were hurrying to the windows facing the street. Then we were going back to the door and the woman standing by it. He said, “Don’t be afraid, we’re Jews.” He pushed me towards the window, “Look.” Two boys with nice faces and wearing Hitlerjugend uniforms were passing. They were talking. With each step they made, the Jews scattered, vanished. And they continued talking. Suddenly one of them reached into his pocket and without a moment’s hesitation fired a shot. The sound of broken glass, the howling of a man. The other one congratulated him and they went away.

I was standing stock-still. And then the Jewish woman who must have realized that I was not Jewish embraced me, “Go away, it’s not for you. go away.”

We left the house and we left the ghetto. He told me, “You didn’t see all. Do you want to come back? I shall come with you, I want you to see everything.”

We returned the following day through the same building. This time the shock was not so great and I noticed other things. Stench, dirt. Suffocating stench. Dirty streets. The atmosphere of excitement, tension, frenzy. This was Muranowski Square. In one corner children were playing with rags. They were throwing rags at each other. He said. “Look, children are playing. Life goes on.” I answered, “They are not playing, they are only pretending.” Nearby there were several sickly trees. We were walking farther talking to no one. We walked like that for about an hour. Occasionally he stopped me, “Look at this Jew,” a man standing motionless. I asked, “Is he still alive?” — “Oh yes, he’s alive all right,” he replied. “Pan Witold [Witold was another of karski’s cover names], please remember, he is in the process of dying. He is just dying. Look at him, please, and tell them over there. You saw, him, please remember.” We went on. Horror! From time to time he whispered, “You must remember this, and this, and that. And this woman.” Often I asked him, “What is happening to these people?” He answered, “They’re dying. Don’t forget. Please remember.”

This went on for about half an hour, and then we turned back. I could not stand it any longer. “Please take me out.” I did not see him any more. I was ill. Even now I do not want any more. I can understand what you are doing and therefore I am here. But I had not gone back to my memories. I couldn’t any longer.

I conveyed my report and I told them what I had seen. It had not been the world that I had seen. It had not been mankind. I wasn’t there, I didn’t belong there. I had never before seen anything like that. And no one had described such reality. Nor shown it in a drama or a film.

Karski then went to an extermination camp. From The (London) Times:

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.

Karski’s next mission was to escape to London and tell the allies what he had seen. “On a previous attempt he had been captured by the Gestapo and nearly tortured to death. The torturers beat him so severely that lost all his teeth and had most of his ribs broken. The Polish underground launched a rescue mission to save their courier from an SS hospital. In hiding after his rescue, Karski recuperated, and later made his way to Britain.”

In November 1942, he delivered an impassioned plea on behalf of Poland’s Jews to top Allied officials in London. On July 28, 1943, in a lengthy White House meeting, he told President Franklin D. Roosevelt about the extermination of the Jews of Europe.

Again from The Times:

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.

He remained in the US where he wrote The Story of a Secret State . It is a fantastic retelling of his wartime exploits. Though he did later admit that he left out details and changed names, dates, and places for political reasons, it is a mostly factual account. And it reads like a good suspense novel, you’ll stay up all night finishing it.

An ardent anti-communist, his accomplishments were not recognized by the communist Polish government. But after the fall of communism, Karski received the highest Polish civil decoration, the Order of the White Eagle. He was also awarded the Order Virtuti Militari which is the top military decoration awarded for bravery in combat.

Karski became a U.S. citizen in 1954 and earned a doctorate from the School of Foreign Service soon after. 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. For nearly three decades until 1984 Karski taught international relations and comparative government at Georgetown University. Few of his students knew of his wartime experiences. In his spare time he restored houses and spent quiet time in his large Georgetown townhouse. Karski died on July 13, 2000.

Karski’s only English language biography is Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust by E. Thomas Wood and Stanisław M. Jankowski. It is also a terrific book and will keep your interest, though the bits about Polish politics won’t interest everyone.

After all the recent talk that we’ve had here about abuse and torture I find solace in knowing that there are men, and women, like Karski, strong enough to fight and win against such evil. There are those who can witness the unimaginable and report the unspeakable. As Jan Karski knew, word has to get out.

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