Jan Karski’s message

I first learned of Jan Karski’s story in Walter Laqueur’s The Terrible Secret: Suppression of the Truth About Hitler’s “Final Solution,” published in 1980 (and first learned of Laqueur’s book from George Will’s excellent column on it in the Washington Post that year). Karski was an incredibly brave and dignified man. We need to attend to his example, now more than ever.

Karski performed heroic service in World War II and moved to the United States, where he earned a Ph.D., became a citizen and taught at Georgetown University. Joshua Muravchik was one of Karski’s many students at Georgetown. This week he wrote about Karski in the essay “A tree grows in Lublin.” It is an intensely moving and instructive essay. I want to take the occasion of Muravchik’s essay to revisit Karski’s story, but please don’t pass up the essay.

When the war broke out Karski served in the East as an officer in the mounted artillery. He was taken prisoner by the forces of the Soviet Union. Because the Soviet forces routinely held back Polish officers, most of whom never returned, Karski disguised himself as a private and was repatriated to Poland, where the Germans put him on a train to a labor camp. He escaped from the train and made his way to Warsaw where he joined the Underground, for which he worked as a courier.

Work as a courier was of course a high-risk affair. On one mission in June 1940, he was caught by the Gestapo and tortured. Unsuccessfully attempting suicide in captivity, he slit his wrists. He was sent to to a prison hospital from which he escaped. Karski lived underground in Warsaw in 1941-1942. Prior to his last mission as a courier, Karski met with Jewish leaders, whose message he solemnly promised to convey to the West.

He visited the Warsaw ghetto in October 1942. This did not, in Karski’s words, present any special difficulty; the area of the ghetto had shrunk after the deportations of June-September 1942. The tramways that crossed the ghetto reached the streets which had been taken over by the “Aryans.” Elsewhere one could enter or leave the ghetto through the cellars of houses which served as the ghetto wall.

Karski informed Laqueur that he was taken to a shop nearby the Belzec death camp by a Jewish but “Aryan-looking” contact. The contact provided both a uniform (of an Estonian guard) and a permit. He entered Belzec with his contact through a side gate. There he saw “bedlam” — the ground littered with weakened bodies, hundreds of Jews packed into railway cars covered with a layer of quicklime. The cars were closed and moved outside the camp; after some time they were opened, the corpses burned and the cars returned to the camp to fetch new cargo.

After watching the scene for some time he began to lose his nerve. He wanted to escape and walked quickly to the nearest gate. His companion approached Karski and harshly shouted: “Follow me at once!” They went through the same side gate they had entered and were not stopped.

Karski arrived in London to convey his message to the West in November 1942. In July 1943 he traveled to the United States and met with President Roosevelt and many others. The message he conveyed to Anthony Eden, President Roosevelt and others is reproduced in Laquer’s book at pages 232-235, from which this post is closely adapted. Karski reported to Laqueur that Roosevelt’s response was: “Tell your nation we shall win the war” and some more such ringing messages. He also met with Justice Felix Frankfurther. Frankfurter’s response was: “I don’t believe you.” It’s not that he thought he was lying: “I did not say this young man is lying. I said I don’t believe him. There is a difference.”

Laqueur writes that Karski was neither the first nor the last courier to arrive in the West from Warsaw with news of the Holocaust, but as far as the information about the fate of the Jews in Poland was concerned, he was certainly the most important.

Karski patiently submitted to Laqueur’s detailed questioning in a September 1979 interview and even wrote out for him the message that he (Karski) conveyed to President Roosevelt, Anthony Eden and others in 1942 and 1943. According to Laqueur, the message could not be published during the war. Karski’s message is included in Appendix 5 to Laqueur’s book. Laqueur comments elsewhere in the book:

Democratic societies demonstrated on this occasion as on many others, before and after, that they are incapable of understanding political regimes of a different character….Democratic societies are accustomed to think in liberal, pragmatic categories; conflicts are believed to be based on misunderstandings and can be solved with a minimum of good will; extremism is a temporary aberration, so is irrational behavior in general, such as intolerance, cruelty, etc. The effort needed to overcome such basic psychological handicaps is immense….Each new generation faces this challenge again, for experience cannot be inherited.

Before the war Poland was of course home to a thriving Jewish community of some 3,000,000. By the end of the war the Nazis had eliminated the community through the death camps they operated in the country with German efficiency.

For reasons that Muravchik discusses in his essay, Karski maintained a despairing silence about his wartime experiences until he was interviewed for Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah in the late 1970′s. Video clips of Lanzmann’s interview have been posted on YouTube. I think the clip below represents the opening of the interview. This is powerful stuff. Please take a look.

In the clip below Karski recounts his meeting with Roosevelt.

In the clip below Karski recounts his meeting with Frankfurther.

The Holocaust Museum’s Spielberg video archive has posted a compilation of video clips with Karski here and a transcript here.

Do you know the way to Mel Tormé?

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Mel Tormé on September 13, 1925. I think Tormé is simply one of the all-time great American artists, too little known and vastly underappreciated. Permit me this salute in the hope that I might interest you in deepening your familiarity with his work.

Tormé died at age 73 in 1999 in Los Angeles at the end of an incredibly fruitful career. The wonderful Allmusic Guide take on Tormé by William Ruhlmann testifies to the variety of his gifts:

[G]iven the breadth of his talents, he might have been a bandleader since, in addition to singing, he was also a drummer good enough to have gotten offers to go on the road as early as his teens, a songwriter responsible for one of the perennial Christmas standards, and an arranger who wrote the charts for much of the music he performed. Amazingly, this is still only a partial list of his accomplishments, which also included acting in more than a dozen feature films and on radio and television; hosting radio and TV shows; and writing television dramas, numerous articles for periodicals including Down Beat and The New York Times, and six published books of fiction, biography, and music criticism.

By the age of four, Tormé was singing professionally with the Coon-Sanders Band at Chicago’s Blackhawk Hotel. In his memoir It Wasn’t All Velvet, Torme situates the commencement of his career at the end of the Roaring Twenties:

Flagpole sitters were still doing their dizzying thing, daredevils walked tightropes between buildings twenty-five stories high, and ex-World War I aviators were flying surplus Jennies under the Brooklyn Bridge. Novelty was the key to success and a kid in short pants and a beret belting out pop tunes with a famous band fit right in with the nutty goings-on that attended the collapse of Wall Street and the subsequent Great Depression.

Tormé’s singing demonstrates incredible musicality, consummate taste, perfect time, and great harmonic gifts. Early in his singing career he teamed with Peggy Lee’s future husband Dave Barbour, who was a member of the quartet that occasionally backed Torme in the 1940′s. Torme’s strengths as a vocalist seem to me to share much in common with Lee’s. His range, control, and scatting ability, however, put him somewhere in the vicinity of Ella Fitzgerald’s neighborhood at the apex of the craft; Fitzgerald was certainly one of his favorite singers.

You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Tormé tear through popular music’s gift to the geometry student, “Pythagoras, How You Stagger Us,” a song that dates from the early period of Tormé’s singing career documented on Proper Records’ four-disc collection Jazz and Velvet (now supplemented by The Quintet & Beyond).

Tormé continued to perfect his craft as a jazz singer throughout his career. He was not only an incomparable stylist, he got better as he got older. In 1956, for example, he recorded two brilliant albums with the Marty Paich Dek-tette that are now collected on the aptly titled The 1956 Torme-Paich Legendary Sessions. In 1988 Torme reunited with Paich at the Fujitsu Concord Jazz Festival in Japan for a live set that is still available on disc. A video from that date (no longer available on YouTube; will somebody please restore it?) includes a magnificent rendition of the Ted Koehler/Harold Arlen composition “When the Sun Comes Out.” In the video above Torme flies high with the great George Shearing at the Newport Jazz Festival.

It may be only a slight exaggeration to say that Tormé never really found a sympathetic producer or record company until 1982, when he commenced a collaboration with Concord Records that resulted in something like the music of the spheres. I absolutely love The Best of the Concord Years, a two-disc compilation that whets your appetite for all the rest. When I wanted to get to know his work, this is where I started and I recommend it without reservation. It is superb, from beginning to end.

Tormé’s work with Shearing on Concord is full of beauty and hijinks. In the liner notes to the two-disc collection of Tormé’s highlights on Concord, Shearing writes that in the Ellington medley he’s playing “I Let A Song Go Out of My Heart” while Tormé is singing “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” Shearing comments: “We had to stay sober while recording this one!”

Tormé ended his career on the many high notes reflected in the Concord recordings. The several live recordings from this era (not all on Concord) are also noteworthy. Mel Torme and Friends Live at Marty’s (originally released in 1981), for example, shows Tormé in especially fine form. In the video of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” above, Tormé is still operating somewhere near the height of his powers, accompanied by John Colianni in concert in 1994.

Toward the end of his memoir, Tormé writes: “Timing is everything, particularly in the music business.” Torme’s career came to an end with the stroke he suffered in August 1996. His last recording was An Evening with Mel Torme, recorded the month before his stroke. His final recorded song turned out to be Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.” Timing may indeed be everything, but Torme’s career is also a reminder of the fact that even genius occasionally requires persistence combined with raw talent to produce the full flowering of great gifts.

The video below gives the last word to Ella and Mel — Andy Williams introduces them as “the first lady of song and the last word in talent” — with a teachable moment.

Bill Maher flips

To borrow Rick’s lovelorn lament in Casablanca: Of all the gin joints in all the towns in the world, Bill Maher walks into mine (and John Hinderaker’s). My gin joint, so to speak, is Minnesota’s Second Congressional District, where I drink, live, and vote. Bill Maher has walked in to announce that he has has picked incumbent Republican Rep. John Kline to knock off in Maher’s bid to Flip a District. Maher is a showbiz millionaire who is going to pour money into the district to try to flip it to a Democrat. Flip off is more like it.

We think John is going to win his rematch against Democrat Mike Obermueller in 2014. John beat Obermueller by over 7 points in 2012, a good Democratic year. In 2014 Obermueller is a generic Democrat running in a marginally Republican district in a good Republican year. John should do at least as well has he did in 2012 against Obermueller this time around.

Moreover, to say the least, John is a meritorious incumbent and a worthy candidate for reelection. He is an extraordinarily solid conservative and man, having served in his first career with distinction as a Marine officer who carried the nuclear football for President Carter and President Reagan. He is a model congressman. In a time when national security issues have returned to the forefront, his wisdom and experience are badly needed in Congress.

If Maher is serious, one would conclude that he has chosen poorly. Shortly after the announcement, Maher himself admitted he doesn’t know anything about John. “I’ve never heard of John Kline, but he sounds like he might be Jewish,” Maher joked. As a comedian, anyway, Maher is serious. He has reached his usual level of hilarity on the humor front.

The disappointment in the report on Maher’s announcement by the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake is palpable. Blake laments: “He picked the wrong guy.” You can annoy Maher by contributing to John Kline here.

The Week in Pictures: Unitarian Edition

The most astounding news of the week is that the Bad Guys of the Week in the Middle East, the “Islamic State In Iraq” (ISIS) or the “Islamic State In the Levant” (ISIL) or ISIOMH (“Islamic State Inside Obama’s Mush Head”) is not Islamic!  Pay no attention to the term Islamic in their name!  I’m sure Obama is right; they’re probably Unitarian Universalists.  Oops—that’s the problem: they’re universalists.  They want to take over the world.  Obama also said ISIOMH is not a State.  So what’s the problem then?  I thought advanced liberalism today was against the nation-state, and for cosmopolitan movements that transcend things like borders and arbitrary lines on a map.  I’m confused here. Almost as confused as the Obama Administration.

No Islamic copy

Not Islamic 2 copy

Golf Shoes in Iraq copy Play Through 1 copy Play Through 2 copy

Romny Was Right copy

One is a person who lives in a fantasy world and thinks he has super powers.  The other person is Superman.

One is a person who lives in a fantasy world and thinks he has super powers. The other person is Superman.

Obama theater copy

Is has come to this?

Is has come to this?

Uh oh.  This can't be good.

Uh oh. This can’t be good.

Boycott Palestinian Goods copy Hillary Denier copy

Bingo copy

Autocorrect Enema copy

Talking to the Wine copy Easter Island Pez copy Cigarette Buttocks copy Cleaning Spiderman copy Rat Maze copy Cool Dog copy Time Travel copy No Hipsters copy No Hipster 2 copy

No Worm copy

You May Be Cool copy

Capn Mal 3 copy

And finally. . .

Hot 150 copy

Barack Obama Still Has One Loyal Court Historian…

…and his name is E.J. Dionne. Traditionally, Paul has the E.J. beat, but I can’t resist taking a swing at this Dionne column, dated yesterday, which places Barack Obama’s foreign policy–the one he is pursuing this week–in the coveted Goldilocks position on the continuum of history. It’s not too warlike, not too passive–just right!

Over the last decade, Americans’ views on foreign policy have swung sharply from support for intervention to a profound mistrust of any military engagement overseas.

Over the same period, political debates on foreign affairs have been bitter and polarized, defined by the question of whether the invasion of Iraq was a proper use of the nation’s power or a catastrophic mistake.

This is a nice way of saying that Democrats–almost all of them–voted for the Iraq war with their fingers crossed, and then at the first sign of adversity betrayed their own country, heaping one lie on top of another, in order to gain political advantage.

[T]here is a strong case that, after all the gyrations in policy and popular attitudes, we are on the verge of a new politics of foreign policy based on a steadier, more sober and more realistic view of our country’s role in the world and of what it takes to keep the nation safe.

That would be the view that Barack Obama took on Wednesday. When his policies change next week or next month, Dionne will be right there, sweeping up behind the lead elephant (or, rather, donkey) of the Democratic Party.

And it fell to President Obama on Wednesday night to take the first steps toward building a durable consensus that can outlast his presidency.

Interesting idea, but Obama has been one of the most viciously partisan and divisive presidents in American history. When has he ever built a consensus on anything? I don’t think he is likely to start in the sixth year of his presidency.

The paradox is that, while polls show Americans more critical than ever of the president’s handling of foreign affairs, the strategy he outlined toward the Islamic State has the potential of forging a unity of purpose across a wide swath of American opinion.

That is why he chose it, obviously. It is poll tested. Voters want to strike back at ISIL, but they don’t want any Americans hurt in the process. The problem is that this isn’t a viable strategy. You can defeat ISIL, or you can avoid any American casualties. You can’t do both, unless you can actually construct a viable coalition. (More about that in a moment.) So Obama’s supposed “strategy” is just a stall tactic, designed to take political pressure off until after the mid-term elections. Obama knows that it can’t succeed, and he doesn’t mean for it to succeed. “Victory” is a word that he uses only when talking about Republicans.

Obama said he was sending an additional 475 U.S. troops to Iraq “to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence and equipment.” But he was again at pains to insist that they would “not get dragged into another ground war.” …

Above all, Obama went out of his way to describe his new effort as a “counterterrorism strategy,” tying it back to the cause that large majorities of Americans embraced after the 9/11 attacks and have never stopped supporting.

Poor E.J.! He wrote this column yesterday, when Obama administration spokesmen (led by Obama himself) were hysterically denying that the kinetic action they intend to take against ISIL is a “war.” Apparently that approach didn’t fare well in the overnight polls, so today they did a head-snapping 180. It’s a war after all. We have always been at war with ISIL!

More generally, Obama is pushing a tough-minded multilateralism. His stress on building “a broad coalition of partners” and the administration’s aggressive courting of allies in both the Middle East and Europe recalls the intense rounds of diplomacy that former Secretary of State James A. Baker III led on behalf of the first President Bush before the successful war to drive Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait in 1991.

Ha Ha Ha Ha! Dionne writes for newspapers, but apparently he doesn’t read them. Obama can’t identify a single ally that is joining in his “multilateral” campaign against ISIL. Great Britain and Germany have definitively counted themselves out. This is “tough-minded multilateralism”? A “broad coalition of partners”?

Here, as elsewhere, Dionne is intent on re-writing history. George W. Bush, unlike Barack Obama, did assemble a broad coalition of allies that included 35 nations–a total that Obama cannot even dream of, largely because no one–and I mean no one–trusts him. Not only that, George W. Bush got a unanimous resolution from the United Nations Security Council and a nearly unanimous war resolution, the functional equivalent of a declaration of war, from Congress. Obama will attempt neither. He is a small man, trying–not particularly hard–to fill big shoes.

In the meantime, anti-interventionists — who still loom large in the president’s party and in Republican libertarian quarters — will continue to be wary of any re-escalation of U.S. military engagement. And a bitter election season is hardly an ideal moment for building bipartisanship.

Anti-interventionists “still loom large in the president’s party”? Really? “Still”? What a jokester that E.J. is! Does he seriously not remember that Barack Obama’s only claim to his party’s nomination was that he was the uncompromising, pure, “anti-interventionist”? The one guy who didn’t vote for the Iraq war? And now, there are “still” anti-interventionists among the Democrats? What a shock! Only, I assume E.J. was one until Wednesday.

Nonetheless, circumstances have presented Obama with both an opportunity and an obligation to steer U.S. policy toward a middle course that acknowledges a need for American leadership and the careful use of American power while avoiding commitments that are beyond the country’s capacity to sustain.

Not too hot, not too cold, just right! Of course, Dionne’s formulation is virtually tautological. Obviously there is a need for American leadership, and of course we shouldn’t make commitments that are beyond our capacity to sustain (like Obamacare, for example, but that’s another story). But does that hypothetical middle ground really represent the Obama administration’s foreign policies? Not at all. We had a commitment to Iraq which we were fully capable of sustaining, at very little cost. The war there had been won, and Joe Biden–disingenuously, as always–claimed that victory as one of the Obama administration’s greatest achievements. But Obama threw it all away, withdrawing the last troops from Iraq out of spite, just to spurn what was left of George Bush’s legacy. And that catastrophically stupid decision was one of the key factors that led to the ascendancy of ISIL, and the fix that we are in today.

But E.J. Dionne, naturally, says nothing about that. Being a courtier must be tough: you have to be really dumb, or else pretend to be.

Obama weaves a Syrian fantasy

The New York Times homes in on a concern I expressed with President Obama’s plan to use “moderate” Syrian rebels as his foot soldiers in the campaign against ISIS in Syria — namely, that these rebels are at war with the Assad regime, not ISIS.

Since pushing ISIS from parts of northern Syria early this year, Syria’s rebels have few military advances to point to and in many areas have lost ground, to Mr. Assad’s forces and to ISIS. But in many places they remain busy fighting Mr. Assad and are not eager to redirect their energies to ISIS — even while many say they hate the group.

The forces associated with the Free Syrian Army took up arms to oust Assad. It requires plenty of nerve for Obama to ask these forces to change their mission just because, after all this time, he has finally decided to take ISIS (and the Free Syrian Army) seriously.

Obama’s reliance on the Free Syrian Army looks even more implausible when we examine the current situation on the ground (see, for example, the map that accompanies the Times article). Generally speaking, the FSA is not in close proximity with the main body of IRIS forces. The latter are mostly in the east, in their “caliphate” towards Iraq. The former are concentrated in or near Aleppo in the west, and further towards the Mediterranean coast.

Does Obama expect the FSA to pull up stakes and head east to take on ISIS where it is concentrated? If not, how will ISIS be “degraded and destroyed,” given the broad consensus that air attacks alone will not suffice?

The FSA’s focus on fighting Assad is not the only weakness in Obama’s plan for taking on ISIS in Syria. As the Times points out, the FSA has, out of necessity, fought side-by-side with the fourth major player in the Syrian civil war (there hundreds of minor players) — the Nusra Front, an al Qaeda’s affiliate.

If the FSA is going to head east to fight ISIS, its need to work with the Nusra Front will become even more acute. The FSA cannot fight ISIS in the east and Assad in the west without the help of other rebel forces including some that are quite extreme. And the FSA certainly cannot afford to alienate the Nusra Front, lest it end up fighting all three major forces in Syria.

Is it okay with Obama if the FSA keeps working with al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria?

The other problem is the free movement of particular rebels and rebel forces from one group to another. In recent years, most of the movement has been out of the FSA which, in the absence of serious U.S. help, has come to be perceived as the “weak horse.”

If the U.S. provides substantial aid plus air support, the perception may begin to change. Even so, we cannot be confident that substantial amounts of the arms and equipment we supply the FSA will not end up in the hands of the Nusra Front, or even ISIS.

If, years ago, Obama had provided substantial assistance and air support to the FSA to help it fight Assad when he was on the ropes, the FSA might well have become the preeminent rebel force. Conceivably, it would driven Assad from power (or at least to the negotiating table), and might now be working with portions of Assad’s forces that turned against him to take on more radical elements within the rebellion.

Is this a fantasy, to use Obama’s word? Possibly. But it seems more realistic than Obama’s alleged strategy of having the FSA, besieged as it now is, divert attention from Assad and take on an ISIS army that has become preeminent in eastern Syria.

What would Obama do if he were serious about degrading and destroying ISIS in Syria? He would have U.S. ground forces significantly involved in the effort.

But Obama is not serious. In fact, he rejected the advice of his top military commander in the Middle East to use a modest number of special forces to fight ISIS in Iraq. Clearly, he was never going to authorize ground troops for Syria.

Hence the absurdly optimistic reliance on the FSA.

We Have Always Been at War With ISIL!

Could the administration be in any more disarray? After carefully avoiding any use of the word “war” in connection with its proposed operation against ISIL, and apparently having received more ridicule than it bargained for, administration spokesmen are now reversing course: it is a war after all! And, for good measure, we have been at war with al Qaeda all the while. White House spokesman Josh Earnest explains:

So apparently statements by Susan Rice (Our plan “is very different from [war]“), Marie Harf (War on terrorism is “certainly not how I would refer to our efforts”) and John Kerry (“‘War’ is the wrong reference term”) are no longer operative. Has a war ever gotten off to a less auspicious start?