The Karski confusion

The citation for the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded to Jan Karski reads in part: “He worked as a courier, entering the Warsaw ghetto and the Nazi Izbica transit camp, where he saw first-hand the atrocities occurring under Nazi occupation.” Izbica was indeed a transit camp; it was a transit camp for Jews to be shipped to Belzec, which was a death camp. (Lucy Dawidowicz called it an “annihilation camp.”) In his remarks at the White House ceremony President Obama caused great offense to our Polish friends with his reference to the “Polish death camp” (which must have been a reference to Belzec) at which Karski had witnessed the atrocities that he subsequently reported to Western leaders in 1942 and 1943.

Whoever wrote this material for Obama didn’t know what he was talking about, or didn’t care enough to get it right. Citing the reference to “a Polish death camp,” the White House remarks now bear the legend:

Note – the language in asterisks is historically inaccurate. It should instead have been: “Nazi death camps in German occupied Poland.” We regret the error.

What you mean “we,” kemosabe? Given Obama’s self-proclaimed knowledge of all things Jewish, we might have expected that the president would do better. Instead he has proved himself to be one of the biggest putzes ever to occupy the Oval Office.

Taking its cue from the White House citation of Karski, AFP says: “Karski, who was a clandestine officer of the Polish government-in-exile in London, witnessed scenes of starvation and death after infiltrating Warsaw’s Jewish Ghetto and visiting a Nazi transit camp sending Jews to death chambers.” AFP also reports that Obama is not apologizing for his reference to a “Polish death camp.” It is worth the trouble to get the story straight.

Karski was an amazingly brave man. As Walter Laqueur writes in The Terrible Secret, a book for which he questioned Karski in detail, 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.

Before the war Poland was 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.

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.

Karsk informed Laquer that he learned only in later years that Belzec was not a transit camp, but rather a death camp and that most of the victims were killed in gas chambers. He had not actually seen the gas chambers during his visit, apparently because they were walled in and could be approached only with a special permit.

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 reqponse was: “I can’t believe you.” It’s not that he thought he was lying: “I did not say this young man is lying. I said I cannot believe him. There is a difference.”

FOOTNOTE: In the comments to “Jan Karski’s message,” reader Stephen Cianca writes:

Jan Karski was one of my professors while I was a grad student at [Georgetown University] many years ago. His detailed knowledge of interwar Europe (1918-1945) was phenomenal. It was like being taught by an eyewitness to all of the diplomatic, military and political events of that time. I still have this image of him smoking a cigarette on the corner outside of the School of Foreign Service, with a large grey overcoat draped over his shoulders–he was tall and thin and looked like he just stepped out of a 1930’s European film. He never mentioned his participation in the Polish underground, but there were rumors that he had been tortured. He was a great man and it was an honor to be his student.

Thank you, Mr. Cianca.

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