Over the weekend the Wall Street Journal ran Charles Isherwood’s review of a new one-man play depicting the career of Jan Karski. Isherwood’s review ran under the headline “‘Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski’ Review: Dramatically Bearing Witness.” Karski’s name should be known far and wide and it’s good to be reminded of him, though I would find the moralizing that frames the play annoying. Turning the play and review to good use, I want to take the the occasion to reiterate this account of Karski’s story.
I first learned of Jan Karski 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 told his own story in his best-selling 1944 memoir Story of a Secret State: My Report To the World, published in updated form by Georgetown University Press. I reread the last 50 pages or so of Karski’s memoir yesterday afternoon. They are devastating.
Karski was an incredibly brave, dignified, and self-deprecating man. He 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. He wrote about Karski in the 2014 Mosaic essay “A tree grows in Lublin.” It is a moving and instructive 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 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 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 Laqueur’s book at pages 232-235, which this post closely follows. 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 Frankfurter. 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 1970’s. Video clips of Lanzmann’s interview have been posted on YouTube. I think the clip below represents the opening of the interview.
In the clip below Karski recounts his meeting with Roosevelt.
In the clip below Karski recounts his meeting with Frankfurther.