The word “hero” gets bandied about quite a bit. But I often think of a true hero, my professor and friend JAN KARSKI.
He taught me at Georgetown University in the 80s and we forged a friendship in the 90s, having regular Sunday brunch at the old Houlihan’s in Chevy Chase, MD. I was in awe that this larger-than-life figure, the legendary courier who carried the first eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust to the West (as chronicled, among other sources, in the book “Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust”) would take time to chat with me for hours every week.
Jan Karski died in July 2000. He received many awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded posthumously in 2012.
I recently found this article I wrote about him, published in The Georgetown Voice in December 3, 1987. If you have some time, please read it and remember him, or get to know a little about a great man who has been called “Humanity’s Hero”. I miss him and continue to honor him.
Jan Karski – Notes from the Polish Underground
by Flavio Cumpiano
The Georgetown Voice - December 3, 1987
In 1949, Jan Karski entered Georgetown University to prepare his dissertation on the “Communist seizure of power in Eastern Europe after the Second World War.” But he was no ordinary student entering a university to do scholarly work based on library research. Karski had lived the horrifying experience of the war as a wartime courier for the Polish underground. He had suffered in flesh and spirit the atrocities carried out against the Polish people, his countrymen.
Karski, now a Georgetown government professor, often plays down his role as a courier, and considers his contribution to Poland to be that of a mere messenger whose virtue was a photographic memory. But on rare occasions, this imposing man, who exudes an aura of gentle grandeur, is willing to open his soul and talk about his life. “As you can see I am an old man. I’m on my way out. I am not afraid of anything or anybody so I can speak my mind.”
The first time Karski arrived in the United States was June 1943, when he was sent by the Polish government-in-exile to inform American officials about the situation in Poland and about the extermination of the Jews in his native country. Karski was given a diplomatic passport and stayed in the United States for two months in a secret mission. During that time, he spoke with President Roosevelt, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, and met with prominent Catholic and Jewish leaders such as Apostolic Delegate Cardinal Cicognani and the president of the World Jewish Congress Rabbi Wise.
All these meetings were supposed to be secret; however, upon arrival in London after his mission was over, the Polish Prime Minister showed Karski a transcript of a broadcast in the Nazi Germany radio which said that “in the United States there is a certain individual who calls himself Jan Karski, he is a Bolshevik agent in the payroll of the American Jews.” The Polish courier’s cover had been blown by the Nazi intelligence. Nevertheless, while in London, Karski reported to four members of the British War Cabinet, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden included.
The Polish government then decided to send him once again to the United States, this time openly, in December 1943. Although formally assigned to the Polish Embassy, Karski enjoyed total freedom to lecture and write. It was in this period that he wrote Story of a Secret State, a book recounting his wartime experiences that became a bestseller. Karski met once again with President Roosevelt to report the condition of the Jews in the concentration camps. He had volunteered in 1942 to be smuggled into the Belzic death camp to gather evidence of the Nazi’s extermination policies and had just witnessed the abhorrent state of the Jewish people in the Warsaw ghetto two months before his meeting with the President.
Karski tells of his role in expressing the plight of the Jews: “I was not a political leader. I was just a messenger who reported what I saw.” What was the reaction of the Allies upon learning of Hitler’s Final Solution? “Great sympathy, but those who wanted to know what was happening in Poland had many sources: the Jewish escapees, Great Britain and the United States had their own agents, the World and the American Jewish Congress had access to foreign offices, the press had ways to find out.” Karski sensed a great amount of hypocrisy in the apparent surprise at the Holocaust expressed by many secular and religious leaders after the war was over. He claims the information was accessible to them all along.
At any rate, shortly after Karski’s meeting with Roosevelt, the President ordered the creation of the American Refugee Board, an organization whose main task was to protect the Jewish escapees and place them in the U.S. Karski recounts most of what he saw in the concentration camps of the Polish countryside in a 45-munite segment of the documentary movie “Shoah.” He explains that “Warsaw was destroyed in the campaign of 1939. So the Germans allowed the Aryan, the Polish population, to move into the Warsaw Jewish ghetto. So there was no difficulty for me to get in there. Originally there were 450,000 Jews in the ghetto, at the time (1943) I saw no more than 60,000. The rest were already killed or sent over to the concentration camps.”
Karski himself had suffered excruciation at the hands of the Germans. Shortly after the German invasion of Poland in September 1, 1939, the Russians entered Poland from the East. The Poles had no chance of successful resistance against the colossal military might of the German and Russian invaders. At that time, Karski was a second lieutenant of the horse artillery in the Polish Army and fell as a prisoner of war to the Soviets. The German and Soviet military staff made the arrangement that those non-commissioned officers captured by the Nazis who were of Ukrainian, Byelorussian or Jewish descent could go to the Soviet part of Poland if they wanted. The Soviet Army then agreed to free the captured officers who were of German descent to the German side. So, officer Jan Karski got rid of his officer’s insignia, went to the simple soldier’s barracks and told the commander he was born in Lodz, which at that time was already incorporated into Germany. The Soviets agreed to send him to the German side of Poland. Karski met a worse fate there.
“I was then on the German side and they sent us for forced labor in a cattle train, so I jumped from the window and escaped the Germans and joined the underground movement, “ Karski recalls. Between the winter of 1939 and the early summer of 1940, Karski was sent by the underground movement back and forth from Warsaw to France in successful missions as a courier. But in June 1940, he was arrested in Slovakia by the Nazis and tortured because they found a film he was to deliver to France on one of his secret missions.
According to Karski, the Gestapo used abominable methods of “persuasion” to make him reveal the full content of the partially developed film, and to disclose the identity of those that appeared in it. The members of the Polish underground movement that had given him the film, however, did not inform Karski of its content. So, for several days, Karski suffered “beatings, they were beating me with a rubber hose and just by chance they didn’t knock out my eye; they knocked out most of my teeth and broke something inside my right ear and later they broke my ribs…I was in bad shape.” Karski was sent to a hospital where his unbearable pain led him to try to take his life by slashing his wrists with a razor blade he had hidden in his shoes. But the tenacity of his veins matched the tenacity of his spirit, and Jan Karski lived to see another day. Some weeks later, he was rescued by the Polish underground and continued serving his country in the midst of the war.
Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945. At that time Karski was still assigned to the Polish Embassy and for the next three months, the Polish government-in-exile in London was still recognized by the Western Allies. But on July 5, 1945 the American, British and Soviet governments withdrew recognition of the Polish government-in-exile and recognized the new government in Poland that was under Communist control. So Karski became a “political refugee” since he did not want to serve the new “set-up” in Poland, and acquired legal status to enter the United States through an immigration visa obtained in Montreal. From 1946 to 1948 Karski worked as a member of the Board of Directors of an American company in Caracas. He stayed in Venezuela until President Rómulo Betancourt, whom he describes as “one of the greatest statesmen ever,” was overthrown in November 1948. Karski moved to the States in 1949, earned his Ph.D. from Georgetown, and began teaching regularly at the university in 1952.
During the war one of the people to whom Karski had reported was Edmund A. Walsh, S.J., who at the time was Regent of the School of Foreign Service. President Roosevelt had advised the Polish Embassy to get Karski in touch with Father Walsh in 1943. So, Karski became involved with Georgetown through Walsh, whom he describes as a “mysterious man who had his hands in everything, a charismatic leader who was respected by everyone.”
After working as a professor at Georgetown for five years, the State Department sent Karski on a six month lecture tour of Asia, including South Korea, Japan, Viet Nam, Singapore, India, Pakistan, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). In 1967, he was sent again on another six month lecture tour, this time to French-speaking Africa. Karski says with pride, “Everywhere I go, Georgetown University is known.”
In 1984, Karski’s major work The Great Powers and Poland (From Versailles to Yalta) was published by the University Press of America. Janus K. Zawodny, of the Polish Review magazine, calls this book a “classic of its genre, a magnum opus of a scholar whose gentle instincts of fairness are commensurate with his compassion for humanity in general.” On April 16, 1983, Karski received the Doctorate of Humane Letters honoris causa from Georgetown University. He has also received the “order Virtuti Militari,” the highest Polish military decoration, a special citation by the United Nations, and the medal, “A Righteous Gentile Among Nations,” by the state of Israel. A tree bearing his name has been planted in the Alley of Rigtheous Gentiles Among Nations in Israel.
Professor Karski offers an insightful look at the evolution of Georgetown: “When I entered Georgetown it was a very respected, purely Catholic university. There was an overwhelming majority of Catholic students sent from one generation to another. Fathers would send their sons and so on. There were a lot of rich students, very many of them from South America, most of them interested primarily in cars, fraternities ad social activities. So it was a genteel, Catholic, provincial university. And then change came. Girls came to Georgetown. At the time, you couldn’t imagine the college or the School of Foreign Service accepting girls. Then came blacks, then Jewish students and faculty, then people from South America, not rich but able and capable students whose education was in many case subsidized by the government. There was an increase in the quality of students and Georgetown was becoming more and more liberal. In a good sense, more tolerant, more open. Our students presently are ten times better than 35 years ago. At the time professors would deliver sermons, but now the students challenge teachers and even evaluate them. And this, of course, makes teaching more difficult for us. But this I respect, this intellectual independence of young students in the United States.”
Karksi has found his niche at Georgetown for his teaching and scholarly work. Yet according to fellow Government professor William V. O’Brien, “Above everything else, it is his moral presence and sensitivity that has been his biggest contribution to Georgetown.”