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Karski Exhibition Thrills Diverse Audience at Illinois Holocaust Museum

Michael Berenbaum speaking to the group (Photo by Wanda Urbanska) Michael Berenbaum speaking to the group (Photo by Wanda Urbanska)

The World Knew: Jan Karski’s Mission for Humanity exhibition was launched at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center (IHMEC) on September 17, with a momentous opening attended by numerous VIPs, including a strong presence from the Polish and Jewish communities. Dignitaries included Deputy Consul General Robert Rusiecki of the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in Chicago; Wanda Urbanska, President of the Jan Karski Educational Foundation; Susan Abrams, CEO of the Illinois Holocaust Museum; Ewa Wierzynska of the Polish History Museum in Warsaw, curator of the exhibition and JKEF Board Member; and Bozena Nowicka McLees, Director of the Interdisciplinary Polish Studies Program at Loyola University and JKEF Board member. Dr. Michael Maling represented the Crain-Maling Foundation, which was the main event sponsor.  Around 135 guests – including sponsors and supporters of Karski and the Museum – gathered for this special occasion.

After an elegant reception, Susan Abrams welcomed the guests, recognizing the Crain-Maling Foundation and stressing that the Karski legacy is in perfect accord with the Museum’s mission “to teach right from wrong.” Wanda Urbanska thanked all the partners who helped make the event happen and encouraged the audience to read Karski’s wartime memoir, Story of a Secret State, which she said was recently called the “best book ever read” by members of a long-running Raleigh, North Carolina book club. Deputy Consul General Robert Rusiecki pointed out that the opening of the exhibition fell on September 17 – the 75th anniversary of the Russian invasion of Poland during World War II. He underscored the relevance of Karski’s narrative today, as we face a difficult situation in Ukraine. 

Michael Berenbaum, a distinguished Holocaust scholar, professor and rabbi, who was Karski’s colleague at Georgetown University for 20 years, said that although he has had the privilege of meeting countless distinguished people, Karski was the only person he could really call “noble,” a man who stood tall, spoke clearly, acted with dignity despite the burden of what he had witnessed during the war. Dr. Berenbaum then presented an account of Karski’s courageous deeds in detail, with passion and humor. He concluded with a powerful story about Karski’s funeral, during which an armband with a Star of David was buried together with the legendary emissary. 

After the program, many guests moved to the Balcony Gallery where the visually engaging 22-panel exhibition was on display. Karski’s incredible life and courageous mission to inform the Allies about the ongoing slaughter of the Jews in German Nazi-occupied Poland was portrayed through period photographs, source documents and rich narrative. An animated short movie Messenger from Hell played on continuous loop next to the exhibition panels.

The exhibition was created by the Polish History Museum in Warsaw in cooperation with the Jan Karski Educational Foundation and sponsorship from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In attendance was Father John Pawlikowski of the Catholic-Jewish Studies Program, Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, which co-sponsored the event. The American Jewish Committee was represented by Amy Stoken, director of the Chicago office, and Allan Reich.

This exhibition opening was the first of a series of events - Jan Karski Days in Chicago - celebrating the centennial of his birth.