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Loyola University Chicago Hosts Ground-Breaking Karski Conference

Ewa Wierzyńska of the Polish History Museum and Jan Karski Educational Foundation Board member, US Senator Richard Durbin and Wanda Urbanska, President of the Jan Karski Educational Foundation (Photo: Bożena U. Zaremba) Ewa Wierzyńska of the Polish History Museum and Jan Karski Educational Foundation Board member, US Senator Richard Durbin and Wanda Urbanska, President of the Jan Karski Educational Foundation (Photo: Bożena U. Zaremba)

Chicago, IL – The Jan Karski 2014 International Conference on Memory and Responsibility, organized by Loyola University Chicago in cooperation with the Jan Karski Educational Foundation, was deemed "a remarkable success" by conference participants who spoke enthusiastically about the caliber of the presentations and discussions. Held September 19 and 20 on Loyola's Lake Shore Campus, the conference attracted over 300 participants including more than forty distinguished scholars, writers, and educators who served as panelists, presenters and conference attendees.

U.S. Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) who was Karski’s student at Georgetown University, kicked off the conference with a heartfelt keynote speech, recalling Karski not only as a source of personal inspiration but as a political hero whose 1940s experience offers compelling insight into the crises in Ukraine, Syria and Iraq today. "On the edge of Europe, a nation bent on restoring a lost empire wages an open, unprovoked aggression, illegally annexing a free and democratic neighbor," Durbin said, drawing a parallel to the pretexts for the German and Soviet invasions of Poland during World War II. During a difficult moment of government shut down, Durbin confessed to going from the U.S. Senate to the Georgetown campus only to find himself at the famed Karski bench on campus. There, Karski inspired Senator Durbin to go back to work.

Bożena Nowicka McLees, Director of the Polish Studies Program at Loyola University Chicago and conference mastermind, opened the morning's program at Piper Hall by warmly welcoming guests, panelists and participants. Loyola Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Thomas Regan, SJ, described the origins and growth of the Polish Studies Program, which was established in 2007. Loyola President Michael J. GaranziniSJ, spoke passionately about Karski’s mission “for the betterment of western civilization.” Watch the opening ceremony here

The first panel, moderated by Jan Karski Educational Foundation President Wanda Urbanska, was devoted to the Karski legacy, featuring E. Thomas Wood, co-author of Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust, and Ewa Wierzyńska of the Polish History Museum in Warsaw. Michael Berenbaum of American Jewish UniversityLos Angeles, participated via Skype.

Afternoon sessions focused on 20th century genocides and the United Nations Responsibility to Protect (R2P) protocol along with the prevention of mass atrocities today. Professor Gregory Gordon of Chinese University, Hong Kong; Professor Gregory Stanton of George Mason University; and Jean-Francois Bussiere-Wallot (Montreal, Canada); elaborated on the optional protocol to the genocide convention with input from panelist Pierluigi Congedo of the European Law Institute in Brussels. The day concluded by an engaging discussion among young scholars, including representatives from the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation, New York City, about genocide prevention in action today.

The second day of the conference featured two parallel tracks on such issues as “Jan Karski’s Legacy in Historiography, Literature and Other Media,” “Individual and Collective Memory in Memoirs,” “Responsibility to Tell and Retell the Story,” and “Hollywood Portrayals of Jews and Poles in WWII.” A wide array of topics included a ground-breaking presentation by German scholar Frank Jacob (CUNY, New York) "The Allied Reaction on Jan Karski's 'Report from Hell'." Dr. Jacob's presentation shared recent research by a British historian Michael Fleming on allied governments' censorship of Holocaust-related information that the Polish government had repeatedly attempted to disseminate.

Presentations were given by Sue Vice (University of Sheffield, UK) “Debating the Literary and Filmic Memory of Jan Karski”; Luca Bernardini (Milan University) “Jan Karski: a Character between Literature and Historiography”; Rachel Brenner (University of Wisconsin-Madison) “The Ethics of Witnessing the Holocaust: Polish Diaries from Occupied Warsaw, 1939-1945"; Susana Cavallo (John Felice Rome Center) Translating Trauma: The Real, the Unspeakable, and the Construction of Narrative”; Karen Underhill (University of Illinois at Chicago) “Multiple Memories, Shared Responsibility: Stewardship of Polish-Jewish Heritage”; Tomasz Łysak (University of Warsaw) “Slaughterhouse as a Cognitive Metaphor for the Holocaust”; Neal Pease (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) "Haunted by the Past: Poland Remembers Its Vanished Jews"; and Adam Puchejda (Jagiellonian University, Krakow), "Polish Discourses on the Jews After 1989." Beth Holmgren (Duke University) fascinated the audience with her presentation on Jerzy Jurandot's City of the Doomed.

Among other presenters were playwright Arthur Feinsod (Indiana State University), who discussed his play about Karski Coming to See Aunt Sophie and director-producer Mary Skinner who shared the behind-the-production-scenes story of her award-winning documentary Irena Sendler: In The Name of Their Mothers. The closing panel, “Educational Mission of Jan Karski’s Legacy for Teachers and Educators,” was moderated by Malgorzata Kot, Director of the Polish Museum of America, Chicago. Presenters included Robert Kostro (Director, Polish History Museum, Warsaw); Marek Suszko (Loyola University Chicago); Ewa Koch (Polish Teachers Association); and Josephine Nocula (Council of Educators in Polonia); who discussed the challenges that students of Polish heritage continue to face in modern day America.

The conference included the screening of films about World War II and a concert of Polish classical and cabaret music. Conference attendee Leonard Kniffel described the Loyola conference as historic. "It was a first of its kind," he said in his blog A Polish Son: Documenting the Polish American Experience.

Please click here for a full conference program and watch this space for a follow up story on the dramatic programs and additional events related to Jan Karski Days, Chicago. Many of the conference presentations are available online.