Washington Jewish Week / July 21, 2010
By Larry Luxner
A Polish Catholic diplomat who risked his life during World War II to warn Allied leaders about Hitler’s plan to exterminate the Jews is being honored as a hero this week, 10 years after his death.
Jan Karski, who following the war became a professor at Georgetown University and lived in Bethesda, was the focus of a seminar last Sunday at New York’s Kosciuszko Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes Polish-American relations. The event attracted around 120 people — including a number of Holocaust survivors — and featured the screening of “Messenger from Hell,” a 10-minute animated short firm about the brave diplomat’s secret wartime mission.
“Jan Karski has a message for young people: be vigilant against racism, anti-semitism, intolerance and discrimination of any kind,” said Ewa Wierzynska, head of the Warsaw-based Jan Karski-Unfinished Mission Project. “Be more active in the dialogue about world peace and genocide, because Polish people are not taking part in that dialogue. They’re still looking backwards, trying to deal with Polish history.”
Wierzynska, in Washington this week to meet with State Department officials, is former director of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, due to open in Warsaw in 2012. She was one of several speakers at the New York event; others included philanthropist Sigmund Rolat, benefactor of many Jewish projects in Poland today; Dr. Rafael Medoff, director of the Washington-based David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and Laurel Leff, expert on U.S. media coverage of the Holocaust.
“For Poland, World War II did not end in 1945,” said Alex Storozynski, founder and president of the Kosciuszko Foundation. “For Poland, the war did not end until 1990, when Soviet tanks left Polish soil. The communists hid the truth about people like Jan Karski. That’s why these discussions are happening only now, in these last 20 years.”
In 1940, Karski was captured by the Gestapo while on a mission and severely tortured. He escaped, returned to the underground and two years later, smuggled himself into the Warsaw Ghetto twice to see first-hand the suffering of the more than 300,000 Jews trapped there. Disguising himself as a Ukrainian camp guard, he also managed to visit the Nazi transit station of Izbica, where German officers sent Jews to their deaths.
As an official of Poland’s government in exile, Karski secretly traveled to London in late 1942 to inform British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden of the Nazi atrocities. In 1943, he met with Franklin D. Roosevelt in Washington — giving the president eyewitness accounts of the slaughter — as well as with Jewish and Catholic leaders, but most of those who heard Karski’s testimony either did not believe him or assumed his reports were exaggerated.
“Trying to get the world to care was Karski’s personal mission,” said Leff, author of the book Buried By The Times.“For eight months in 1942, the Polish government in exile and the World Jewish Congress held press conferences. Finally in December 1942 they thought they had scored a breakthrough. The front pages of many newspapers included a story about Allied nations condemning the Nazi war against the Jews. The stories reported that two million Jews had already been killed, and another five million were threatened with extermination. Jewish leaders assumed that once major news organizations had publicized this, the world would acknowledge the ongoing catastrophe and do something about it. They were wrong.”
Karski had planned to return to occupied Poland, but was told not to after the Germans realized his true mission. He earned a Ph.D. from Georgetown in 1952 and became a U.S. citizen two years later. He taught Eastern European affairs, comparative government and international affairs at Georgetown for 40 years, becoming one of its most beloved professors. In 2000, he died at the age of 86.
Wierzynska told WJW that she’s organized a team of volunteers to preserve Karski’s legacy in time for the 100th anniverary of his birth in 2014. Honorary patrons for the Unfinished Mission project include Bill Clinton (who was one of Karski’s students at Georgetown); Rep. Stephen Solarz (D-NY); Solidarity founder and former Polish president Lech Walesa; Israeli President Shimon Peres, actress Angelina Jolie and South Africa’s former president Nelson Mandela.
Last week, Wierzynska helped unveil a plaque commemorating Karski at the entrance to the Warsaw building where he took his wartime oath to be an emissary of the Polish underground.
In Washington, Karski lives on in the form of statue playing chess on a bench at the Georgetown campus. The statue, funded by the American Center of Polish Culture, was dedicated in 2002 by Poland’s then-foreign minister, Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz.
“Sixty-seven years ago, Jan Karski came to America, and 67 years ago, I was in a slave labor camp — and I can’t help thinking that if we would have known that a man like Jan Karski had managed to reach England and America, and that he actually managed to tell FDR what was going on in Poland, how our spirits would have been lifted, how happy we would have been,” he said.
Rolat recalled how three years ago, he was invited to speak to 150 history and political science students at a large Polish university.
“I asked the students how many of them knew who Jan Karski was,” he said. “Only three of them raised their hands. Even worse, I then asked the professors, and only one of them really knew the story of the great man.”