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For Jan Karski, a Long Overdue Medal of Freedom

For Jan Karski, a Long Overdue Medal of Freedom

By Mark Salter - May 29, 2012

The Presidential Medal of Freedom will be awarded Tuesday to 13 worthy Americans, three of them posthumously. Among those being honored by President Obama is Jan Karski, a hero of the Polish resistance in World War II who died in 2000. I knew him slightly. I was a newly transferred undergraduate at Georgetown University, where Theory of Communism was a required course for government majors. He taught the class.

Dr. Karski was a favorite of students: a charmer, theatrical, a bit of a ham, really. With his thick accent and thin, hawkish face, his bearing ramrod straight and movements deliberate, the familiar pearl gray suit and white shirt (tie knotted firmly), his chin elevated, his head turned in profile, surveying the class with one eye before he started the lecture, he could have been a stock character in drawing-room comedies from the 1930s -- the vaguely middle European aristocrat, who’s always fiddling with his monocle.

But when he began to speak he would become operatic. He didn’t deliver lectures. He performed them -- sweeping an outstretched arm across his chest in an excited flourish, crouching low at the waist and creeping about, comically impersonating famous communists. Suddenly he’d pull himself up to his full height, a surprised look in his eyes as he proclaimed Lenin or Marx or Trotsky -- men whose ideology he abhorred -- “a genius.”

He was alternately amusing and grave, bombastic and sharp, absurd and insightful -- and always riveting. I was a middle-class kid from the Midwest who had worked on a railroad for four years and been an indifferent and frequently truant high school student. Television and rock-and-roll were all I knew of culture. Dr. Karski was unlike anyone I had ever encountered.

And he had a legend. The details weren’t widely known among my classmates, though they were not difficult to discover. He had been tortured, we knew, by the Gestapo. I think we had also heard a rumor that he had attempted suicide before he had somehow escaped. He didn’t tell us the story, although in later years he would share it with inquiring students.

The following is a brief account of his legend: He was born Jan Kozielewski in the industrial city of Lodz, a Catholic raised in a mostly Jewish neighborhood. He entered the Polish diplomatic service after university. During compulsory military training he had served as an officer in a horse-drawn artillery unit. He was recalled to the army just prior to the Soviet and German invasions of Poland. Captured by the Red Army, he managed to escape the mass murder of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest by pretending to be an enlisted soldier. He escaped from a train en route to a POW camp, made his way to Warsaw and joined the resistance.

With his diplomatic background, fluency in several languages and photographic memory, he served as a courier carrying dispatches to and from the Polish government in exile, and took the nom de guerre “Karski.” He made several dangerous trips to Paris and London. He was captured by the Nazis in Slovakia, and tortured at length but refused to disclose any information. Fearing he had reached his breaking point, he slashed his wrists, and was taken to a hospital to be kept alive for further torture. In a rescue organized by the resistance, he jumped naked from a hospital window, and escaped. After recovering from his wounds, he resumed active duty.

In 1942, Karski was ordered to brief the Polish prime minister in London on Nazi atrocities in Poland. To gather information, he was twice smuggled into the Warsaw ghetto, disguised as a Jew, where he witnessed listless, vacant-eyed, emaciated inhabitants wandering in search of garbage scraps; decomposing corpses littering the sidewalks and streets, killed by starvation and murder; German boys shooting Jews for sport, laughing and congratulating one another.

“Remember this, remember this,” his Jewish escort admonished him. “We are dying here! Say it!”

He traveled to Izbicia, a way station near the Belzec death camp, dressed as a Latvian guard, and watched naked Jews, “a quivering cargo of flesh,” loaded “hermetically” into boxcars, the quicklime covering the floors burning them alive.

He made a harrowing journey to London where he recounted for his superiors and British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden the horrors he had witnessed. He went to Washington and briefed Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, and President Roosevelt. I imagine he held them all spellbound. But they did nothing. FDR assured him justice would be done after Germany was defeated.

Warned by his superiors that the Nazis had discovered his identity, and ordered to remain in Washington, he wrote a best-selling account of his experiences and made a life at Georgetown.

Years later, he spoke of the effect his witness had on his faith:

“[M]y faith tells me the second Original Sin has been committed by humanity: through commission, or omission, or self-imposed ignorance, or insensitivity, or self-interest, or hypocrisy, or heartless rationalization.

“This sin will haunt humanity to the end of time.

“It does haunt me. And I want it to be so.”

Jan Karski, a haunted man, a righteous man, it was a privilege to have known him even slightly. I’ll never meet another like him. 

Mark Salter is the former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain and was a senior adviser to the McCain for President campaign.

Mark Salter

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