Jan Karski and the Awful Truth No One Believed

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April 24, 2014, is a date celebrated in Poland and the United States as the 100th birthday of a brave and prescient hero who alerted British and American leaders to the horror of the Holocaust while it was occurring.

The patriot’s name was Jan Karski. Polish by birth, he was a citizen of the world by virtue of his service to humanity in World War II. Afterward, Karski wrote a memoir, emigrated to the U.S., took a job as a Georgetown University professor, and drifted into obscurity.

Forgotten for a generation, his story was resurrected on the eve of the 40th anniversary of Hitler’s invasion of Poland. With the assistance of a former Georgetown student, Karski’s exploits were relived in newspapers in Washington and Paris. French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann saw the story and featured Karski prominently in “Shoah,” his famous documentary on the Holocaust.

This week Karski’s memory was honored at the Polish Embassy in Washington where the former Georgetown student, now an eminent librarian in the Midwest, delivered a heartfelt speech. And whether one lives in Syria or Overland Park, Kan., Karski’s heroism is as relevant now as it was in 1939.

There is some dispute about the true date of Jan Karski’s centennial. Some family members have it as June 24, 1914, although most official Polish sources observe it today, which is the day Georgetown is holding a conference titled “A Responsibility to Protect.”

What no one disputes is the litany of horrors visited upon the Polish people after Sept. 1, 1939, most especially if those Poles were Jewish.

On the day of the Nazi invasion, Karski was a gentleman and an officer—a cavalry lieutenant in a mounted artillery unit. Yes, in that awful war, the Polish Army sent soldiers on horseback to meet German Panzer divisions. The results were predictable: slaughter and defeat.

Karski was captured twice, first by the Russians and then—after he had joined the Polish resistance—by the Nazis, who tortured him. He escaped again, this time by leaping naked from a hospital window. He rejoined the Polish underground, witnessed unspeakable crimes against Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, and was smuggled into a death camp disguised as an Estonian guard.

In 1942, he was sent to London to relate what he’d seen in the concentration camps. He spoke with Lord Selborne, who ran sabotage operations against the Nazis, and Anthony Eden, one of Winston Churchill’s top political allies and confidants.

No one believed him. Well, that’s not quite right. It’s more like they couldn’t comprehend what they were hearing.

Karski was sent to the United States, where the reaction was similar. He personally met with leading U.S. officials, including former president Herbert Hoover, Cordell Hull, Henry Stimson, Francis Biddle, and finally with the commander-in-chief, Franklin Roosevelt. It was now 1944.

“My talk to Roosevelt was at the White House,” Karski recalled later. “I answered his questions, told him everything about the Jews, sparing nothing. I found it helped sometimes to shut my eyes and speak the facts as if I were a machine.”

“Tell your nation we shall win the war,” Roosevelt replied grandly, avoiding mention of Polish Jews in immediate peril.

So Karski kept trying. Accompanied by the Polish ambassador to the United States, he met with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter; and again, it was much the same: no real reaction.

Frankfurter asked Karski, “Do you know I am a Jew?”

Karski, a Catholic, did know that -- and told Frankfurter so.

Then the esteemed jurist told him, in reference to the death camps, “I can't believe you.”

Karski replied that he was speaking under the authority of the Polish government and there was no possibility in the world that he was not telling the unadorned truth.

Stretching his arms out, Frankfurter turned to the ambassador and said, “I did not say this young man is lying. I said I cannot believe him. There is a difference.”

This was a common reaction to what was happening in Europe, even among people such as French philosopher Raymond Aron, who’d fled the Gestapo -- and it took the world a long time to understand why.

For much of his life, Karski considered himself a failure for not making them see. But later, after his story was rediscovered with the help of his former student, he was able to forgive himself, and in the process come to understand what had happened.

In “Shoah,” he put it this way:

What is knowledge?... Raymond Aron, who had fled to London, was asked whether he knew what was happening at that time in the East. He answered: ‘I knew, but I didn’t believe it, and because I didn’t believe it, I didn’t know.’ ”

Karski came to appear in that film because Lanzmann had seen a 1979 article about him in the International Herald-Tribune. That paper, then owned jointly by The Washington Post and New York Times, had carried an elegantly written feature story by star Style section writer Henry Mitchell. The interview was midwifed by Henry Fortunato, who was in the Georgetown University press office and is now director of public affairs for the Kansas City Public Library. Fortunato was one of Professor Karski’s favorite students at Georgetown, and he was the one who convinced The Post that Karski’s tale would make a good story. Did it ever.

The opening of that story was vintage Henry Mitchell:

The world turned upside down in half an hour at dawn, but Jan Karski had no idea then that he was approaching the day of the broken teeth, the slashed wrists, the naked leap from the window, the cyanide pill and the desperate reach for the confessional.

“The war just stopped for me in half an hour,” he said when I dropped by his elegant house to visit him. "Then instead of war, all I saw was cows and confusion."

Actually, what Karski said was “chaos and confusion,” which Mitchell misheard because of his thick Polish accent. But what are you going to do—correct such a literary gem? Henry Fortunato related that story at Washington’s Cosmos Club on Thursday morning during an event organized by the Jan Karski Educational Foundation.  Fortunato also told his audience that his family belongs to the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kansas, where a deranged gunman shouted “Heil, Hitler!” while murdering three innocents.

Two of the victims, a 14-year-old boy and his grandfather, were Methodists. A woman who was killed, universally described as a “caregiver,” was Catholic. That wasn’t irony; it was a reminder of the insanity—and, yes, stupidity—of racism. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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