70 Years Ago This Month
By Douglas W. Jacobson
“This sin will haunt humanity to the end of time. It does haunt me. And I want it to be so.”
– Jan Karski, in a 1981 address to American military officers who had liberated concentration camps
Jan Karski ( born Jan Kozielewski) was born in 1914 in Lodz. He was raised as a catholic, educated at the University of Lwow and served in diplomatic posts in Germany, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. When the war broke out in 1939 he served as an officer in an artillery unit in eastern Poland, was captured by the Russians but escaped en-route to a POW camp. He found his way to Warsaw where he joined the Home Army and adopted the noms de guerre, Jan Karski, which later became his legal name.
In early 1940, Karski organized courier units to carry dispatches from Warsaw to the Polish Government-in Exile in Paris. On one such trip Karski was arrested by the Gestapo in the Tatra mountains and tortured. Fearful that he would give away secrets to the enemy, Karski attempted suicide by slashing his wrists. The attempt failed and he was hospitalized. Again, he escaped and made his way back to Warsaw.
In 1942, Karski was selected for a secret mission to deliver information about Nazi atrocities to Polish Prime Minister Sikorski in London. In order to see first-hand what was happening, Karski contacted Jewish underground leaders who smuggled him into the Warsaw Ghetto. There he witnessed the human tragedy that would haunt him to the end of his days. Karski would later report that one of the Jewish leaders who escorted him through the Ghetto kept repeating, “Remember this.”
Not yet satisfied that he understood the full extent of the atrocities, Karski travelled to Izbica where a member of the local underground outfitted him in the uniform of a Ukrainian guard. He was led to an area cordoned off with barbed wire where hundreds of Jews from Czechoslovakia were being beaten, robbed and hoarded into railroad boxcars bound for the extermination camp at Belzec.
Returning to Warsaw, Karski prepared for the covert mission to London. He was given a key whose soldered shaft contained hundreds of microfilm documents. He had several teeth pulled so that his jaw would swell and provide an excuse for being unable to speak clearly if he were questioned along the way. Travelling with forged identification papers, Karski journeyed by train to Berlin, then through Vichy France to Spain, where he was taken to Gibraltar and finally to London.
In London, Karski turned over the microfilm documents and reported the atrocities to numerous officials, including Polish Prime Minister Sikorski, and British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden. Karski then travelled to the United States where he reported to President Franklin Roosevelt, urging, as he had in London, for Allied action to stop the mass genocide against the Jews.
In the US, Karski also met with Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, William Donovan the first leader of the OSS, and Supreme Court Justice, Felix Frankfurter, himself a Jew. Following his meeting with Karski, Frankfurter uttered the now infamous words, “I didn’t say he was lying, I said I didn’t believe him.”
Unable to return to Poland because his identity had become known, Karski remained in the United States where he continued his efforts to end the holocaust. He gave radio interviews, wrote articles for newspapers and magazines, and in 1944 documented his experiences in the book, Story of a Secret State.
After the war, Karski received a doctorate in Foreign Affairs from Georgetown University where he taught until his retirement. In 1965 he married Pola Nirenska, a Polish Jew whose family had all perished in the holocaust. Pola committed suicide in 1992. In 1994, Karski was made an honorary citizen of Israel and a tree bearing his name was planted in the Alley of the Righteous Among Nations. Karski died in Washington D.C. in 2000.
Douglas W. Jacobson is the Polish-American author of the award-winning book, NIGHT OF FLAMES: A Novel of World War Two. Mr. Jacobson has been a frequent contributor to this newspaper and has written a second historical novel set in Poland in World War Two, THE KATYN ORDER, which will be released in May, 2011.