On a mild, breezy day in Lublin this summer, the chief rabbi of Poland and the former chairman of the Polish conference of bishops presided at a tree-planting ceremony on the grounds of a primary school. The school is situated near the tombstone-shaped monument to the estimated 34,000 Jews of the Lublin ghetto who were slaughtered at Belzec in 1942. Inspired by the way Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum honors its “righteous among the nations,” this particular ceremony paid tribute to a man already honored at Yad Vashem and elsewhere in Israel. His name was Jan Kozielewski, but he was known as Jan Karski.
The event in Lublin was part of a two-day conference on the centennial of Karski’s birth. I was present because I had been one of his doctoral students at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. In registering for his course in 1979, I had no idea who he was or that 35 years earlier, he had published a book, Story of a Secret State, that became a runaway best-seller in the U.S. An account of his wartime activities in the Polish underground, of which he was a leading emissary to the West, the book was intended to rally support for Polish freedom. It also included Karski’s eyewitness report on the mass murder of Poland’s three million Jews, already then well under way.
A year before its publication in 1944, Karski had presented the essential message of his book in private audiences with British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as well as with Western opinion leaders and prominent members of the Jewish community. Yet neither the book nor these private briefings succeeded either in halting the slaughter of the Jews or in rescuing the freedom (and postwar territorial integrity) of Poland. As a result, the war’s end left Karski with an all but unbearable sense of frustration, which he dealt with by vowing never to talk further of what he had witnessed of the Holocaust or of his own wartime struggle in defense of Poland.
He kept this vow for over three decades until, about a year before I entered his class, he yielded to the entreaties of the French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann and allowed himself to be interviewed for the epic documentary, Shoah.That nine-and-a-half hour film, finally released in 1985, included countless interviews, but Karski was widely seen as its central figure, thus bringing him to the attention of younger generations.
In the meantime, now that I knew the name, I’d noticed a copy of Story of a Secret State that had long been gathering dust on my parents’ bookshelves. Once I opened it, I was unable to put it down. From it, rather than from anything Karski revealed in his lectures, I gathered the stature of the man.
Not that Karski’s lectures were impersonal. On the contrary, they were replete with remembered incidents that gave us glimpses into what he had been through without ever suggesting the scope or the significance of his role. He would point to his left side and say, “the Russians broke these ribs,” point to his right side and say, “and the Nazis broke these ribs,” and regale us with his deep laugh.
Had he told us more, laughter would have seemed all the more inappropriate. The Nazis had not just broken his ribs but knocked out his teeth and subjected him to torture. “The impact of the rubber truncheon,” he wrote in Story of a Secret State, “was something like the sensation produced when a dentist’s drill strikes a nerve, but infinitely multiplied and spread over the entire nervous system.” So great was the pain that he feared he would succumb and reveal information; so he slit his wrists, aiming to kill himself rather than betray his comrades. When the underground mounted a risky operation to free him from the Gestapo, the Germans retaliated by executing (in one account) twenty or (in another account) thirty-five Polish patriots. Their deaths would roil Karski’s conscience for the rest of his life.
But he did not tell us any of this. His stoicism befit his status as a commissioned officer who carried himself with such dignified bearing that he struck me and others as an aristocrat, although in truth he was of middle-class origins. The epitome of Polish patriotism, he had been forced to spend almost all of his adult life in exile. The postwar sellout of Poland by the Western powers had devastated him. “To me, every one of those events in Moscow and Washington was like a stab in the heart,” he told Maciej Kozlowski, the author of a 2007 book on his exploits. “Now my world, my hopes and plans, lay in ruins.” Karski’s tormented older brother Marian, who with Jan’s help had found refuge from Poland’s postwar Communist regime in America but never found comfort in a country that he felt had betrayed their own, committed suicide in the 1960s.
Karski sublimated his own inner torment by means of humor and irony. “I am a Yankee,” he would resonantly declare—in his even more resonant Polish accent. The same sardonicism permeated everything he tried to convey to us, his innocent American students, about the cruelties of history. In 1948, in the course of the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, Jan Masaryk, the country’s foreign minister, had met his death falling from a window. It was a matter of debate, Karski informed us, whether Masaryk had jumped or was pushed, but he, Karski, knew the truth: Masaryk had jumped, “but with help.”
Apart from conveying the barbarities of Nazi and Communist conquests, Karski also did a masterful job giving us a feel for a region where life had always been so different from ours. He spoke of the centrality of the Polish church, telling of peasant families who possessed but a single pair of shoes, worn by the father to early mass on Sunday morning and then passed along from son to son until each had attended a mass properly shod. He described the church’s struggle with the Communists, issuing a report card on its successive leaders: Cardinal Mindszenty had been foolish, Wyszynski was a Mindszenty with brains, Wojtyla (later to become Pope John Paul II) the smartest of all.
Nor was the sarcasm that I so relished always devoted to such somber matters. Lecturing us about Communist Yugoslavia and its senescent dictator, Karski remarked: “Marshal Tito is carrying on with a thirty-five-year-old opera singer. For a man of my age, that is a real inspiration.”
Following the screening of Shoah in the 1980s, Karski’s fame spread among Jewish audiences. His heroic reputation was richly deserved, for it had not been by mere coincidence that he came to witness the Nazi war against the Jews. In 1942, the Polish underground had agreed to convey information about the annihilation of Polish Jewry to the outside world. Karski, already assigned to carry secret messages to the Polish government-in-exile in London, assumed this additional burden as well. In order to fulfill his mission, he first arranged to be smuggled into the Warsaw ghetto for a detailed tour of its horrors. He visited not once, but twice. Then, at still greater risk, he had himself insinuated into a Nazi death camp disguised as a local Ukrainian guard.
In 1943, Karski’s high-profile activities in London and Washington led his superiors to veto his return to Poland. He spent the last two years of the war in the Allied countries, advocating for Poland but also—on his own initiative—for the Jews. Decades later, after the airing of Shoah, his public activities in the latter domain increased. Speaking about the Holocaust, he would invariably stress its singularity, just as he had done in Story of a Secret State: “brutality and inhumanity of proportions completely out of the realm of anything I had previously experienced, and that actually made me revise my conception of the range of what could occur in the world I inhabited.”
On his eightieth birthday, the state of Israel, which had long since honored Karski with a plaque and tree at Yad Vashem, took the additional step of conferring honorary citizenship on him. At the ceremony, moved and solemn but in full possession of his trademark sense of irony, he declared: “Now, I, Jan Karski, Jan Kozielewski, a Pole, an American, a Catholic, have also become an Israelite! Gloria, gloria in excelsis Deo!”
Karski’s efforts on behalf of the Jews were all the more remarkable because this was not his primary mission. As he put it in describing to Lanzmann his audience with FDR:
For me the Jewish problem was not the only problem. For me the key problem was Poland: Curzon line, Soviet demands, Communists in the underground movement, fear of the Polish nation, what is going to happen to Poland. This was the emphasis. I speak to the president in those terms. . . . Then I come to the Jewish problem: “Mr. President, I have also [another] mission. Before having left Poland I was charged with this mission by the most important Jewish leaders.”
Heartbreakingly, Karski’s efforts to save Poland were no more successful than his efforts on behalf of the Jews. Just as he was perhaps the first to bring authoritative word of the Holocaust, so he was also among the first to alert the West to the secret, Soviet-controlled campaign to pave the way for a Communist takeover once the Nazi occupiers were driven out. To Western leaders, dependent on their alliance with Stalin, Karski was just rocking the boat. He soon grasped the bitter truth that the great democracies, which, after having indolently abetted the growing menace of Hitlerism, had felt compelled to go to war over Poland’s independence, were prepared at war’s end to deliver a bound and mutilated Poland to Moscow.
One of the most poignant scenes in Story of a Secret State records Karski’s exchange with one of the leaders of the Jewish underground: “You other Poles are fortunate,” the leader tells him. “You are suffering, too. Many of you will die, but at least your nation goes on living. . . . [Y]our country will emerge again but the Polish Jews will no longer exist.” It is true that Polish Jewry was completely destroyed, but the Jewish nation was to rise like a phoenix from the ashes while it took nearly a half-century until Poland could resume its national life.
That resurrection began with the rise of Solidarity in 1980. Only a year earlier, Karski had informed my class that “dissidents in Communist states are insignificant. If they weren’t, they would be wiped out.” In this instance, his hard-earned cynicism misled him. True enough, Solidarity was soon suppressed, but it was far from wiped out. Eventually, continued agitation by the new Polish underground helped to bring down the Communist system and the Soviet empire.
Even while expressing to students his fervent hope that Solidarity would exercise caution and not overreach, Karski wanted it to succeed and gave it his support. Joseph E. Ryan, a student and political activist who befriended Karski at Georgetown, recalls being with him at a Washington D.C. rally for Solidarity and of his subsequent appearance at a retreat for student activists where he spoke about Poland’s struggles. Ryan also recalls Karski speaking in Georgetown’s main chapel at a Holocaust memorial service. There he confessed that, confronted with the deafness of the British and American governments to his pleas, he had contemplated committing suicide to send a message:
He always wondered whether he did enough to stop the Holocaust, and said that when he died, he would have to account for it when he faced God. That [writes Ryan] was one of the most powerful presentations I have seen in my life.
In their excellent biography, Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust (1994), E. Thomas Wood and Stanislaw Jankowski attribute Karski’s stance on the Holocaust to his mother, who “raised [him] to respect and maintain friendly relations with the Jewish community.” But surely many other Polish mothers raised their sons on similar injunctions. How many of those sons risked their lives, repeatedly, to try to save Jews?
What explains Karski is to be found not in his upbringing—even if that is what he told his biographers. His strict sense of right and wrong may have been shaped by his mother, but his unbreakable determination to do right no matter the risk or the price had to have come from a place more mysterious and deep within. It is to honor that essential quality of soul that a tree now grows in Lublin, matching the one in Jerusalem. Both bear testament to the rarest of men, one who managed to save neither the Jews nor his beloved Poland but who laid on the line everything he had in the attempt—and in so doing left a model of courage and righteousness for the generations.
A somewhat different version of this essay was delivered at a memorial conference in Lublin marking the centennial of Jan Karski’s birth.