Superhero Revisited - 100th Anniversary of Jan Karski
Karski's life may seem like a film script waiting to be filmed, but there is nothing imagined about it and it was never made into film for a few good reasons. Here is a list of a few highly contested issues, several misconceptions and a couple of blank spots which his life story still hides
First to Inform the West about the Holocaust?
Jan Karski was definitely not the first person to inform the West about the Holocaust, as he is sometimes referred to. He may have been however the first non-Jewish witness of the Holocaust who could bring the story of the unprecedented mass-murder of Jews in Europe to political leaders abroad.
Karski was twice in the Warsaw ghetto, disguised as Ukrainian soldier he also infiltrated the Nazi transit camp in Izbica Lubelska, from where Jews were transported to extermination camps in Treblinka and Majdanek. But this was already a few months after the Grosse Aktion in the Warsaw Ghetto - the Holocaust was already going at full pace. Thanks to Karski the West gained a reliable, first-hand testimony, as well as vivid and shocking details - and the leaders could hencefort act in full knowledge of the situation.
The Man Who Tried to Stop the Holocaust?
Often called 'the Man who Tried to Stop the Holocaust', Karski's case is however far more complex. In fact the Holocaust theme was rather marginal in the initial reports which he gave in front of the leaders of the Polish State in exile, as well as to the British Minister of Foreign Affairs Anthony Eden. Karski's primary goal was to give information on the Polish underground state which was a way of legitimizing the Polish government in exile in the eyes of the Western leaders. This is also why out of the 17 minutes to which he reduced his report only the 3-4 last minutes were devoted to the Jewish situation. Karski had later recounted that sometimes, when interrupted, he wouldn't even get to this part of his report. His first-hand testimony of the Jewish situation in Europe only gradually gained importance. When he went to the US he was already considered a primary Holocaust witness.
The Film that Never Materialized
Though Karski's life may seem like a film script waiting to happen, it never made it on the screens. And there are good reasons for that. The screenplay for the film on which Karski was was working while in Britain and the US in 1943-1944, was designed as a propaganda movie telling the story of Polish Secret State with the Polish goverment in exile shown as the only legitimate political heir to interwar Poland. Unfortunately, this was at the time when the Allies would have never wanted to risk their alliance with the USSR, which already had its own plans for Poland. The film never materialized, and Karski decided to turn his story into a book. The Story of the Secret State was published in November of 1944 and turned out a huge bestseller, selling around 400 thousand copies.
Karski's life still holds many unsolved enigmas. One of them is his activity in the US immediately following WW2 when he may have been very close to the American secret agencies, like the CIA. Karski openly engaged in Anti-Communist activity and in 1955 he gave a series of anti-Communist lectures in Asia: Ceylon, Burma, South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philipines.
In 1965 he married Pola Nireńska, a Polish-Jewish dancer whose family almost entirely perished in the Holocaust. Nireńska was always very bitter about the Polish role in the Holocaust. Suffice to say that she never spoke Polish to her husband, though it was her mother tongue. Karski's wartime accomplishments fell in relative oblivion until 1977 when he gave an interview for the Claude Lanzmann's film "Shoah". From then on his role as witness of the Holocaust has been gaining the importance it deserved.
Recently Karski has become the protagonist of several comic series (find more here), as well as the French stage play adapted from Yannick Haenel's bestselling novel Jan Karski. Find more about Jan Karski. My Name is Fiction directed by Arthur Nauzyciel. More...
A Catholic Who Became a Jew
Another interesting and not well-known period in Karski's pre-war biography may be the time spent as the secretary of a high-ranking Polish official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who was working on the concept of mass emigration of Polish Jews from Poland, a concept that gained some popularity in the 1930s. For Timothy Snyder, the author of the foreword for the new edition of Karski's The Story of the Secret State, this sense of past guilt may explain Karski's later engagement in helping Jews during WW2.
The Holocaust and feelings of guilt tormented Karski until the end. In in his famous speech at the United States Holocaust Memorial Council in 1981 he said,
At the end of the war I learned that governments, leaders, scientists and writers didn't know about the fate of the Jews. They were surprised. The Holocaust of six million innocents remained a mystery. [...] I am a practicing Catholic. Although I am not a heretic, my faith still tells me the second original sin has been committed by humanity [...] This sin will pursue me till the end of times. [...] And I want it to be that way.
This obsessive sense of guilt may be Catholic in its psychological or cultural sources, but won't explain why Karski engaged and succeeded in his mission. After all, there were many Catholics in Poland, and only one Karski.
Karski was a complicated figure, shaped by traditional Polish Catholicism, and the Socialist tradition of Józef Piłsudski, the most influential leader of interwar Poland (believing Poland should be a federal state populated by diverse ethnic populations). Many who knew him felt forced to come up with idiosyncratic descriptions: Adam Michnik emphasised that while Karski's life was embedded in a Romantic model (his hero was Piłsudski, after all), he himself was a cold, pragmatically realistic thinker. Another Polish war courier Jan Nowak-Jeziorański went on to call him a cynical thinker, but the the bottom line is that Karski’s judgements always turned out painfully apt.
This mixture of extreme idealism which materialized as unthinkable bravery and his capacity to think rationally and maybe even cruelly is at the core of his whole life agenda and, and of his legacy.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 24.04.2014