International events are focusing fresh attention on Jan Karski, whose courier report from the Polish Underground State to Allied governments early in the Second World War is a legendary achievement of Poland's wartime resistance.
Two exhibitions about Karski open at the United Nations in New York City on the 22nd of January 2013. And a French theatre production, Jan Karski: My Name Is a Fiction, played in late 2012 in Warsaw, the city that became Karski's base around 1940 as Poland organised against the brutal German occupation. Over the past few months, Karski has attracted a significant amount of attention, starting from the permament Google archival exhibition launched in autumn 2012, a posthumous award presented in the U.S. by President Obama in spring, and several book publications. These commemorations are taking place well in advance of the international celebration of the 100th anniversary of his birth in 2014.
The online exhibit, a new archive of the Google Cultural Institute titled Jan Karski. Humanity's Hero, was realised in November in collaboration with the Museum of Polish History. The timeline, accessible in about two dozen languages, is studded with images and video interviews with Karski. At the White House ceremony, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom more than a decade after his death, in 2000. Voice of America radio talks published in Polish in October 2012, Emisariusz, własnymi słowami, had been conducted by Maciej Wierzyński in Chicago in 1986, after Karski retired from his distinguished academic career. His English-language memoir will be republished in March 2013 in an authoritative edition; the original US version of Story of a Secret State from 1944 sold over 400,000 copies.
Poland, and the war years
Jan Karski was born as Jan Kozielewski in 1914 in Łódź. The youngest child in a large Catholic family, he was raised with Jewish neighbors in his building and neighborhood, as noted by the Google archive. His diplomatic aspirations ended in September 1939 with the German blitzkrieg. Karski, a reserve artillery officer, had reported to his unit's brick barracks near Oświęcim in southwest Poland—the Germans called the town Auschwitz—then was captured in eastern Poland as the Soviet Army invaded. He escaped before some 20,000 Polish prisoners of war were murdered by the Soviets in the Katyń forest, then worked undercover in the early 1940s, performing his role as the Polish Underground State evolved social structures and resistance activities on a scale unsurpassed in occupied Europe. In his book, Karski distinguishes the reality of underground activity from its portrayals in film and fiction: “The quality we valued more highly than any other was the ability […] to seem humdrum and ordinary.”
Before his clandestine departure to London via Spain in 1942, to report to Poland's government in exile, Jewish leaders had slipped Karski into the infamous Warsaw Ghetto. He returned days later to confirm the horrendous suffering he'd seen but could not believe. He then entered a transfer camp in east Poland, disguised as a guard—it was probably at Izbica, though Karksi thought it was the nearby Belżec death camp—and witnessed a mass execution of Jews in a packed freight train that would haunt the rest of his life. His report to Western leaders, describing occupied Poland's political and practical mechanisms and the methodical mass murder of Jews, provoked discussion and sympathy but no intervention. A devout Catholic, he called the free world's unwillingness to counter the Holocaust humanity's “second Original Sin”, a devastating assessment that begins the Google archive.
Karski dictated Story of a Secret State in the U.S. while the war still raged. Excerpts ran in the popular magazine Collier's, and it became a Book of the Month Club selection. It begins in late summer 1939 with social pleasures around nighttime Warsaw—eager attitudes in the face of looming danger that also appear in The Pianist, Roman Polański's Oscar-winning 2002 film about surviving Warsaw's Ghetto and Uprising. That is terminated by the German and Russian onslaughts and Poland's crushing defeat. Trained by the Underground, Karski survives Gestapo torture and a suicide attempt, then the rural family he convalesced with are killed by the Germans. Quaint passages butt up against a covert life of serial pseudonyms and restricted contacts. Karski's prose can grow stiff, with “biting sarcasm”, “ludicrous dejection” and a “martyred air” attributed to the same young resistance recruit. A Guardian review in 2011 says that Karski's exploits recall wartime thrillers by Hitchcock and Fritz Lang, then fails to note invaluable chapters on the Underground State's structure (“Contact Between Cells”, “The Secret Press” and “The Liaison Women” are three vivid examples).
His final meeting in Warsaw's suburbs with the Underground State's commander in chief, General Stefan "Grot" Rowecki, and government delegates is subdued: If he escapes occupied Europe, Karski is to report about Poland “without regard for his own opinions and convictions”. His White House meeting with President Roosevelt concludes the book. The president “asked me to verify reports about German practices against the Jews”, Karski writes. But in video interviews included in the Google archive, he states repeatedly that he decided to mention the extermination of Europe's Jews to “the busiest man in the world” then was asked no further questions.
Such disparities become learning opportunities as Karski's story is revived and discussed in our day, and require careful context. Story of a Secret State is advocated as a “must-read” book from middle school on by the Jan Karski Educational Foundation, the tireless lobbiest for the Presidential Medal of Freedom and co-organisers of centennial activities in 2014, with the Museum of Polish History in Warsaw. The book was first published in Polish in 1999 (communist-era authorities had not seen Karski as a hero, as he remained commited to his nation's post-war independence) and had its first U.K. publication in 2011, with informative end notes added from the Polish edition. Yet the Penguin edition's cover proclaims it the story of “one man's” heroism, which is hardly credits the momentous outline the book offers of the structured resilience in occupied Poland as it endured the Second World War.
Georgetown University Press brings out the new U.S. edition in March 2013, with an introduction by Madeleine Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State, an afterword by Zbigniew Brzeziński, former National Security Advisor, and a biographical essay by Timothy Snyder, the Yale historian (Snyder's 2010 book, Bloodlands, is a crucial, excrutiating account of the European populations caught between the Hitler and Stalin regimes). Their authoritative perspectives will enhance the elaborate, immediate information in Karski's book, and its portrayal of underground institutions.
Life in the U.S., and new views today
With his cover blown by media attention, Karski chose to settle in the U.S. He taught political science at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and married Pola Niereńska, the Polish-Jewish choreographer, in 1965. The U.S. State Department sponsored lecture tours in Asia—their request for Karski's services, in 1955, is on Georgetown University's website—at a time when Cold War travesties afflicted each side of the Iron Curtain, with the CIA overthrowing democratic governments in Iran, Central America and Asia, anticommunist blacklists promulgated by Senator McCarthy and his supporters, and the young politician Richard Nixon “redbaiting” to inflame public fears. Prof. Karski's scholarly magnum opus, The Great Powers and Poland: 1919-1945, was published in 1985. Today, sculptures of him on a bench by a chessboard grace the Georgetown campus, the entrance of the Polish consulate in New York City, the city of Kielce (the Polish city where an infamous pogrom occurred in 1946), and on Tel Aviv University's grounds. Another is planned in Warsaw by 2013.
The play Jan Karski: My Name Is a Fiction, invited to the Teatr Polski in Warsaw in late 2012, was adapted from Yannick Haenel's novel Jan Karski, a best-seller in France in 2009 and a nominee for the prestigious Prix Goncourt. (The novel's Polish publication met with less success; it was translated into English as The Messenger in 2011.) The Teatr Polski performances were organised in part by TR Warszawa, another of Warsaw's important theatres, and an lobby exhibition about Karksi's life and times, has been moved to the Sejm, the national parliament building, for January 2013.
The play follows the tri-part structure of Haenel's novel: Karski considered as interview subject, quoted as an author, then seen on stage as a fictional character. The first act has director Arthur Nauzyciel in an armchair, describing Karski's appearance in the documentary epic Shoah by Claude Lanzmann. It is an opening that is at once personal, phenomenologically distant, and suggestive of classical Greek drama, with the audience hearing of action it does not see. Nauzyciel then tap dances, disconcertingly, and exits. For the second act, a voice-over by Grażyna Barszczewska narrates from Story of a Secret State, backed by electronic music by Christian Fennesz and an immense projection by Mirosław Bałka. (The voice-over is open to translation, making the production especially adaptable for international touring.) Bałka's video repeatedly traces a map showing the 18-kilometre wall enclosing the Warsaw Ghetto as a lavender line twisting among streets that have their current names—a frightening visual analogy to the urban prison into which hundreds of thousands of Jews had been forced by the end of 1940. The third-act curtain then rises on a curved, chandelier-lit opera house foyer, for an hour-long soliloquy by actor Laurent Poitrenaux. He plays Karski: rigid, tormented by insomnia, recalling atrocities in Poland and the world's inaction.
It is a coup de theatre that becomes an endurance test and even an absurdity, with Poitrenaux stalking the stage and collapsing before Alexandra Gilbert dances the animalistically precise finale. Gilbert's wordless solo is aggressively ambiguous. A visceral eternal feminine, drawing the exiled Karski to live a new life? An allusion to Pola Niereńska, the choreographer Karski later married? Or the appreciation that what Jan Karski knew of his own nation's misery, and what he'd seen of the world's inability to intervene, remains incomprehensible for us, ineffable? The Warsaw showings may attract support for wider touring in 2014—on leaving the theatre, director Grzegorz Jarzyna of TR Warszawa commented on the play's reportage approach, something he felt theatre makers in Poland lack the perspective to achieve.
Lanzmann's Shoah, and late-life attention
Karski kept a public silence for three decades as the world came to acknowledge the Holocaust's horrors and, to a lesser extent, the subjugation of the Warsaw Pact nations. Interviews with the film director Claude Lanzmann in 1978 for Shoah, the Holocaust documentary, brought broad exposure again. He was made one of the Righteous Among the Nations in 1982 by Vad Yashem, Israel's Holocaust research centre. The Google archive includes three video excerpts with E. Thomas Wood, whose book from 1994 with the historian Stanisław Janikowski is titled Karski: The Man Who Tried to Stop the Holocaust—another example of promotional needs eclipsing the intent and the content of Karski's courier mission. After a dispute in the press between Lanzmann and Yannick Haenel about the latter's use of Karski as a character in his acclaimed novel, the director release a new film, The Karski Report, for French television in 2010. It shows almost an hour from their 1978 interviews, and eight intensive segments are on the Google site.
When Karski met with President Roosevelt, he knew he was “an insignificant little man”, as he says to Lanzmann in one of those clips. Recognising his awareness of this fact, along with the accuracy of the information he exposed—and the extreme unlikeliness of its being effectively acted upon—can help as we address unresolved realities that our century contends with, those of our own making and those we have inherited from Karski's lifetime.
The exhibit Jan Karski. Humanity's Hero is available at the Google Cultural Institute
For more on the Jan Karski Educational Foundation, see www.jankarski.net. For more on the Museum of Polish History, including multilingual educational DVDs on Karski and a graphic-novel DVD narrated in Polish by the actor Maciej Stuhr, see www.jankarski.org