Jan Karski was a witness to one of the greatest tragedies in history: the extermination of the Jewish population of the Warsaw Ghetto. In spite of a meeting with Roosevelt and the publication of his 1944 book, Story of a Secret State, his efforts to warn Western leaders proved fruitless at the time. Little is known about him. He has often gone down in history as a "forgotten" hero, but 2014, the 100th anniversary of his birth, is an international occasion to preserve the memory of the tragic past as most remaining direct witnesses of the Holocaust are fading away.
Following the outline of a Polish-English album entitled Jan Karski Photobiography (by Maciej Sadowski), Culture.pl follows in his footsteps. We relive the war through the eyes of a witness to one of the greatest tragedies in history.
For more about Karski see his profile on Culture.pl
The youngest child of a large, religious and patriotic family, he grew up admiring Józef Piłsudski . "I was formed by two traditions - religion and the cult of Piłsudski," he is quoted as saying. In the autobiographical Emissary, fragments of which can be found in Photobiography, we read,
Mother fanatically admired Piłsudski , so that at home there reigned an atmosphere of admiration for Piłsudski . She never spoke of him as Marshal Piłsudski , only as Father of the Nation.
In 1931 he moved to Lviv where he could finally learn more about subjects which had always fascinated him - international policy, history, diplomacy. He studied law and diplomacy at the Jan Kazimierz Universtity. He followed up with consular training in the Polish Consulate in Opole in Germany and officer training in the Artillery Reserve Officer Cadet School in Włodzimierz Wołyński. Soon after, aged 25, he fulfilled his diplomatic dream by joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Poland,
I wanted to join the diplomatic service, because I wanted to represent my nation. I was a proud citizen of a big empire - Poland. I believed in the power of Poland - military, economical, in any terms.
War Drums Beat
When September 1939 arrived, Karski was told to leave Warsaw within four hours and join his regiment, which was to be quartered in Oświęcim. He talks about the breakout of the war and the occupation,
Those weeks, I realized, had been largely spent in meeting shock after shock [...]. The world I lived in was falling apart around me. I felt like a shipwrecked man in the ocean, who, after being hit by a wave, can do nothing but wait for the onslaught of the next one. To the point of exhaustion. There was no longer a Poland. And with it had disappeared the whole mode of existence that had previously been mine.
After the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, Poland was divided between Germany and the USSR. Karski was arrested by Soviet forces entering Poland, put in a camp for Polish war prisoners and sent to Kielce as part of the Soviet-German prisoner exchange, where he managed to escape to Warsaw. There, in the skeleton of a city once sprawling with theaters and cafés, he started his involvement with underground activities through his brother.
Death Over Treason
In January 1940 Karski went on his first secret courier mission to the Polish government in exile in Angers in France. During his next mission he was arrested by the Gestapo in Slovakia and imprisoned. Tortured for concealing information during the investigation and fearing that he would break, he attempted suicide. He was revived and taken to a hospital. With the help of of hospital staff he escaped.
Before midnight, while fluffing my pillows and taking my temperature, Slowikowski whispered that around midnight he would open the door and light a cigarette. -Then you have to strip off these rags and as you were created by God, naked, walk into the corridor after me. First window on the right will be open. Jump. And he left.
The Ghetto Walk
After only a couple of months Karski returned to work for the underground. When reporting to the world about the Warsaw Ghetto, he had to enter undercover as he was well known to the Gestapo, with his missing teeth and visible scars on his hands. Disguised as a camp guard, he also entered the transit ghetto in Izbica Lubelska, where Germans were transporting Jews to the Belzec and Sobibor death camps. In Story of a Secret State he wrote,
It was now the beginning of October 1942. In two and a half months, in one district in Poland, the Nazis committed three hundred thousand murders. It was [...] the report [...] I had to bring to the outside world.
In the Autumn of 1942 he reached London, where he gave detailed information about the Polish Underground movement and the genocide of the Jewish population to the Polish government in exile. He appeared before the United Nations War Crimes Commission where his testimony was placed on record and would later be used as evidence in the United Nations' indictment against Germany. In Febuary 1943 he met with the British Minister of Foreign Affairs, Anthony Eden. The key below is the tool in which Karski delivered microfilm to London. In Emissary he wrote,
The key is hollow, with a microfilm report about Jewish issues. Statistics, names, German names, names of distinguished Jews.
The Most Frightening Death
In May 1943, unable to live while his compatriots were dying, Szmul Zygielbojm, an elected representative of the Central Council of Jewish Trade Unions and member of the Polish National Council in London, committed suicide in the British capital. In his parting letter he wrote that before his death he wished to express "the deepest protest against the passiveness with which the world is looking at and allowing the Jewish people to be wiped out". His death made a significant impact on Karski,
I will remember that day till I die. [...] I wonder now how many people can understand what it means to die as he did. [...] Of all the deaths that have taken place in this war, surely Zygielbojm's is one of the most frightening.
Karski is finally received by President Roosevelt in July 1943 whom, as a first hand witness, he informs about the Holocaust. His reports are met with disbelief and provoke no reaction.
The World Must Know
After a failed attempt at making a film about the Polish Underground Karski decided to write a book about his missions. The Story of a Secret State came out in 1945 and became an overnight bestseller. Published by Houghton Mifflin, it sold 400,000 copies and was quickly translated into other languages.
This period remains the least known time of Karski's life. He wrote a PhD at Georgetown University and went on a four month lecture tour sponsored by the U.S. Information Agency. In 1965 he married for the second time.
After 30 years of silence, in an interview with Claude Lanzmann in 1978, he talked about what he saw in the Warsaw ghetto and the Izbica camp. The interview became part of Lanzmann's film Shoah.
What was the use?
Karski was deeply religious, in his famous speech at the United States Holocaust Memorial Council in 1981 he said, "God gave me the task of speaking and writing during the war, when - like I thought - it would change something. But that didn't happen".
Second Original Sin
The Holocaust and feelings of guilt tormented Karski until the end. In the same speech, he confessed,
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.
All Murdered Jews Became My Family
Karski firmly believed that no nation or government ought to appropriate the "holy and cursed term" Holocaust. "Holocaust belongs to the Jews", he said, "The tragedy of the Jews is incomparable, there was nothing like it in the history of humanity."
Then I became a Jew. Like the family of my wife - all of them perished in the ghettos, in the concentration camps, in the gas chambers - so all murdered Jews became my family.
Karski became an honorary citizen of Israel in 1994. He died on the 13th of July 2000.
On the 29th of May 2012 President Barack Obama posthumously decorated Karski with the Medal of Freedom.
Over the past few months, Karski has attracted a significant amount of attention, starting from the permanent Google Cultural Institute archival exhibition launched in autumn 2012, several book publications, two exhibitions about Karski at the United Nations in New York City and a French theatre production, Jan Karski: My Name Is a Fiction by Arthur Nauczyciel and based on Yannick Haenel's novel.
All visual materials and quotes are from Maciej Sadowski' s album Jan Karski. Fotobiografia / Jan Karski. Photobiography.
- "Jan Karski. Photobiography"
concept, choice of texts and graphic design: Maciej Sadowski
Veda publishing house, Warsaw 2013
Sadowski's Photobiography format offers an overview of the lives of Ryszard Kapuściński, Maria Sklodowska-Curie and Janusz Korczak.
Author: based on the original Polish language article by Mikolaj Glinski, translated and adapted by Mai Jones 04.12.2013