Few individuals risked more to try to save the Jews from the Holocaust than Jan Karski, and yet what makes his actions most amazing was that the cause of the Jews was secondary to his mission. That mission was to save Poland, and in itself it was a desperate, overwhelming, death-defying struggle that took every ounce of strength, courage, and wit that could be summoned by the Polish patriots who consecrated their lives to it.
A young officer at the time of the Nazi conquest, Jan Kozielewski quickly enrolled in the resistance that spring up almost at once among the occupied Poles, and he was given the first of a string of aliases of which the last, Jan Karski, remained with him the rest of his life. His photographic memory qualified him as a courier because he had a rare ability to recite verbatim long messages that he could convey among the Underground’s political and military leaders without carrying any incriminating document. His missions included travel across the length of the Third Reich to carry communications between the leaders inside Poland and the official Polish government in exile, based in London.
On one of these missions, he was captured and subjected to such tortures by the Gestapo that he chose to take his own life for fear he would succumb to the pain and betray his comrades. This choice reflected the character of a man who lived by the categorical imperative to do the right thing regardless of cost. He found a razor blade discarded by a guard and slit both wrists, but before the life had drained out of him he was discovered and his wounds bandaged. He was put under guard in a hospital to recover so that the Gestapo could resume his interrogation cum torture. But such was his importance to the Underground that a heroic operation was mounted to wrest him from his captors. In retaliation the Nazis executed some twenty to thirty-five (accounts vary) nurses, doctors, and priests associated with the hospital. That others died on his account tormented him to his last days, although the operation was not his choice: indeed his liberators had orders to kill him if they could not succeed in extracting him.
Once free, and given a little time to recuperate from is self-inflected injuries, Karski insisted on returning to his work in the Underground. The risk was now multiplied. The Gestapo knew of him, and the scars on his wrist were a sure mark of his identity. Nonetheless the Underground resumed giving him vital assignments because his gift was rare, and life was cheap.
As he prepared for another mission to London, in 1942, Karski was approached — with the approval of his superiors — by leaders of secret Jewish organizations and asked if he would be willing to shoulder the additional assignment of informing British and American officials, as well as Jewish leaders in the West, that the Jews of Poland were being not merely persecuted but systematically exterminated. Moreover, they said that his message would be all the more compelling if he could be an eye witness. Karski agreed, and he was smuggled into the Warsaw ghetto for several hours, a stroll through hell. A few days later he was taken a second time. Then, to top it off, he was insinuated, disguised as a Ukrainian guard who was bribed to lend his uniform, into a camp. Karski believed it was the death camp at Belzec, but later research suggested that it was a temporary facility where some Jews were murdered on the spot, others shipped to larger extermination camps.
Then Karski succeeded in his stealthy infiltration to London and where he recounted what he had seen to Foreign Minister Anthony Eden and to Jewish leaders. From there, he sailed for Washington where he repeated his stories to President Roosevelt and various prominent individuals. All, devastatingly, to no visible effect. FDR pressed him, as Karski later related on film with a bitter straight face, not about the Jews but about whether the Nazis had appropriated many Polish horses for their invasion of the USSR. And Justice Felix Frankfurter, arguably the highest ranking Jew in America, heard him out and then replied: “I cannot believe what you are telling me.”
His main mission, to liberate Poland, was lost as his homeland was freed from the Nazis only by a new conqueror. And his ancillary mission, to alert the world to the Holocaust, came to naught. To express his unbearable frustration at having been ignored, he took a vow not to speak of these events again, and made a new life as an exile in the United States. He broke the vow only after 30-odd years when he was discovered by Claude Lanzmann who was making his epic documentary, Shoah, and cajoled Karski into recounting his experience.
Karski can be seen on film, being interviewed in his Washington apartment. Punctiliously dressed, as was his habit, he begins: “Now I go back 35 years,” he says. Then he cannot go on: “No, I don’t go back.” Collapsing into sobs, he rises and walks off camera to collect himself before returning to continue.
After breaking his silence for Lanzmann, Karski spoke about these unspeakable happenings again often, and became a great tribune against anti-Semitism. Eventually he was given the rare recognition of honorary citizenship of Israel although he remained a devout Catholic all this life. The Jews were not his primary cause, but he was a man of such rare rectitude that when he saw what was being done to them, he gave everything he had to try to stop it. And yet, he once told a mostly-student audience at Georgetown University, where he taught, that he believed he would have to answer to God for not having done enough.
Read more about Jan Karski in the book Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World (Jan Karski).
Joshua Muravchik is the author of Making David Into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel.
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Joshua Muravchik, Distinguished Fellow at the World Affairs Institute, is the author of Making David Into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel; ten other books on history and world politics; and more than 400 articles in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New York Times, Magazine, Commentary, and others.