by Joshua Muravchik

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent: Read More about Jan Kars­ki and Oth­er Right­eous Gentiles

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.