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Jan Karski: The Man Who Tried to Stop the Holocaust

Jan Karski is unique among the many hundreds of righteous gentiles for his singular effort to bring the truth of Hitler’s campaign against the Jews to light in Western Europe and the United States.

He was born in 1914, in a diverse neighborhood of Lodz, Poland, whose population was primarily Jewish. Karski served in a variety of diplomatic posts even before joining the Polish ministry of foreign affairs in late 1939. His career was put on hiatus, however, with the outbreak of World War II and his subsequent conscription into the army. He was taken prisoner by the Red Army early in his service, and narrowly avoided death at the hands of the Russians by taking part in a prisoner transfer that sent him to Germany. Karsi escaped from the train while en route to a POW camp, and made his way back to Warsaw. Upon his return to his native country, Karski immediately joined the resistance movement in Poland, one of the first of its kind.

Into the Heart of Darkness

As part of his work with the resistance, Karski served as courier between resistance workers and government officials then exiled in Paris. He made a number of covert trips between Poland, France and Britain over the course of some months. On one such trip, he was taken prisoner by the Gestapo and tortured. En route to a hospital, he was rescued by resistance workers. After his recovery, Karski returned to his work with the resistance.

In summer, 1942, Karski was given a new, dangerous, and rather radical mission. He was sent incognito into the heart of Jewish Poland in order to record (he had a photographic memory) the atrocities occurring there, for the express purpose of bringing them to light before the exiled Polish government and Allied forces. First, Karski was smuggled into the Warsaw ghetto, where he witnessed the dead lying in the streets, starving infants, hideous stenches, and the random violence of the Nazis. Karski also traveled into what he believed to be a Nazi death camp, disguised as a guard. What he saw there was horrific, and cannot be recounted here.

A Plea for Help Before Dying

Karski also met with key Jewish leaders in October 1942, in order to take their message to the outside world. According to Karski’s account, this is what he was asked to communicate:

“We want you to tell the Polish and Allied Governments and the great leaders of the Allies that we are helpless in the face of German criminals. We cannot defend ourselves and no one in Poland can defend us. … The Germans are not trying to enslave us as they have other peoples; we are being systematically murdered.

“Our entire people will be destroyed. A few may be saved, perhaps, but three million Polish Jews are doomed. … Place this responsibility on the shoulders of the Allies. Let not a single leader of the United Nations be able to say that they did not know that we were being murdered in Poland and could not be helped except from the outside.”

They told Karski that, by their estimation, 1,800,000 Jewish people had already been murdered. Ten thousand Jews were being deported to the death camps every day, with no end in sight. Karski writes, “This is the solemn message I carried to the world.”

Deaf Ears

Karski took the words of the Jewish leaders, along with his own firsthand observations, to the exiled Polish government and beyond, including the British foreign secretary and United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt, with whom he met personally in 1943. He also brought his story of Nazi atrocities to media outlets, religious figures, and even various Hollywood figures. He recalls working from 9 am to midnight for weeks on end, meeting with those who wanted to know the truth of what was happening behind enemy lines. But few people believed his story.

Karski later recalled, “I got a bitter lesson, a bitter lesson in Washington. I met [Supreme Court] Justice [Felix] Frankfurter. Yes. In the presence of the Polish ambassador, he was not interested in the Polish underground movement or anything else. He only asked me, ‘Please tell me what is happening to the Jews in your country. There are conflicting reports.’ So to him I told, in 18-20 minutes, what I saw: Twice in the Warsaw ghetto, once in the concentration camp. … [He said,] ‘Mr. Karski.’ I remember every word. You don’t forget these kinds of incidents. ‘Mr Karski, a man like me, a man talking to a man like you, must be totally frank. So I say: I am unable to believe what you told me.'”

Postwar Life

After the war, Karski remained in the United States, where he taught Eastern European affairs at Georgetown University for the next 40 years. Perhaps most interesting, though, is that his wartime efforts to stop the holocaust were forgotten until 1978, when director Claude Lanzmann interviewed Karski for his world-class film, Shoah. As a result, Karski began to receive recognition for his efforts 25 years after his resistance work. He died in 2000.

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