by Rafael Medoff
By the time he was 26, Jan Karski had been imprisoned by the Soviets, tortured by the Gestapo, and nearly drowned while escaping from a hospital in German-occupied Slovakia. Had he chosen then to end his service in the World War II-era Polish underground, few would have challenged his decision. Instead, he to chose to risk his life again, to bring news about Hitler’s mass murder of European Jewry to the outside world.
At a White House ceremony on May 29, Jan Karski will be awarded, posthumously, a Presidential Medal of Freedom. His life offers powerful lessons about courage and sacrifice, about taking action when, as President Obama recently put it, “so many others stood silent.”
Karski, a Polish Catholic, was smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942, as the Nazis were deporting hundreds of thousands of Warsaw’s Jews to the gas chambers of Treblinka. Walking through the ghetto, he saw corpses piled in the gutter, emaciated children clothed in rags, dazed men and women slumped against decrepit buildings.
At one point, gunfire erupted and Karski’s comrades pulled him into a nearby apartment. He saw two uniformed teenagers with pistols in the street. “They are here for the ‘Jew hunt’,” Karski was told. For sport, Hitler Youth members would venture into the Jewish part of the city and shoot people at random.
Days later, Karski and a compatriot, disguised as Ukrainian militiamen, took a six-hour train ride to a site in southeastern Poland called Izbica. It was a “sorting station”–when Jews were shipped to a death camp, Karski learned, the Germans would first take them to Izbica, rob them of their last belongings, and then send them off to the gas chambers.
Karski had seen hell on earth. Now he was determined to alert the Free World to what he had witnessed. His life in danger at every step, he traveled by train across occupied Belgium, Germany, and France. Thanks to an injection from a sympathetic dentist that swelled his jaw, Karski was able to avoid conversation that might have revealed his Polish identity. He hiked across the Pyrenees mountains into Spain, and from there traveled to London.
Karski was able to secure a meeting with British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden, but Eden showed little interest in Karski’s account of the slaughter of the Jews. The Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was said to be too busy to see him at all. Karski did succeed in generating a number of sympathetic reports in the British press and BBC Radio.
Karski arrived in the United States in July 1943. One of his first meetings was with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. Karski described the Warsaw Ghetto, the Izbica transit station, and the systematic annihilation of European Jewry. Frankfurter’s response: “I am unable to believe you.”
On July 28, the young Polish courier met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the Oval Office, for more than an hour. Karski began by describing the activities of the Polish underground. The president listened with fascination, asked questions, and offered unsolicited advice, some of it a bit eccentric–such as his idea of putting skis on small airplanes to fly underground messengers between England and Poland during the winter. But when Karski related details of the mass killings of the Jews, FDR had nothing to say. The president was, as Karski politely put it, “rather noncommittal.”
Roosevelt seemed to view the suffering of the Jews as just another unfortunate aspect of what civilians suffer in every war. He did not believe it was justified for the U.S. to use its resources to rescue Jews from the Nazis. And he did not want hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees on his hands, clamoring to be admitted to the United States.
Although disheartened by his encounter with the president, Karski did not give up. He authored a harrowing first-person account of the situation in Hitler’s Europe, ‘Story of a Secret State,’ and spent much of 1945 delivering hundreds of lectures around the United States about his experiences.
In the waning days of World War II, Karski was called upon for one last mission–this time, for Herbert Hoover.
The former president feared the new Soviet-backed regimes in Eastern Europe would confiscate, alter, or destroy documents relating to the activities of the governments-in-exile that had fled to London when the Nazis invaded. The Kremlin had every incentive to delegitimize the regimes they had supplanted. Hoover recognized that the documents would be a crucial source of information about the exiles’ wartime efforts, including their attempts to publicize the plight of the Jews and promote rescue. So he enlisted Karski to save the historical record.
Crisscrossing Europe during the first six months of 1946, Karski secured tens of thousands of documents, publications and photographs, which were deposited at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, at Stanford University. Together with Karski’s own papers, it remains one of the most important collections in the United States pertaining to World War II as well as a valuable resource for Holocaust researchers.
Little by little in recent years, the Jan Karski story has begun to gain public attention–and was even included in Disney’s new series of animated shorts about America’s response to the Holocaust (www.TheySpokeOut.com). The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the welcome culmination of these efforts to bring Karski’s story to light so that his courage and determination will shine as a moral beacon for every generation.