One thing that I am often reminded of in todays world is just how much history repeats itself and how easy it is for us to sit back and just watch it. When we stop talking about things, such as the Holocaust, they begin to fade into the past and just become something that happened. They should never be left to the past; they should always be at the forefront of our conscience so that we may remain aware of what can happen when power is left unchecked.
I recently read the story of a man who had the strength and courage to tell the world what was happening in Nazi Germany, but his words fell on deaf and dumb ears. Those in power didn’t want to know what was happening, it was much easier to turn a blind eye. That man was Jan Karski.
He was born Jan Kozielewski on April 24, 1914 in Lodz, Poland. The youngest of eight children in a Roman Catholic family. His father traded in leather goods.
At the time Jan was growing up, Lodz was a city full of Polish Catholics, Polish Jews, Germans and Russians. He studied law and diplomacy at the University of Lviv. Jan had something that lacks a vast majority of people today, he had a conscience. And his conscience dictated his life in many, many ways.
After graduation from university, Jan became a junior diplomat and an officer in the Polish Reserve forces.
World War II
September 17, 1939 Russian forces invaded Poland as part of a pact with Germany. Karski, along with tens of thousands of other Polish military officers, policemen and leading citizens, were rounded up and marched into Russia. Jan was fortunate, he was able to disguise himself as an enlisted man and fled Russian occupied Poland for Nazi occupied Poland. Had he not escaped, he would have surely met the fate of over 40,000 Poles, and been murdered in Katyn forest in Russia.
After his escape, Jan became a courier for the Polish underground. His task was to relay messages between the underground and the exiled Polish government, first in France and then later in England. This was the perfect task for Jan, as he possessed a photographic memory. This meant that he would not have to carry valuable documents on his persons.
In late 1940 he was caught by the Gestapo. Being a man of great conscience, Jan slashed his wrists to commit suicide, rather than risk giving up any information to the Gestapo. He was taken to a hospital, where the underground was able to liberate him and he was free to resume his work in the resistance.
1942 saw Jan begin the work for which he will spend the rest of his life talking about, the Holocaust. Jan was smuggled in and out of the Warsaw ghetto numerous times. His eyewitness accounts of Nazi soldiers hunting Jewish children for sport and of bodies lying naked in the street with newspaper covering their genitals, are shocking even today. In Jan’s own words he saw “degradation, starvation and death” in the ghetto. He later posed as a Ukrainian guard at the Izbica transit camp and witnessed first hand how Jews were loaded like cattle into train cars being sent to Belzec for extermination.
Jan will never be able to shake the images he saw from his mind and they will shape the remainder of his life.
In October of 1942 Jan traveled to London to alert the exiled Polish government to what was happening to the Jewish people. He also met with English Foreign Minister Anthony Eden and describes the Nazi plans to exterminate an entire race of people. However, his words continue to fall onto deaf ears.
July 1943 saw Jan going to the United States to meet with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter (a close friend of F.D.R.). After Jan describes, in detail, the atrocities being committed by the Nazi regime, the horrors that he had witnessed first-hand, the Supreme Court Justice told him “A man like me talking to a man like you must be totally frank. So, I must say: I am unable to believe in what I have just heard, in the things that you have just told me”. Sadly, the world would discover that everything Jan had said, was true.
After speaking with F.D.R and having his story being ignored by the politicians, he was assigned to the exiled government that was now in the United States. Both Jan and the Polish government felt that the world needed to know what was going on in the concentration camps, so Jan was encouraged to write his experiences down and publish a book. It would become Story of a Secret State. It was published in the United States in 1944 and quickly became a bestseller. It became a Book of the Month selection and sold over 400,000 copies, swaying public opinion on the issue of the concentration camps and the extermination of millions of lives. The books longest chapter was on the Jewish Holocaust in his native Poland. Jan was given the opportunity to tell his story over and over again through speaking tours throughout the United States and Canada, everyday people were now listening to what he had to say.
After the War
When the war ended, Jan stayed in the United States and earned in Ph. D from Georgetown University, where he would teach for the next forty years at the School of Foreign Service. In 1965 he married Pola Nirenska, a Polish Jewish dancer that he had met in 1938 in London. She would commit suicide in 1992, the pain of losing her entire family to the Holocaust proving to great for her to bear.
When asked why he spoke out Jan often said “I have no other proofs, no photographs. All I can say is that I saw it, and that is the truth.” Jan’s life was written in the book The Emissary: The Story of Jan Karski by Maciej Kozlowski. In the book Jan is quoted by the author as saying “I spent about an hour in that camp. I came out sick, seized by fits of nausea. I vomited blood. I had seen horrifying things there. Disbelief? You would not believe it yourself, if you saw it.”
Jan would also go on to write another book, The Great Powers and Poland 1919-1945: From Versailles to Yalta- An Analysis of Political Power.
On June 2, 1982 Jan was honored by Yad Vashem and made Righteous Among the Nations, even though he never saved one Jewish person, the Commissioner for the Designation of the Righteous felt that it did not matter, as Jan had risked his life by going into the ghetto and then telling the world what he saw. On top of that, Jan was not silent about what he saw, he spoke out and to the Commissioner, that was just as important as saving a life.
Jan was also given a number of other honors for his work in speaking out against the Nazis and in risking his life to tell the world what was happening, such as:
1994- he was made an Honorary Israeli Citizen
Poland: the top honors of Cross of the White Eagle and Virtuti Militari
May 29, 2012- United States President, Barack Obama, posthumously awarded Jan the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Americas highest civilian honor.
Jan was never able to understand or accept the worlds silence on the death of six million Jews and four million non-Jews during the Holocaust. In 1981 he gave a speech to American military officers who had helped liberate the camps, in which he said “And thus I myself became a Jew. And just as my wife’s entire family was wiped out in the ghettos of Poland, in its concentration camps and crematoria- so have all the Jews who were slaughtered become my family. But I am a Christian Jew… I am a practicing Catholic…my faith tells me the second original sin has been committed by humanity to the end of time. And I want it to be so.”
Upon becoming an Honorary Citizen of Israel Jan had this to say: “This is the proudest and the most meaningful day in my life. Through the Honorary Citizenship of the State of Israel, I have reached the spiritual source of my Christian Faith. In a way, I also became part of the Jewish community… and now I, Jan Karski, by birth Jan Kozielewski- a Pole, an American, a Catholic- have also become an Israeli.”
Jan Karski lived his life true to his conscience. He saw a great evil occurring and he chose to speak out instead of becoming silent and passive to its aggression. And that is what we must do today. When ever and where ever we see great evil, or just evil itself, occurring we must speak out. We speak out for Jan; we must speak out for those who cannot and we must speak out for our own conscience.
It takes great courage to speak out. It takes great courage to stop and recognize when evil is happening, even though it may not be happening to you. If we allow it to happen to anyone, anywhere, we are just as guilty as those who commit the atrocity, because we stood by and watched.
I hope that you have enjoyed this week’s blog and that you will be encouraged to speak out against evil and hatred. Please consider becoming a follower of this blog, and sharing it with friends and family. See you again soon!