In 1943, Jan Karski, a Polish diplomat and courier for the Polish resistance, met with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and relayed to him in detail the horrors of the Holocaust. Karski had personally witnessed Nazi atrocities in the Warsaw ghetto and a Nazi transit camp in Poland. He told Frankfurter of his experience, but his appeal fell on deaf ears. “I do not believe you,” the judge responded.
“Felix! What are you talking about?” interrupted Jan Ciechanowski, Poland’s ambassador to the United States, who was present at the meeting. “He is not lying!”
Frankfurter, a Jew himself, said: “I did not say that he is lying; I said that I don’t believe him,” as if refusing to face the horrible reality.
Karski’s mission was difficult, if not impossible. In 1942, the Polish resistance and Jewish leaders in the besieged country tasked Karski with telling the West about Poland’s plight and the tragedy of its people, hoping for help from the allies. Though reports of Nazi war crimes had reached Western leaders prior to Karski’s mission, he was the first eyewitness to the atrocities to give an account in person. Karski, the man who tried to tell the world about the Holocaust, would have turned 100 years old today. He died in 2000 in Washington, D.C., after a decades-long career teaching history at Georgetown University.
Everywhere he went, Karski, a devout Roman Catholic, was met with disbelief or inaction. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill claimed he had no time to meet with the Polish emissary. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt met with the Pole in 1943, assured his support for Karski’s people, but made no mention of the destruction of the Jews.
“When I left, the President was still smiling and fresh. I felt fatigued,” Karski later wrote of his meeting with the U.S. president.
Karski theatrically described his conversation with Roosevelt in an interview with the filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, who released their interviews in the 2010 film The Karski Report.
While Western leaders largely ignored Karski, the media widely disseminated his story. At the conclusion of his efforts to inform the West, he remained in the United States and published a captivating account of his mission in his 1944 book Story of a Secret State. The book quickly became a best-seller. Bill Clinton, Karski’s student at Georgetown, later said that “all freedom-seeking people around the world should know Karski’s story.”
A young diplomat and a reserve officer in the Polish army, Karski was captured by the Soviets soon after their invasion of Poland in September of 1939. He narrowly avoided execution, as he would several times during the war, by trading his officer’s uniform for a private’s, as only low-ranking soldiers were to be part of a POW exchange with the Germans. He later escaped by jumping out of a moving train. Had he not changed his uniform, he very well might have ended up among the 22,000 Polish officers murdered in 1940 by the Red Army in the Katyn forest.
Following his escape, Karski worked for the Polish resistance as a courier, transporting documents between Polish authorities in the country and their counterparts in exile. He would memorize their content using his photographic memory. While traveling through the mountains of central Europe, he was captured by the Nazis and tortured by the Gestapo. He attempted suicide, which he graphically describes in Story of a Secret State, but was later freed by Polish underground fighters.
In 1942, Jewish leaders brought Karski into the Warsaw Ghetto for him to witness the atrocities there. Among the horrors: Hitler Youth “Jew hunts” organized for fun. “They offered to take me to the Warsaw ghetto so that I could literally see the spectacle of a people expiring, breathing its last before my eyes. . . . As an eyewitness I would be much more convincing than a mere mouthpiece,” he wrote.
He also posed as a guard at Izbica, a transit camp where he saw masses of Jews readied for transport to concentration camps. “Hunger, thirst, fear and exhaustion had driven them all insane,” he wrote in Story of a Secret State.
After the war, Karski stayed in the United States, earning his doctorate from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in less than three years. Karski spent 35 years at the university before retiring in 1984. His many honors include the “Righteous Among Nations” title from the state of Israel, and a 2012 posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom. The Polish parliament named 2014 the year of Jan Karski.
Hanna Kozlowska is a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously worked as a researcher and freelance contributor for The New York Times in Poland.
© 2014, Foreign Policy