Revisiting the Horror
sharing his experiences.
Why we had to tell Karski’s story.
The dramatic tale of Karski’s escape from Gestapo captivity– and its harrowing consequences.
A Jewish underground leader takes Karski on a clandestine tour of the Nazi prison-city in Warsaw.
Jewish officials in London react to Karski’s revelations about the emerging Holocaust.
Karski’s fateful first encounter on his secret trip to the U.S. in 1943: dinner with Justice Felix Frankfurter.
A tour of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum with Jan Karski.
From publications around the world and from such individuals as Zbigniew Brzezinski, Lech Walesa, Shimon Peres and Elie Wiesel.
Revisiting the Horror
WASHINGTON — “We see here horrible scenes,” says Jan Karski, walking slowly down a corridor of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
”But I must say: What I saw was worse.”
The observation is not a criticism of the museum. It’s simply a commentary on an immutable fact– the impossibility of portraying the full horror of Nazi Germany’s war against humanity.
Jan Karski should comprehend that horror. He was one of the first witnesses to tell the world about it.
As a member of the Polish underground resistance movement in World War II, Karski repeatedly crossed enemy lines to act as a courier between his occupied nation and the West. Prior to his last departure from Poland, he snuck into Warsaw’s Jewish Ghetto so he could gain first-hand knowledge of its plight.
After touring the Ghetto, he donned a disguise to enter a Nazi concentration camp in Eastern Poland. There he witnessed mass murder.
In November 1942, he delivered an impassioned plea on behalf of Poland’s Jews to top Allied officials in London. On July 28, 1943, in a lengthy White House meeting, he told President Franklin D. Roosevelt about the extermination of the Jews of Europe.
Jan Karski– a young, Roman Catholic Pole– tried to stop the Holocaust.
His mission failed.
Today, at the age of 80, he is an American citizen, retired after a long career as a professor of diplomacy and political science at Georgetown University.
A little over a year after attending the Holocaust Museum’s opening ceremonies in April 1993, Karski returned for his first full tour. Though he lives in the Washington area, he had not previously felt that he was up to the physical challenge of walking through the huge museum in the midst of its surging daily crowds. On this day, museum officials arranged for him to visit after hours.
There is no other way to avoid the crowds. During working hours, the museum is constantly full of people. In the first 12 months it was open, more than 2 million visited it– surpassing a forecast for first-year attendance of 750,000.
The Holocaust Museum, which is located near the Washington Monument on land donated by the U.S. government– though private donations paid for the building– attracts a diverse audience. A survey has found that more than three out of five visitors are not Jewish, while a quarter say they came to the nation’s capital specifically to see the museum.
Some 3,000 school groups visited during the first year, and the museum’s outreach programs have brought the lessons of the Holocaust to many more classrooms nationwide.
The heart of the museum is the three-floor permanent exhibition area; the facility also encompasses a children’s museum, various temporary exhibitions and a research institute.
* * *
On the third floor, where the permanent exhibition begins, the origins of the Holocaust are chronicled. The exhibits include newsreel film, photographs, newspaper headlines and text– not only concerning the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany, but also demonstrating the support Hitler found in other countries before war broke out.
There is a chilling film clip, for instance, of a 1930s rally of the German-American Bund in New York. Uniformed speakers fulminate against the Jews, drawing responses of “Seig Heil!” from a large crowd.
“With Hitler’s coming to power,” recalls Karski, “anti- Semitism spread to every country. It poisoned entire nations. Such was the power of Hitler’s ideology.”
Moving on, Karski stops to look at a wall display devoted to the fate of non-Jewish Poles under German occupation.
A replica of a Polish border crossing commemorates the German attack on Poland that began at dawn on September 1, 1939. As fate would have it, Karski was stationed that morning at a camp near the town of Oswiecim, in southwestern Poland. The Blitzkrieg quickly destroyed his horse artillery unit, leaving him to flee the German advance with other survivors.
He would never see the camp site again– but many of his friends and millions of others would be transported there after the Germans refurbished and renamed the Oswiecim camp. They called it Auschwitz.
Three million non-Jewish Poles perished at the hands of the Nazis. Karski carefully examines the text and photographs related to these atrocities. But he will not use the term “holocaust” to describe the suffering of his native land. The Holocaust, he insists, is uniquely Jewish.
Karski passes through the Tower of Faces– a column two floors high, packed with family photographs documenting the pre- war life of one Jewish village in Lithuania. Nearly everyone in the village died in the Holocaust.
Gazing up at row upon row of innocent-looking snapshots and portraits, Karski is quiet for a long moment. “This conveys the magnitude,” he finally murmurs.
* * *
Descending to the second floor, Karski halts before a large mural photograph of a Warsaw Ghetto street scene. The photo appears to date from the early days of the prison-city, where the Germans confined nearly a half million Jews beginning in 1940.
There is an eerie air of normalcy to the image. People are busily crossing a street; a policeman is directing the pedestrian traffic. All are reasonably well-clothed and none are emaciated. But all are wearing armbands emblazoned with the Star of David.
When Karski crawled through a secret tunnel to visit the Ghetto in August 1942– after the Nazis had already deported much of its population to extermination camps– he saw different scenes.
“They were not so well-dressed,” he remembers. “They didn’t have these faces. Everything was worse when I saw it. I saw dead people lying. I saw some men standing, looking straight ahead– dying.
“What I see here is misery. But what I saw in the Warsaw Ghetto– it was not humanity. It was not my world.”
Around a corner, a video monitor flashes still pictures and archival film footage of the Ghetto in its later stages. Karski stands transfixed before the screen.
A portrait of a man appears, his face drawn and his coat in tatters. “This is more like what I saw,” Karski says in a flat voice.
Then come images of dead men near the Ghetto wall, apparently shot while trying to escape. Then a portrait of a hollow-eyed child, staring into the camera.
“Oh, my God,” whispers Karski, still staring at the monitor.
Then a few seconds of film appear: a tight shot of a young girl and what must have been her little brother, crouched along a sidewalk. The boy’s eyes are closed; his head rolls listlessly from side to side. The girl pats his cheeks, trying to revive him.
Karski turns away. “This is terrible, terrible,” he says, walking toward the next exhibit.
“Those pictures were made by the Germans,” he muses later. “They took them for their archives or their pleasure, or just to send to their girlfriends. I don’t understand it. It was just some collective madness.”
After passing through two of the museum’s best-known exhibits– a Deutsche Reichsbahn boxcar of the type used to transport Jews to death camps, and a room filled with still- pungent-smelling shoes taken from Auschwitz victims– Karski reads a quote from writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel that is etched into the wall:
“Never shall I forget… those flames which consumed my faith forever.”
Karski says his Christian faith was not consumed by his wartime experiences– which included imprisonment and torture by the Gestapo as well as exposure to the Nazi extermination machine. But his religious feeling did not emerge unscathed.
“There is, in my faith today, an understanding of how bad reality can be,” he says. “Before that time I saw the world in a different way– optimistic, proud. I had a very happy youth.”
* * *
Darkness is the prevailing motif of the Holocaust Museum, expressed in the dimly lit walkways between exhibits and the deep-gray walls and ceilings throughout most of the facility. On the top and middle floors, the explanatory text with each exhibit is printed in white type on a stark black background.
Upon descending to the bottom floor, however, the visitor is confronted by a shining, white-enameled edifice in the middle of a room.
It is the “Wall of the Righteous,” a tribute to non-Jews who have been honored as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Israel’s official Holocaust commemorative agency in recognition of their efforts to save those in peril.
A few plaques are mounted in the midst of the thousands of names inscribed on the wall. One features a portrait of a young man with a serious look in his eyes. The text tells of his exploits:
“…Basing itself on his report, the [Polish] government- in-exile appealed to the Allies to stop the massacre of Jews. In the United States, Karski met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and tried– without success– to persuade him to act….”
Karski does not dwell on the plaque, instead seeking out the names of old comrades from the underground movement who are listed among “the Righteous.”
Walking out of the museum, Karski gazes at the Hall of Remembrance, where an eternal flame burns in memory of Holocaust victims.
“It is so powerful, honest, straightforward,” he says of the museum. “I think it will help. I imagine– I hope– that people who pass through here will think.”
This article originally appeared in The Tennessean. Reprinted by permission.