Mission to Washington

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A Message Still Fresh

Why we had to tell Karski’s story.

Excerpt: The Price of Freedom

The dramatic tale of Karski’s escape from Gestapo captivity– and its harrowing consequences.

Excerpt: A Tour of the Ghetto

A Jewish underground leader takes Karski on a clandestine tour of the Nazi prison-city in Warsaw.

Excerpt: Believing the Unbelievable

Jewish officials in London react to Karski’s revelations about the emerging Holocaust.

Excerpt: Mission to Washington

Karski’s fateful first encounter on his secret trip to the U.S. in 1943: dinner with Justice Felix Frankfurter.

Revisiting the Horror

A tour of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum with Jan Karski.

Comments about the Book and the Man

From publications around the world and from such individuals as Zbigniew Brzezinski, Lech Walesa, Shimon Peres and Elie Wiesel.

Mission to Washington

Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust, by E. Thomas Wood and Stanislaw M. Jankowski (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1994; paperback February 1996). Copyright 1994 by E. Thomas Wood and Stanislaw M. Jankowski. All rights reserved.

It cannot have been a coincidence that Ciechanowski brought together three of the Roosevelt administration’s most prominent Jews to hear Karski’s report in this initial meeting. Presidential adviser Ben Cohen, Assistant Solicitor General Oscar Cox and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter had helped to shape Roosevelt’s New Deal policies.

Each man was close to the president and well-connected in Washington. Ciechanowski wanted to get Roosevelt’s attention; Karski carried dramatic news that would presumably interest American Jews. Therefore, the ambassador would set his strategy in motion by inviting F.D.R.’s top Jewish advisers to meet Karski.

This plan was unquestionably sound with regard to Oscar Cox. More active in Jewish matters than most of the numerous other Jews in the administration, Cox had approached Ciechanowski in September 1942 to discuss the possibility of a United Nations commission on war crimes.

Cox’s activism, however, represented an anomaly. Far more typical of the attitude toward Jewish issues of Jews in Roosevelt’s inner circle was Felix Frankfurter’s reaction to news of the emerging Holocaust. The son of Austrian Jews, Frankfurter did express concern about anti-semitism and did sometimes intervene behind the scenes to deal with instances of bias.

But the news from Europe in recent months had not energized Frankfurter. The difference between Frankfurter’s attitude toward it and Cox’s was evident in each man’s reaction to the Riegner telegram– a 1942 report based on detailed information from a German informant about Hitler’s plans to exterminate the Jews.

When Cox came into possession of the still-secret telegram, he sent a copy to Ciechanowski and urged him to investigate the issue. When World Jewish Congress leader Nahum Goldmann showed the dispatch to Justice Frankfurter in October 1942, he found himself “very badly impressed by Frankfurter, who is an egoist and who, having read the terrible cables, started immediately to talk of his speeches.”

The dinner meeting with Cohen, Cox and Frankfurter lasted until nearly 1:00 in the morning. Jan held forth on the organization of the Underground and other subjects, while also giving an objective description of the persecution of Jews in Poland. Over dinner, he referred only in passing to what he himself had witnessed– but the stories were still enough to “make your hair stand on end,” as Cox wrote to Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s top aide.

Frankfurter lingered after the other guests left the embassy. Adjourning the gathering to a quiet ballroom, Ciechanowski took a seat to Karski’s left. The Supreme Court justice sat opposite Karski, looking into his eyes.

“Mr. Karski,” Frankfurter asked, “do you know that I am a Jew?”

Karski nodded.

“There are so many conflicting reports about what is happening to the Jews in your country,” Frankfurter said. “Please tell me exactly what you have seen.”

Jan spent half an hour patiently explaining how his missions to the Ghetto and the camp had come about and precisely, in gruesome detail, what he had witnessed. When Karski finished, he waited for the visitor to make the next move.

Frankfurter silently got up from his chair. For a few moments, he paced back and forth in front of Karski and the ambassador, who looked on in puzzlement. Then, just as quietly, he took his seat again.

“Mr. Karski,” Frankfurter said after a further pause, “a man like me talking to a man like you must be totally frank. So I must say: I am unable to believe you.”

Ciechanowski flew from his seat. “Felix, you don’t mean it!” he cried. “How can you call him a liar to his face! The authority of my government is behind him. You know who he is!”

Frankfurter replied, in a soft voice filled with resignation, “Mr. Ambassador, I did not say this young man is lying. I said I am unable to believe him. There is a difference.”

After a forced exchange of pleasantries, Frankfurter left the room in the company of Ciechanowski. Jan sat alone in the vast room as their footsteps echoed away.

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