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sharing his experiences.
A Message Still Fresh
A half-century after Jan Karski warned the world about the consequences of hatred, his words still ring true.
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.
He blends in well these days, living most of his quiet life in an apartment building on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., his accent piquing no curiosity among neighbors of all the nationalities one encounters in the capital. In the midst of these mostly retired educators, civil servants, diplomats, soldiers and business people, he cuts a dignified but unexceptional figure.
Many of them know about him now, but most have never seen the compact study in his modest widower's apartment, its walls and table space full of talismans of honor: honorary degrees from universities; awards from organizations such as the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, United States Holocaust Memorial Council and the Archdiocese of Washington; the Polish military equivalent of the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor; and a certificate commemorating the highest honor the State of Israel can bestow, honorary citizenship.
Jan Karski, now 81 years old, a Polish-born Roman Catholic, an American citizen since 1954, retired after many years as a professor of political science at Georgetown University, has received all these and other accolades for an effort he made a half-century ago as a young, clandestine operative from Nazi-occupied Poland-- an effort that failed.
He tried to stop the Holocaust.
* * *
To me, Jan Karski is a hero in the classic, mythic sense. That shocks me. I would have thought no character of that kind could exist in our century. There's a checklist of traits that archetypal heroes have in common: bravery, a focus on some overarching duty, piety in some form, etc. I haven't tried to make him fill that bill. He just does. If he shares some attributes with Vergil's Aeneas or Homer's Odysseus, maybe it's because those epic heroes reflect values that do manifest themselves, however rarely, in real human beings.
I have read criticism of other books-- largely spurred by the mass success of Schindler's List, I think-- to the effect that a focus on "heroes of the Holocaust" is distracting from or demeaning to the enormity of the event itself. I strenuously disagree. The fact that the Holocaust happened degrades all of humanity by demonstrating the depths to which a society can sink. Not to bring to light those countervailing elements of human goodness which emerged at the time is, I think, to distort the image we have of ourselves and our own capabilities as individuals. If our children learn of the Holocaust solely as an indictment of humanity, they may never understand what positive inner resources they have to do the right thing when they are confronted with evil.
The tale of Karski's wartime activities is much more than the story of one man's adventures. It is a parable of human folly, urgently relevant to the world we inhabit today.
Jan Karski witnessed, and tried desperately to avert or mitigate, both the tragedy of Poland's betrayal by its western allies and the monstrosity of the Holocaust. He came face to face with the adherents of Realpolitik in the British and American governments who argued for caution, argued for prudence, argued for routine in both the democratic world's alliance with Stalin and its struggle against Hitler. Karski argued for action.
His mission was a failure.
True, the risks Karski took to witness the Final Solution firsthand and the mind-shattering reports he delivered about it forced Allied leaders to confront the horror for the first time. True, at the very outset of the Cold War, he tried to dispel American illusions of a benign Soviet ally. True, when Karski broke the taboos of his exiled government and began to speak out about the fate of the Jews, he played a major role in shaping public opinion in the free world. True, the head of the U.S. War Refugee Board credited Karski with motivating Roosevelt to establish his organization, which saved some tens of thousands of Jewish lives in the last years of the war.
Nonetheless, his mission was a failure.
The sacrifices of Jan Karski, of the Poles who died to save him from the Gestapo and of the Jews who died despite his efforts can only be redeemed if we now come to understand Karski's failure-- and learn not to let it happen again.
Hitler's campaign against the Jews was unique in history, but it did not quench for all time the thirst for genocide among tyrants. Given the opportunity by irresolute leaders and uncaring peoples in free nations, other Hitlers and Stalins can continue the work of those men. In any number of the world's tortured nations, at any given moment, lone voices like Karski's are crying out against institutionalized brutality.
We hope our book will help to ensure that such voices are never again ignored.
I would like to share Professor Karski's own assessment of his activities, as given at a conference in 1981 where he spoke out publicly about his work for the first time since the war: