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March 26, 2015

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An honor late in coming

Remembrance: Jan Karski, hero of World War II

Last week, President Obama bestowed the nation’s highest civilian honor — the Presidential Medal of Freedom — on 13 individuals. One of them was Jan Karski.

Karski was an institution at Georgetown University, where his classes were favorites among upper division students in the School of Foreign Service. He was visibly striking, handsome, always finely dressed and standing rigidly straight. He had the air of nobility — an air exaggerated by his thick Polish accent and unusual facial features, with eyes that betrayed a life of tragedy.

He was born Jan Kozielewski in 1914 in Lodz, Poland. He was Catholic. As a young diplomat in the autumn of 1939, he was called to active duty as a Polish cavalry officer with the storm clouds of World War II on the horizon.

For Kozielewski, the war as a soldier in uniform was short-lived. Germany overran Poland from the west. In an often forgotten episode, Russia also invaded Poland from the east in accordance with a secret pact between Hitler and Stalin.

He escaped from the Soviets, barely avoiding the massacre of Polish officers at the Katyn Forest, then from the Nazis. Returning to Warsaw to join the Polish resistance, he adopted the nom de guerre that he would keep for the rest of his life — Karski.

Karski undertook many missions as a courier for the Polish government-in-exile. The Gestapo captured and brutally tortured him — the reason for those unusual facial features. He escaped yet again, and his final missions included dangerous visits to the Warsaw Ghetto and a Nazi death camp.

Karski made his way to London, where he delivered the first eyewitness reports of the Holocaust to Allied leaders. In 1943, he went to Washington, where he gave personal testimony to members of Congress and President Franklin Roosevelt. He tried in vain to compel the Allies to take direct action to stop the genocide. He was a living refutation of the claim, “We did not know.”

Karski was tormented throughout his life by what he had witnessed. He tormented himself with the notion that he had not done enough. In 1981, at a conference organized by Elie Wiesel, Karski reflected on his agony: “The Lord assigned me a role to speak and write during the war when, as it seemed to me, it might help. It did not.” What more could one man have done?

In 1944, Karski wrote “Story of a Secret State,” his autobiographical account of the war years. Then, at some point, he buried the past. For decades he did not talk about the war. In the late ’70s, director Claude Lanzmann approached him to offer testimony in his Holocaust documentary, “Shoah.” Karski complied. The episode seemed to spark in him the desire to open up about his war-time experiences. Not long afterward, I was one of his students.

Unlike “Schindler’s List,” “Story of a Secret State” and the rest of Karski’s life had no uplifting conclusion. He faced death threats throughout his life from unrepentant Nazis and their sympathizers. Tragedy stalked him until his final days. His wife jumped to her death from the balcony of their apartment in 1992. They had no children.

Perhaps the final tragedy is that Karski received the Medal of Freedom posthumously — he died 12 years ago — and the ceremony that should have recollected his bravery to an unknowing and often uncaring world has become overshadowed by an international dispute prompted by White House affronts to Poland.

In “Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust,” E. Thomas Wood and Stanislaw M. Jankowski give an account of Karski’s last visit to the Warsaw Ghetto, during which he met with one of the Jewish resistance leaders. “Remember this,” he implored Karski. “Remember this.”

Karski never forgot. His memories of the Holocaust haunted him to the end. Those of us who were privileged to know Karski will never forget him.

Jonathan Gurwitz is a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News.

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  1. "A Film Unfinished" Starring Alexander Beyer and Rudiger Vogler has much film footage that was taken inside the Warsaw Ghetto by German film makers and discovered after the war. It can be borrowed from the CC Library.