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Wood and Jankowski, relying on interviews with Karski, ascribe his battle against the Holocaust to the fact that he was “raised [by his mother] to respect and maintain friendly relations with the Jewish community,” which in fact he had done. But this can hardly have distinguished Karski from many other Poles. Karski’s story is not the story of a man with a good mother and some childhood Jewish friends. Rather it is the story of a man with an uncommon dedication to right in a world in which there is not only much evil but also many willing to accommodate it. Among these were Poles indifferent to the fate of Jews, and Americans and Englishmen indifferent to the fate of Poles. Although Wood and Jankowski’s biography is not rich in detail about Karski’s personal life, what it gives us also suggests his abiding sense of right.
I recall how shocked he was — this man who had personal experience with Nazism, Communism, and Western betrayal — at evidence of unprincipled behavior by his students at Georgetown. All grades would be based on exams, he announced: he would no longer assign term papers because he had discovered that these could be bought. Each time I visited him in his office, he gave me the same lecture after discovering that my wife was working while I was in graduate school. He had seen men put through Georgetown medical school by their nurse wives, only to abandon them after becoming doctors. This was an unconscionable thing, he said, seeming to imply that if I ever did such a thing he would retroactively change my grade to an F.
A real man of principle, this Karski, one who would be worth studying even were he not also a witness to momentous events, a great intellect, and a hero. Wood and Jankowski’s account is more workmanlike than graceful, but it covers Karski’s public life in welcome detail: Karski says he learned a lot from reading it. We are indebted to them for bringing him closer.
Joshua Muravchik is a research scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
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