Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust
By E. Thomas Wood and Stanislaw M. Jankowski
(John Wiley & Sons, 316 pages, $24.95)
Reviewed by Joshua Muravchik
In 1979, I entered graduate school at Georgetown University and signed up for a class, “The Government and Politics of Eastern Europe,” taught by a Professor Karski, of whom I had never heard. Aside from the fact that I didn’t know much about much, it turns out there was a good reason why I hadn’t heard of him. Jan Karski had published a best-selling book in 1944, Story of a Secret State, an account of his activities in the wartime Polish underground of which he was the leading emissary to the West. He had also brought to London and Washington perhaps the earliest authoritative, eyewitness accounts of Hitler’s holocaust of the Jews. Yet, so far as he could tell, these had no effect. As a result, when the war ended, he vowed to himself bitterly never to talk further of his wartime experiences, a vow kept for a quarter of a century. Thus, for those of us born too late to have known Karski’s book when it was in print, my ignorance of this man was far from unique.
By the time I took his class, Karski had abandoned his vow, agreeing to be interviewed for French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann’s epic documentary Shoah, of which Karski was widely seen as the hero, thus bringing him to the attention of younger generations. But the film was not released until some years later. In the meantime, I found a copy of Story of a Secret State on my parents’ bookshelves. Once I opened it, I could not put it down, and from it, rather than from anything he revealed in his lectures, I gathered the stature of this man.
Not that his lectures were impersonal. On the contrary, the students who had been in the department longer than I joked that the courses Karski taught were actually titled, “Karski 1, Karski 2, and Karski 3.” They were rich in anecdote, and often bore an imprecise relationship to the highly detailed syllabi he distributed the first day. But though he spoke of his experiences, he did so with a modesty that hid his importance from any student who did not learn details of his biography outside the classroom. He would point to his left side and say, “the Russians broke these ribs,” and then point to his right and say, “and the Nazis broke these ribs,” laughing a deep belly-laugh. But he gave us no inkling of what a major and costly operation was his rescue by the underground from the hands of the Gestapo.
KARSKI HAD BEEN commissioned an officer, and he may have been an aristocrat. Perhaps these explain his extraordinary carriage. Although already 65, he stood straighter than any other man I have ever seen. He was the apotheosis of Polish patriotism. Yet he had been forced to spend almost all of his adult life in exile. “I am a Yankee,” he would say, fully aware of how funny this sounded in his strong Polish accent, but intending the superficial humor also to reflect a deeper irony about the nature of his adopted country and the sad fate of his native land. Such sardonic humor infused his spellbinding lectures, and it seemed to me to be an outlet for the frustrations that history had dealt him.
Since the screening of Shoah in the early 1980s, Karski’s fame has spread among Jewish audiences. Although a plaque honoring him had long since been placed in Jerusalem, the government of Israel took the additional step of conferring honorary citizenship on him on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, last year. At the ceremony he declared: “Now, I, Jan Karski… a Pole, an American, a Catholic, have also become an Israelite! Gloria, Gloria in excelsis Deo” — a statement made with manifest emotion and solemnity, but also betraying a touch of that sardonic humor that I loved so in his lectures.
Karski’s following among Jews is richly deserved. In 1942, the Polish underground agreed to a request from the Jewish underground in Poland to convey information about the annihilation of Polish Jewry to the outside world. Karski, who was already assigned to carry a batch of secret messages to the Polish government in exile (in London), assumed this additional task. In order to fulfill this mission to the utmost, Karski arranged to be smuggled into the Warsaw ghetto for a detailed tour of its horrors. He did this not once, but twice. Then, at still greater risk, he was disguised as a local Ukrainian guard and insinuated into a Nazi death camp, so that he could bear witness first-hand to its workings.
The risk and pain were largely in vain. After a clandestine journey West, Karski brought word of the Holocaust to Anthony Eden, Franklin Roosevelt, and the leaders of world Jewry. The response of the governments was negligible (although Roosevelt did create the War Refugee Board). The response of Jewish leaders ranged from despair to disbelief. Szmul Zygielbojm, London representative of the Jewish Socialist Bund, committed suicide as an act of solidarity and protest. Justice Felix Frankfurter spent an evening with Karski hearing a private detailed account of his observations of the Holocaust and at the finish replied: “I am unable to believe you.” During the duration of the war, Karski insisted on pressing the issue of the fate of the Jews beyond the point that his Western listeners or Polish colleagues considered meet. These responses and non-responses helped to prompt Karski’s vow of silence.
IT WAS NOT ONLY Karski’s efforts to save the Jews that failed, but also to save Poland. Among the many messages he brought from the underground to the Polish leaders in London, one theme repeated itself: a Soviet-controlled alternative underground was being built by the Communists. Whatever it did to oppose the Nazis, this apparatus directed at least as much of its energies against the non- Communist underground and exile government. It even betrayed underground members to the Nazis. Once in London, Karski discovered that his reports of Communist perfidy evoked the anger of the Western allies — not toward Stalin but rather toward the non-Communist Poles for making an issue of it and thereby sounding a disharmonious note within the anti-Nazi alliance.
Soon Karski found himself in private audiences with British officials, including one with Foreign Minister Anthony Eden, in which the British broached the idea of revisions in Poland’s eastern boundaries in order to cede territory to the USSR. Karski soon grasped the bitter truth that the great democracies, which had felt compelled to go to war over Poland’s independence (after having indolently abetted the growing menace of Hitlerism), were now prepared to deliver Poland, at war’s end, bound and mutilated to Stalin.
Despairing of Britain’s cynical realism, the Polish leadership convinced itself that it would find salvation in Washington. Hence Karski was dispatched to the United States to rally support for Poland and to raise an alarm about Soviet aims. The American electorate contained a significant number of voters of Polish descent, to placate whom Roosevelt was prepared to make gestures and remarks that resembled support for Poland. But these were deliberately misleading. American politics was less influenced than British politics by cold realism but more influenced by sympathy for Stalin’s Russia. Washington was no less willing than London to sell Poland out.
Karski’s older brother, Marian, who had been like a father to him, and for whom Karski secured refuge in America, committed suicide in 1964. One reason, say Karski’s biographers, was that Marian “never reconciled himself to living in the United States, one of the countries that had, in his view, betrayed Poland to the Communists.”
THOSE BIOGRAPHERS, E. Thomas Wood and Stanislaw M. Jankowski, have produced a book, Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust, that is well researched, and unfailingly interesting. It is not, however, as mellifluous as Karski’s own Story of a Secret State, although it may be more reliable in some details since Karski’s book was written in 1944 under severe constraints, most of which arose from considerations of security but some also from politics.
The biography’s subtitle emphasizes Karski’s role in relation to the Holocaust. This is an understandable marketing strategy, as Karski is more famous among Jews than among most other Americans, and Jews are big book-buyers. But this was only one part of Karski’s story, and it would be a shame if that story does not find a wider American audience. (In Poland, as I have discovered in my contacts with Polish democrats over the past seven years, Karski’s name is well known.)
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.