by Joshua Muravchik
September 9, 2014
Remembering Jan Karski, the Pole who told FDR to his face about the Holocaust, and still wondered if he’d done enough.
On a mild, breezy day in Lublin this summer, the chief rabbi of Poland and the former chairman of the Polish conference of bishops presided at a tree-planting ceremony on the grounds of a primary school. The school is situated near the tombstone-shaped monument to the estimated 34,000 Jews of the Lublin ghetto who were slaughtered at Belzec in 1942. Inspired by the way Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum honors its “righteous among the nations,” this particular ceremony paid tribute to a man already honored at Yad Vashem and elsewhere in Israel. His name was Jan Kozielewski, but he was known as Jan Karski.
The event in Lublin was part of a two-day conference on the centennial of Karski’s birth. I was present because I had been one of his doctoral students at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. In registering for his course in 1979, I had no idea who he was or that 35 years earlier, he had published a book, Story of a Secret State, that became a runaway best-seller in the U.S. An account of his wartime activities in the Polish underground, of which he was a leading emissary to the West, the book was intended to rally support for Polish freedom. It also included Karski’s eyewitness report on the mass murder of Poland’s three million Jews, already then well under way.
A year before its publication in 1944, Karski had presented the essential message of his book in private audiences with British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as well as with Western opinion leaders and prominent members of the Jewish community. Yet neither the book nor these private briefings succeeded either in halting the slaughter of the Jews or in rescuing the freedom (and postwar territorial integrity) of Poland. As a result, the war’s end left Karski with an all but unbearable sense of frustration, which he dealt with by vowing never to talk further of what he had witnessed of the Holocaust or of his own wartime struggle in defense of Poland……