Jan Karski: Witness to Genocide

 Jan Karski was one of the true heroes of the 20th century. A Polish Christian who served as a civil servant in his native land before World War II, Karski joined the anti-German underground during the global conflict. His mission was to serve as a courier to the Polish government in exile in London. Karski risked his life by twice sneaking into the Warsaw Ghetto to witness the horrors of Jewish life and death and he posed as a Ukrainian guard to infiltrate the German death camp of Belzec and witness the deportation to death of the Jews. Karski brought the news of the Holocaust to Winston Churchill in London in 1942 and later met with President Roosevelt in Washington. But his most interesting—and disturbing—encounter in America was with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, a Roosevelt appointee to the highest court in the land and a Jew with roots in Vienna.

Through an interpreter, Karski described the suffering of the Jews of Warsaw and the deportations to Belzec. He spoke to the Supreme Court Justice honestly and did not hold back any information. As the meeting closed, all Frankfurter could say to Karski was “I don’t believe you.”

The interpreter was shocked. He pleaded Karski’s case with Frankfurter and asked the Roosevelt appointee how he could accuse a legitimate representative of the Polish government in exile of lying.

Frankfurter responded: “I didn’t say Mr. Karski was lying. I just said that I don’t believe him.”

By the time Karski met with the Americans, most of European Jewry had been murdered. But even then, there were still 60,000 Jews surviving in the Lodz Ghetto and the 800,000 Jews in Hungary—a German ally—remained unmolested. Only in the spring and summer of 1944 were the Jews of Lodz and Hungary gassed in Birkenau. Had Karski been taken seriously—had his information of genocide not been beyond belief—there should have been some way to save the remnant of European Jewry.

Karski was a “Righteous Gentile” who risked his life, as a Polish Christian, to report to the world the details of German mass murder of the Jews. He stands in contrast to Polish partisans who would not supply the Warsaw Jews with adequate weapons in preparation for the revolt and, in fact, shot to death Jews who wanted to join them in the struggle to defeat the Nazis.

After World War II, Karski remained in America, became a citizen, studied for his Ph.D at Georgetown University and taught Eastern European Affairs at Georgetown for 40 years. His testimony was included in Claude Lanzmann’s landmark documentary Shoah and he was recognized as a “Righteous Gentile” by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. He died in 2000. Karski was a Polish patriot who was a true friend of the Jewish people.