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 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 do not 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.
“I didn’t say Mr. Karski was lying. I just said that I don’t believe him.”Then-Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter
As we approach America’s Independence Day, I often wonder how American Jews celebrated July 4th in 1942 while millions of Jews were being murdered by the SS mobile killing units in Europe and our brothers and sisters were being confined to starvation and disease in the ghettoes. While to their credit 500,000 American Jews fought in World War II – approximately 11% of the Jewish population in the US – news of the German genocide of European Jewry was known.
Professor Laurel Leff in her shocking Buried by The Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper (2005) reveals that the Jewish-owned newspaper of record buried the mass murder of Jews in Europe by the Germans. But the Yiddish press, a major source of news for American Jews, provided details of the mass murder. The genocide was only, partially, a “terrible secret.” If American Jews knew of this slaughter, why were they not out in the street protesting or at least showing solidarity for the persecuted Jews of Europe?
Little to be done
THERE WAS little that could be done in July 1942. 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.
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, in his Were We Our Brothers’ Keepers?: The Public Response of American Jews to the Holocaust, 1938-1944 (1985), details what was known as early as June 1942. He writes that the Bund – the Jewish Socialist Party in Poland – released the “stark observation” to the World Jewish Congress that stated the Germans have “embarked on the physical extermination of the Jewish population on Polish soil.”
Released in June 1942 the report estimated that 700,000 Jews had already been killed. Rabbi Lookstein, quotes in a footnote Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer, who writes that the “Bund report was so alarming in its detail and scope that it should have stimulated a strong Jewish response immediately.”
How could Jewish life go on in the United States when such terrible news was public? From Orthodox weddings under the huppah to socialist dances held on Yom Kippur – how could life just continue? While I understand that antisemitism was a factor in Jewish fear to speak out, Jewish leadership in America failed miserably in the face of the German slaughter of the Jews of Europe. Certainly, by the summer of 1944, when mass Jewish protests could have saved the remaining Jews of the Lodz Ghetto and Hungarian Jewry – our parents and grandparents failed their family in Europe and failed us.
The Warsaw Ghetto Jews were imprisoned in November 1940. The fate of most of those who did not starve to death or died of disease was sealed in July 1942. Only a few weeks after American Independence Day began the deportation of 265,000 Warsaw Jews to the nearby death camp of Treblinka. I don’t begrudge those American Jews who celebrate July 4th. I am a proud American and am a staunch defender of the great texts of The Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution and The Bill of Rights.
The American Revolution is one of the greatest events in human history. But, at the core, I am a Jew. Our life cannot simply go on as if nothing happened. Eighty years ago American Jewry failed in its obligation to stand up for the Jewish people.
My father was an infantry sergeant in the US Army. He fought in Germany and Bohemia in the last month of the war. He had been enjoying life at an Army Air Force base in Bartow, Florida – getting a sun tan, performing for the USO, singing in a choir at a nearby synagogue. It was not until he was sent off to basic training and shipped to Europe, that he realized the extent of the destruction of European Jewry.
He wrote home in a letter to his parents in Queens, New York: “Yes, we’ve got the guts and the equipment with which to set the Kraut back on his heels. Every town we’ve occupied we’ve asked if there are any Jews left in the town and the answer has always been ‘nein.’ It seems as if they have murdered every one or left them to die in concentration camps. We’ve got to avenge the deaths of these minorities and those of the hostages the Nazis took.” But it was too late for the millions who were murdered.
The writer is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.