Commentary Magazine


Topic: Jan Karski

A Righteous Man and the Imperative to Act

Today Georgetown University honored a former professor with a day of events commemorating the centennial of his birth. But the man for whom this is being done was no ordinary political science teacher. Jan Karski, who died in 2000, taught at Georgetown for four decades but he is remembered today for his efforts during World War Two when, as a young officer serving in the Polish resistance, he witnessed the horror of the Holocaust and brought news of the atrocities to the West. Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, named him as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. But his story stands out not just because he was one of the few who stood up for the persecuted Jews of Europe at a time when most either joined the perpetrators or stood by silently thinking only of their own safety.

Karski risked his life many times over to bring eyewitness testimony of the conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto and of the transport of Jews to death camps to Western leaders. But the point about Karski’s amazing tale is that the people he told about the Holocaust at a time when it was still going on either refused to believe him or ignored his testimony. This should inform our view of the history of these events, including the controversy over the failure of the Allies to attempt to halt or impede the slaughter as well as the ongoing campaign to whitewash the memory of President Franklin D. Roosevelt who, as Karski said, listened with indifference to his account of Jewish genocide. But just as important, his courageous yet failed attempt to galvanize the West to action stands as an indictment not only of those who did not heed his warnings but to contemporary leaders who likewise stand by impotently while innocents are killed in their thousands or who think they need not take the genocidal threats of anti-Semitic despots seriously.

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Today Georgetown University honored a former professor with a day of events commemorating the centennial of his birth. But the man for whom this is being done was no ordinary political science teacher. Jan Karski, who died in 2000, taught at Georgetown for four decades but he is remembered today for his efforts during World War Two when, as a young officer serving in the Polish resistance, he witnessed the horror of the Holocaust and brought news of the atrocities to the West. Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, named him as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. But his story stands out not just because he was one of the few who stood up for the persecuted Jews of Europe at a time when most either joined the perpetrators or stood by silently thinking only of their own safety.

Karski risked his life many times over to bring eyewitness testimony of the conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto and of the transport of Jews to death camps to Western leaders. But the point about Karski’s amazing tale is that the people he told about the Holocaust at a time when it was still going on either refused to believe him or ignored his testimony. This should inform our view of the history of these events, including the controversy over the failure of the Allies to attempt to halt or impede the slaughter as well as the ongoing campaign to whitewash the memory of President Franklin D. Roosevelt who, as Karski said, listened with indifference to his account of Jewish genocide. But just as important, his courageous yet failed attempt to galvanize the West to action stands as an indictment not only of those who did not heed his warnings but to contemporary leaders who likewise stand by impotently while innocents are killed in their thousands or who think they need not take the genocidal threats of anti-Semitic despots seriously.

Born Jan Kozielewski, he used Karski as his nom de guerre when after his escape from Soviet imprisonment (an army officer, he was captured when the Soviet Union invaded Poland as part of the Hitler-Stalin pact) and joined the Polish Home Army. During the course of his activities in the underground, Karski, a Polish Catholic, was smuggled in and out of the Warsaw Ghetto and a transit point for the Belzec death camp. In 1942 he brought proof of the reality of the Holocaust to first Britain and then the following year to the United States when, under the sponsorship of the free Polish government in exile, he spread the news of the extermination of the Jews to American leaders including Roosevelt, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, and William Donovan, the chief of the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency. As he later told the story, in his own writings, Roosevelt was silent when Karski discussed the fate of the Jews, asking questions only about the conditions of horses in Poland. Frankfurter, a Jew, said that while he didn’t question Karski’s honesty, he nevertheless “could not believe him.” Karski was shocked at the Allied leaders’ refusal to act on his knowledge even to bomb the railroad tracks to the death camps when that became possible.

This is important because Karski’s reports not only make it abundantly clear that the nature of the Nazi war on the Jews was not a secret to the West but that it was also a matter of public record. Karski published an account of what was going on in Poland in 1944. The idea that no one knew about the Holocaust until the death camps were liberated in 1945 is a myth that was accepted as truth because few, either in positions of power or out of them, wanted to acknowledge that the Allies simply chose to ignore Karski’s accounts or treat them as irrelevant to their wartime mission of defeating Germany.

The question of what could have been done to rescue the Jews of Europe is still a sore point with many rightly pointing out that most of those murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators were beyond the help of the Allies. But the minimal attempts to foster rescue, such as the belated and underfunded War Refugee Board, did result in saving hundreds of thousands of Jews. Had Roosevelt’s administration treated the issue as one worth their time, it is simply implausible to assert that more lives could not have been saved.

But even if you don’t want to wade into those bitter historical arguments, Karski’s legacy demands attention. Since the Holocaust occurred, we have seen several instances of genocide. In each one of those cases, whether it was in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, or Sudan, the world once again wrung its collective hands and did nothing until it was too late. Today, Bashar Assad’s Syrian forces have killed more than a hundred thousand people and again the West, and in particular the United States, was unable to find the will to act even when a “red line” about the use of chemical weapons was crossed. Elsewhere, Iran, the leading international state sponsor of terror as well as one of the most vicious anti-Semitic regimes on the planet, plots to build a nuclear weapon. The West’s response is not to ensure that Iran’s plans, which could facilitate another Holocaust, are made impossible but only that they be delayed by a diplomatic process that seems aimed more at creating détente with the ayatollahs than at stopping them.

Jan Karski’s example, as well as the failure of those who chose not to listen to him, stands as a reminder that all the tears wept today about the Holocaust are meaningless if they are not accompanied by action to ensure that contemporary atrocities are not halted or prevented.

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Institutionalizing Atrocity Prevention Won’t Make Up for Obama’s Lack of Will to Act

In his speech at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum this morning, President Obama once again said all the right things. Though speaking without the passion that can animate his utterances when he is talking about things he feels the most strongly — such as demonizing his domestic opponents — the president sounded many of the right notes about support for the state of Israel and preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons as well as the need for the United States to act to prevent human rights catastrophes. But the president’s problem when it comes to applying the lessons of the Holocaust to statecraft has never been rhetorical.

Rather, it is the gap between what he says and what he does that is the cause for concern. Even though the president announced the creation of a board comprised of representatives of a cross section of government agencies that would be tasked with the prevention of atrocities, institutionalizing an approach to this issue isn’t the complete answer. In the absence of the will of the president to act, more government infrastructure won’t help. And given that the record of this administration has shown it to consider such issues to be among their lowest priorities, it’s hard to see how this speech will change things.

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In his speech at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum this morning, President Obama once again said all the right things. Though speaking without the passion that can animate his utterances when he is talking about things he feels the most strongly — such as demonizing his domestic opponents — the president sounded many of the right notes about support for the state of Israel and preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons as well as the need for the United States to act to prevent human rights catastrophes. But the president’s problem when it comes to applying the lessons of the Holocaust to statecraft has never been rhetorical.

Rather, it is the gap between what he says and what he does that is the cause for concern. Even though the president announced the creation of a board comprised of representatives of a cross section of government agencies that would be tasked with the prevention of atrocities, institutionalizing an approach to this issue isn’t the complete answer. In the absence of the will of the president to act, more government infrastructure won’t help. And given that the record of this administration has shown it to consider such issues to be among their lowest priorities, it’s hard to see how this speech will change things.

In his speech, Obama cited the example of Jan Karski, the heroic young Polish officer who smuggled himself into Treblinka in 1942 to find out what was happening and then escaped to the West where he told his tale to the leaders of the West including President Roosevelt. But what Obama failed to include in his account was the fact that FDR responded with silence and indifference to Karski’s shattering testimony when it was presented to him in person. And it is that precedent that illustrates why the mere convening of a meeting of the new atrocities prevention board today is a matter of little import so long as the president is more interested in talking about the subject rather than taking action.

The key test of his integrity on such matters today is the situation in Syria. In his introduction of the president at the museum, Elie Wiesel asked how it was possible for men like Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to still be in power if we have actually learned any of the lessons of the Holocaust. But the president’s speech should have given Wiesel little comfort.

Obama said the United States will continue working to isolate the Syrian regime and make an effort to help document the atrocities going on there so as to facilitate the prosecution of those responsible after the fact. But he said nothing to give Assad the impression that the U.S. would do anything that might actually contribute to his downfall.

If, in the face of the massacres going on in Syria, the best that the president can offer is a promise of more meaningless economic sanctions, then of what possible use is an atrocity prevention panel?

The same question can be asked of Obama’s approach to Iran, whose pursuit of nuclear weapons raises the specter of another mass slaughter of the Jewish people made all the more ironic by the regime’s denial of the Nazis’ attempt at genocide. The president’s rhetoric on Iran has been consistently strong, and today’s pledge was just as good. But so long as he is willing to rely on a diplomatic channel in which the European Union’s Catherine Ashton (a veteran Israel-hater) is determined to make nice with Tehran rather than to press it, it’s hard to see how any of his excellent statements are to be translated into effective policy. Criticizing the State Department of the 1940s for its indifference to the Holocaust may satisfy some of the president’s audience today, but it doesn’t make up for contemporary failures.

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