BY VIC ALHADEFF
Sydney Morning Herald
July 26, 2015
Jan Kozielewski was always tormented by his inability to stop the Holocaust. “I hated humanity,” he blurted after the nightmare ended. “The Lord assigned me a role – to speak and write during the war when, as it seemed, it might help. It did not.”
The extraordinary story of Jan Karski, as he became known – about to be reprised on stage in Sydney – is the stuff of legend. The remarkable lengths to which the Catholic Polish activist went to focus global attention on the Nazi attempt to annihilate the Jewish people give rare meaning to the notion of courage and heroism.
At enormous personal risk and despite having been captured and tortured by the Gestapo, Karski smuggled himself into and out of the Warsaw Ghetto – twice – so that he could witness the barbarism being inflicted on the 450,000 Jews held there prior to deportation to the death camps. He was confronted by naked corpses, people dying of starvation and the most terrifying moment – Nazi troops hunting down children. “It wasn’t humanity,” he related later, “it was hell.”
Seeking further evidence, Karski acquired an Estonian guard’s uniform and slipped into a transit camp, where he watched horrified as starving, terrified Jews were transported to the Belzec death camp. “I came out sick, seized by fits of nausea,” he reported. “I vomited blood. I had seen horrifying things. You would not believe it if you saw it.”
Shocked as much by what he had witnessed as by the apparent ignorance of world leaders of what was happening, he resolved to do whatever it took to stop the atrocities. He flew to London and conferred with Polish Prime Minister-in-exile Władysław Sikorski and British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, urging the latter to bomb the railway tracks leading to the camps.
He headed to the United States, detailing the crisis to Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who responded that while he wasn’t accusing Karski of lying, “I am a judge of men; men like me and you must be honest and I do not believe you.”
He met government and civic leaders, clerics, Hollywood identities. And on July 28, 1943, aged 29, Karski met President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the Oval Office. They conversed for one hour, 20 minutes.
For 35 years Karski observed a vow of silence about his endeavours – and his failure to stop the genocide. When he eventually spoke, his meticulous testimonies were frequently punctuated by convulsive sobs as he relived the torment and his abiding frustration.
Asserting that he remembered “every second” of his exchange with Roosevelt, Karski expressed concern for Poland and then raised the Jewish issue. “Without outside help,” he warned, “the Jews will perish in Poland” and any hope rested with Roosevelt. He was the first witness to inform him about the Holocaust.
Roosevelt changed the subject. He asked about the horses in Poland and offered assurances that the US would not abandon its ally. He did not ask any questions about the plight of Poland’s Jews. Said Karski: “Not a single one.”
The youngest of eight children, Karski studied at the University of Lwow, underwent military training and became a diplomat, serving in Germany, Romania, Switzerland and Britain. Arrested by Soviet troops, he escaped and joined the Polish underground, carrying information to Allied leaders and Poland’s government-in-exile in Paris and London. He was captured by the Gestapo and slit his wrists after being tortured. But he survived and again escaped, beginning his clandestine missions to inform the Polish, British and US governments about the genocide. He later settled in the US, teaching at Georgetown University, Bill Clinton being among his students.
He became a public figure, featuring in documentaries and publications and honoured through statues, avenues, a Nobel Prize nomination, Poland’s Order of the White Eagle presented by then-President Lech Walesa and a posthumous US Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. His wife, Pola Nireńska, most of whose family perished in the Holocaust, and brother, Colonel Marian Kozielewski, both committed suicide. Karski died in July 2000.
The Holocaust was perpetrated “through commission or omission or self-imposed ignorance or insensitivity or self-interest or hypocrisy or heartless rationalisation”, he reflected in his twilight years. It would “haunt humanity till the end of time. It does haunt me and I want it to be so. Man has a choice: to follow evil, to choose right. I will be asked what I did with my soul.”
Vic Alhadeff is chief executive officer of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies. Coming to See Aunt Sophie will be performed at the Fig Tree Theatre, UNSW, from July 30 to August 23.
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