Saturday, July 20, 2019

Righteous Gentile: A Personal Recollection of Jan Karski

Righteous Gentile: A Personal Recollection of Jan Karski

Rev. Douglas Olds

Jan Karski Statue at the Warsaw Museum of Jewish History
(photo credit: Thomas Kennelly)

[This post has been reprinted with permission by the Jan Karski Educational Foundation:]

I met Jan Karski in the early 1980s.

He was a neighbor of mine, an old-world, courtly figure who taught history at Georgetown University.

In middle age, he had married the renowned modern dancer Pola Niresnka, a Polish Jew who had escaped the Holocaust spending the war years in London, yet whose entire family disappeared in the concentration and extermination camps. They met after the war. Pola told me she married Jan because "He is a good man."

Now an older man, Jan told me over the course of a dinner of his and Pola’s past. 

He was one of the officers targeted for killing at the Katyn forest massacre in early 1940 "if not for him changing to a non-officer's uniform and participating in a prisoner exchange, later escaping from a moving train." [3]

In…1940 Karski[, a Pole], began [as] a courier … [between] … the Polish underground [and] the Polish Government in Exile. During one such mission in July 1940 he was arrested by the Gestapo in Slovakia [and s]everely tortured. He managed to escape.

In 1942 Karski was…twice smuggled by Jewish underground leaders into the Warsaw Ghetto for the purpose of directly observing what was happening to Polish Jews. Also, disguised as an Estonian camp guard, he visited a sorting and transit point for the Bełżec death camp. Karski then met with Polish politicians in exile and the British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, giving a detailed statement on what he had seen in Warsaw and Bełżec. In 1943 he traveled to the United States, meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Oval Office, telling him about the situation in Poland and becoming the first eyewitness to tell him about the Jewish Holocaust. He also described the Holocaust to Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. Frankfurter, [a Jew himself, sat politely through] Karski's report. [1]

Recollecting, Karski told me that Frankfurter had told him, "I cannot believe you of what’s happening to the Jews in Poland. I do not say that you are lying, I am saying that I CAN NOT believe you.”[2] 

If FDR had acted immediately to stem the atrocity by bombing the gas and incineration complexes in the death camps, perhaps 2 Million Jews could have been saved from destruction.  By the time Allies did act against the camps, Karski’s efforts were estimated to have saved ¼ million Jews, making Karski the most effective savior of European Jewry during the war. Yet Karski lived with the knowledge that perhaps 10 times more could have been saved, IF ONLY. If only FDR had acted immediately.

While he acknowledged that perhaps deeper levels of military strategy may have prevailed upon FDR, Karski told me that he regretted that he had failed to find the right words in his efforts to convince FDR and the other Allied leaders of the necessity to act. Karski, who had trained for the diplomatic corps, strained every diplomatic muscle he had in trying to persuade the Brits and Americans. In his appeal, he even extravagantly addressed FDR as, “Lord of Humanity.”

Karski also struggled with words around the prisoners: their condition almost rendered him silent. He recognized he was in the midst of the struggle of good and evil.  In that struggle, there were moments of irrepressible holiness by the prisoners straining every sinew of their being to help each other stay alive. Karski recognized these were stories of struggle, stories of fierce love inside inexpressible trauma and horror.

Later, Karski volunteered to sneak into the darkness of the Warsaw ghetto and the transit point of the Bełżec death camp to bring the news of Allied efforts to the prisoners. He brought hope. He was an example of the volunteering saint, representing the Prophet Isaiah's "send me" attitude.  Karski felt the call of his Christian upbringing to make a prophetic difference to people who were enslaved, oppressed, and daily murdered.
In 1985, the French Film Director Claude Lanzmann released a 9-1/2 hour documentary series Shoah which documented the living witnesses of the Holocaust.  I committed 4 afternoons of a winter week in early 1986 to seeing Shoah at the Key Theater in Georgetown of Washington, DC. During the second installment, Jan Karski appeared on-screen discussing the conditions he had found of the Jews confined in the Warsaw Ghetto, and he wept. Then I was moved to tears in the dark and flickering theater by his descriptions of what he saw and what he experienced in the conditions at Bełżec.  

I left the theater that gloomy Tuesday emotionally spent and got on the bus. It was raining. I sat down and focused internally on my memories of the moving witness to the Holocaust in the documentary. I then became aware of a disturbance at the front of the bus.

It was my friend Jan Karski, whom I had just seen on screen, off from his shift as a professor at Georgetown University. He was having difficulty putting away his umbrella while trying, in flustered English, to secure his senior citizen bus discount. The bus passengers were surly at the delay and, hearing his accent, cast their anger frontward at him: some shouted, “Down in Front!” and “Go Back to where you came from!”

Carried by instinct, I got up from my seat and went to the front and embraced Karski, giving him my arm for support as I almost carried him to a seat. At our seat, I told him of my emotion at having just then seen him in Shoah.

“Yes,” he said, “Lanzmann has made a necessary document of the time. Pola can’t watch it, it’s too painful for her.” 

Since that bus ride, I’ve often wondered if I should have addressed the surly passengers on the bus—shamed them, perhaps with the words, “this is a great man, people!” 

But in the presence of holiness, I was silenced. 

I sat a mostly silent vigil with Karski during the bus ride back to the Maryland suburbs. I had nothing profound to say, and the moment seemed to require something moving and deep and profound that I couldn’t utter.

For me, like Zechariah, Nicodemus, and the prophet Isaiah, there is the season of speaking out—a time of moral revival and assertion. There may also come a season when we can find no words. In those times, connection isn’t in the thundering eloquence of the pulpit or in the rebukes of the crowd we offer, but in the soft companionship of standing firm next to someone until they are ready to go their own way.

There may be in our recollections times when we were silenced—when our common human inheritance for communication was brought up short.  These times should be approached with great tenderness and discernment of recollection because I believe our souls have at those times been confronted with something intended and sent from God. Something of holiness. 

Practicing the virtue of recollection, we might gather a spiritual truth from these times when our voices failed. For at the risk of his life Karski took forth into history’s deepest darkness a message of hope, compassion, and concern. Risk is the price for the companionship with the Holy and the vigil with the Divine that we all crave.

My silence on that bus, I later recollected, inadvertently had discovered that holiness—that common, unobtrusive love-- is not found in rebuking the mob, but rather in companionship and chaplaincy with an elderly and disoriented man on a rainy evening as he struggled with his umbrella and the hostility of the crowd.

Sometimes, we are not called for the glamour positions—the shiny speaking positions, the apostleships, and prophecies—but rather to fulfill our role companionably in the local milieu in which we are called—to a witness of presence—a witness of presence for righteousness and compassion through silent accompaniment.

We may often experience ourselves as bursting with expression which threatens to overwhelm others’ capacity for listening.  Especially when events and personalities make a mockery of our deepest, shared morality. At those times, being given to silent companionship can provide the ailing and the onlookers a sign of our trust in goodness when the world is hostile and collapsing. 

Twenty-five years after these encounters with Jan Karski I became an ordained Presbyterian minister. I have come to regret not asking Karski, a Catholic, how his personal theology was impacted by his experience of the events of the Holocaust and their horrors. Of course, the Holocaust has exerted a major influence on later 20th C theology. There was great wisdom in the man I came to know, and now some of that is lost to God's keeping.

But the small wisdom I derived from encountering Jan Karski on that bus ride was that our human task is to companion and bring stories of enduring wonder with the mystery of God and the enigma of faith, speaking and living life to the fullest.  In this, we risk that even our words and stories will for a season fail.  Holiness—God’s humble love--demands it.

[1] accessed on 6 August 2015.
[2] Pers. Comm.
[3]  "On 1 September 1939 Nazi Germany launched the Second World War by invading Poland from the West. On 17 September the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the East. The two totalitarian powers split Poland between them. Approximately 250,000 Polish soldiers were captured by the Red Army. About 15,000 military officers, police officers and border guards were segregated and interned in three camps: Starobelsk, Kozelsk and Ostashkov.
"On March 5, 1940 NKVD Chief Beria provided Stalin with a written proposal to execute the Poles at the three camps as well as thousands of other Polish prisoners in the jails of Western Belorussia and Western Ukraine. Beria described the Polish prisoners as “sworn enemies of Soviet power, filled with hatred for the Soviet system of government”. He proposed to “apply to them the supreme punishment, shooting”. In the operation that followed in April and May 1940, 21,857 Poles were shot by the NKVD and buried in hidden mass graves."Cf. Andrew Kavchak, 2020. The Katyn Forest Massacre: An Annotated Bibliography of Books in English.".

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