Jan Karski never considered himself a hero, which is just how heroes like Jan Karski often feel about themselves.
The Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center’s new exhibition about Karski, mounted in its newer exhibition space along a narrow hallway on the museum’s upper floor, tells Karski’s story chronologically on the 100th anniversary year of his birth.
Through 22 enlightening graphic panels, Karski’s remarkable story in trying to blow the whistle on genocide perpetrated in Eastern Europe comes vividly to life. So incomprehensible to outsiders was Karski’s eyewitness testimony of the Warsaw Ghetto and other atrocities that he was met too often with skepticism instead of urgent action.
Only age 28 and an emissary for the Polish Underground State during World War II, Karski carried classified information from the Resistance in occupied Poland to the Polish government-in-exile; he met with U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to inform him about on-going genocide in his occupied country.
“His legacy is strong, not only for Polish people but for American people,” Museum Director of Training and Public Programs Noreen Brand said. “He should be the iconic image of what an ‘upstander’ is in society today.”
That’s what makes “The World Knew: Jan Karski’s Mission For Humanity” such an ideal fit for this museum. In addition to documenting the Holocaust so that we never forget the past, the museum’s mission has always been equally devoted to educating for the future.
The museum every day seeks to create new upstanders. What better example than Karski, who risked his safety to expose the brutal and barbarous inhumanity occurring in Poland.
“He was a man who was willing to take a risk — to risk his own life to get the word out about what was taking place in 1942,” Brand said. “He smuggled himself into the ghetto in Warsaw and tried to report to Roosevelt what he was seeing and what was going on.”
Fountain of the Righteous
The museum’s Ferro Fountain of the Righteous is dedicated to non-Jews who tried to save Jews during the Holocaust. Most of those honored on the outside wall have some link to the Midwest, but icons like Karski and Oskar Schindler are exceptions.
If there is any connection to the area, though, it’s the students Karski eventually taught. Following the war, he taught East European affairs, comparative government and international affairs for four decades at Georgetown University. He counted Gov. Pat Quinn and Sen. Dick Durbin among his students of note. Former President Bill Clinton, who gave the keynote speech when the museum opened in Skokie, was also a student.
“We must tell our children about how this evil was allowed to happen — because so many people succumbed to their darker instinct; because so many others stood silent,” reads one of the many quotes about Karski in the exhibition.
“But let us also tell our children about the Righteous Among the Nations. Among them was Jan Karski — a young Polish Catholic — who witnessed Jews being sent out on cattle cars, who saw the killings, and who told the truth, all the way to President Roosevelt himself.”
Roosevelt’s response to Karski and other reports about the Holocaust have been a point of controversy for decades. It’s indisputable that the Allies did not take immediate action to try to rescue Jews in peril, but Karski’s own view of Roosevelt was more complicated, as evidenced by his quotes shared by Brand.
“The Polish Jewish underground used me as a courier taking messages to the western Allies and begging them to intervene to save the destruction of the Jews,” Karski once said.
As a result of his meetings with Karski, Roosevelt “changed U.S. policy overnight from indifference to affirmative action by creating the War Refugee Board,” Karski said.
“Roosevelt was one of the greatest men in the 20th Century, but he was not a Jewish or Polish president,” Karski said. “He was an American president who was for American interests.”
Taken collectively, the exhibition panels offer a concise but comprehensive journey through Karski’s life before, during and after World War II. Karski was chosen to spread the word about the Holocaust by “the largest anti-Nazi resistance movement in occupied Europe — a Secret State with its own army, courts, schools and newspapers,” according to the exhibition.
Even though he was not yet 30, Karski was chosen for the crucial mission because of his education and service as a diplomat, his fluid command of English, German and French and his photographic memory.
In addition to Roosevelt, he reported his findings to British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden and other top Allied leaders.
Following the war, Karski was always humble about his role, Brand said. But he told his story through a series of books, and his notoriety spiked after he was interviewed extensively in Claude Lanzmann’s epic Holocaust documentary, “Shoah,” released here in the early ‘80s.
“Not only was he a professor, but he was a professor that students loved, remembered and revered,” Brand said.
Recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations in 1982, Karski died 18 years later at age 86. A tree bearing a memorial plaque in his name was planted that same year at Yad Vashem’s Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations in Jerusalem.
Karski posthumously was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 by President Barack Obama. In between, there were many honors and awards. Statues of Karski have been erected around the world including one of him playing chess while sitting on a bench at Georgetown.
Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel said that thanks to Karski, “more than one generation continues to believe in humanity.”
“Those who knew Jan Karski will never forget him, and his message will continue to light the path of freedom-loving peoples throughout the years to come,” Bill Clinton said. “No one could ask for a finer legacy.”