In a way, Jan Karski’s presence had been hovering over film director Slawomir Grünberg for almost a decade before the notion of making a film about the World War II Polish resistance fighter occurred to him.
Grünberg had received the first Jan Karski Film Award for moral courage in 2000 for his film “School Prayer: A Community at War,” about a family that sued authorities to remove prayer from their local Mississippi public school. The award sat on Grünberg’s shelf for seven years.
“I’d been staring at it, but the idea to make a film about Karski didn’t come until I had lunch with three friends in November 2007,” Grünberg told The Times of Israel.
One was the Polish consul in New York, the second was the head of the Polish Cultural Institute in New York, and the third was former Polish ambassador to Israel Maciej Kozlowski, author of a short book on Karski, who had risked his life to bring firsthand reports of the Holocaust to the Allies.
“They suggested to me that I would be the best person to make a film about Karski because I, like Karski [who became a professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, after the war], had lived in both Poland and America,” Grünberg said.
Almost another decade passed before “Karski & The Lords of Humanity” was completed, but Grünberg would not give up on the film, which combines Karski’s testimony, archival wartime footage, and interviews with historical experts with animation. The animated scenes, inspired by “Waltz With Bashir,” the 2008 Israeli war documentary film by Ari Folman, provide images for Karski’s narration of events. Grünberg sourced Karski’s filmed testimony from Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah,” a British film called “A Different World – Messenger from Poland,” and interviews Karski did with author E. Thomas Wood for his book “Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop The Holocaust.”
Karski was born Jan Kozielewski in Lodz, Poland, in 1914 (Karski was a nom de guerre, which he eventually adopted legally), the youngest of eight children in a Roman Catholic family. After completing his mandatory military service and graduating with honors from law and diplomacy studies at the University of Lwow, he earned a diplomatic appointment.
Karski was called up for military duty when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. He managed to escape when his unit was captured by the Soviets, avoiding the fate of other Polish officers killed in the Katyn massacre in the spring of 1940.
Karski twice infiltrated the Warsaw Ghetto, and he also posed as a guard at the Izbica transit camp, where he witnessed Jews being herded onto train cars bound for their deaths
As he recounted in “Story of a Secret State,” a report of his wartime experiences published in 1944, he joined the Polish underground and worked as a courier bringing information to and from the Polish government in exile. At one point, he was betrayed to the Gestapo and attempted to commit suicide while in custody. He survived, and comrades arranged for his escape.
Karski twice infiltrated the Warsaw Ghetto, and he also posed as a guard at the Izbica transit camp, where he witnessed Jews being herded onto train cars bound for their deaths. Having witnessed Nazi atrocities against the Jews, he provided eyewitness accounts to British foreign secretary Anthony Eden, US president Franklin D. Roosevelt, and US Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter (the “Lords of Humanity” in the film’s title). He urged them to take action, including bombing the railroads leading to the death camps, but his message fell on deaf ears.
Karski, who died in 2000, had spoken hardly at all about his wartime experiences after immigrating to the US and settling into his life as a college professor. According to his friend and Georgetown colleague Rabbi Harold White, this was because he thought he had failed. “He thought he had not done enough to save as many Jews as he should have,” said White.
However, once Karski did start talking, beginning with his 1978 interview with Lanzmann, it was difficult not to pay attention to what he was saying. Tall, distinguished and handsome even in his advanced age, Karski had a dramatic air about him.
It was this drama that Grünberg wanted to capture in “Karski & The Lords of Humanity,” but he rejected outright the idea of historical reenactments.
‘He thought he had not done enough to save as many Jews as he should have’
“I couldn’t imagine an actor playing Karski,” he said, about the creative decision he made prior to Oscar-nominated actor David Strathairn’s performance as Karski in “Remember This: Walking With Jan Karski,” a staged reading presented recently in the US and Poland.
Grünberg was committed to the animation approach—true animation and not rotoscoping—despite the fact that it made it more difficult for him to fund the film. “It was hard to get grants because it was not the typical approach,” he said.
Nonetheless, the director brought on animator Tomasz Niedzwiedz (who felt a personal connection to the project since his grandparents had saved a Jewish family during the Holocaust) and made a full rough cut. The decision to move ahead without all the funding in place was pivotal, as the rough cut caught the attention of major Polish producer Dariusz Jablonski (“Aftermath”), who offered to come in as a partner, making it an American-Polish co-production.
The film, written by Katka Reszke, premiered on April 24 (the 101st anniversary of Karski’s birth) at POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. It will be screened Sunday in Jerusalem at a special event at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center celebrating the 25th anniversary of the renewal of diplomatic relations between Israel and Poland.
Despite the fact that Karski always felt as though he had not succeeded in his wartime mission, Grünberg’s film casts a positive light on the difficult story. The film proposes that the War Refugee Board, created by Roosevelt in January 1944 and credited with saving as many as 200,000 Hungarian and Romanian Jews, was an indirect result of Karski’s reports and conversations with Allied leaders.
‘If you find yourself in a circumstance, whatever it is, and you can do something to make a difference, let Karski’s story be one of those that inspires you to try’
“At some point it adds up after you have planted a seed and keep speaking about it,” explained Grünberg. “The historian Sir Martin Gilbert told Karski he had saved Jews, that he had succeeded.”
The late Gilbert is seen on camera in the film, saying, “If you find yourself in a circumstance, whatever it is, and you can do something to make a difference, let Karski’s story be one of those that inspires you to try.”
As Grünberg grew up in Communist Poland (knowing his father was Jewish, but discovering only just before his mother’s death that she, too, was Jewish), he learned nothing about Karski. He started to hear about Karski after moving to the US in 1981, and in the late 1990s, he had the privilege of meeting him as he filmed a documentary about Simha Rotem, a leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. However, he never saw him again.
“I didn’t go personally to accept the award [for moral courage in filmmaking, just before Karski’s death] from him. I regret that now,” Grünberg said.