Jan Karski, a World War II Polish resistance fighter who risked his life to bring firsthand reports of the Holocaust to the Allies, is being remembered and celebrated at Georgetown University in Washington, DC this year, the 100th anniversary of his birth.
The university, where Karski, who died in 2000, was a professor for four decades, has scheduled a number of special events in his honor, including a full-day centenary tribute on April 24. Karski was previously recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations and awarded a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama
The commemoration will include a staged reading of “Remember This: Walking With Jan Karski” featuring an ensemble of Georgetown students and Academy Award nominee David Strathairn as Karski on April 24.
“A full day of remembrance for a professor is highly unusual. I can’t think of any other such instance at Georgetown,” says Rabbi Harold White, who served as senior Jewish chaplain at the university until 2009.
According to White, Karski was “incredibly humble” despite the fact that he defied personal danger to bring information about what was being perpetrated by the Nazis against European Jewry to the attention of Allied leaders, including US President Franklin Roosevelt. Until he gave testimony for French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” in 1978, he had rarely spoken — even to colleagues at Georgetown — about what he had done.
“He thought he had not done enough to save as many Jews as he should have,” explains White, who knew Karski well.
“I remember how he turned and looked at the crucifix on the wall when he spoke at one of our annual commemoration ceremonies for the Shoah and the Armenian Genocide,” recalls White. “He had tears in his eyes as he said, ‘I hope God will forgive me.’”
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.
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 on to train cars bound for their deaths. Having witnessed Nazi atrocities against the Jews, he provided eyewitness accounts to British foreign secretary Anthony Eden, President Roosevelt, and US Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. He urged them to take action, including bombing the railroads leading to the death camps, but his message fell on deaf ears.
Linda Gradstein, The Media Line’s Mideast bureau chief, studied political theory with Karski as a freshman and recalls interviewing him for the school newspaper. “He told me his whole story patiently and clearly. The only time he got overtly emotional was when he spoke about telling Roosevelt what was going on, and urging him to bomb the train tracks at Auschwitz,” she says.
Karski, who was married to Polish-Jewish dancer and Holocaust survivor Pola Nirenska until her suicide in 1992, retired from teaching in the mid-1980s. Current Georgetown students know Karski mainly from a memorial statue of him sitting on a bench they pass on campus.
Derek Goldman, professor of theater and performance studies and artistic director of the Davis Performing Arts Center at Georgetown, has used the statue as the inspiration for a new production about Karski, “Remember This: Walking With Jan Karski” which will have its debut in Gaston Hall, the university’s largest venue, on April 24.
“The conceit of the piece centers around the commemorative bench and questions what lies behind the object. The students encounter Karski on the bench and question him about his story,” Goldman explains.
“It’s really about the question of what future generations will do with the Karski legacy, how future generations will bear witness to the Holocaust going forward.”