Karski: How One Man Tried To Stop The Holocaust

By: Michael T. Kaufman (July 14, 2000)

Jan Karski, a liaison officer of the Polish underground who infiltrated both the Warsaw Ghetto and a German concentration camp and then carried the first eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust to a mostly disbelieving West, died Thursday in the Washington, D.C., area. He was 86 and was a retired professor of history at Georgetown University.

In the late summer of 1942, Mr. Karski, who was then a 33-year-old clandestine diplomat of the Polish government-in-exile in London, was preparing for a secret mission to carry information from Nazi-occupied Poland to London and Washington. Before leaving, he was visited by two leaders of the Jewish underground who had managed to briefly leave the Warsaw Ghetto. They told him about what they called "Hitler's war against the Polish Jews."

They said that by their calculations, more than 1.8 million Jews had already been killed by the Germans and that 300,000 of the 500,000 Jews jammed into the Warsaw Ghetto had been deported to an obscure village about 60 miles from Warsaw, where the Germans had set up a death camp.

They asked him if he could carry their information to Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. They also asked if he would be willing to enter the Ghetto and see for himself what was happening.

Mr. Karski, who was blessed with a photographic memory, agreed.

By that time he had already endured a horrible war. Karski was his nom de guerre; he had been born Jan Kozielewski, the youngest of eight children of a patriotic, Roman Catholic family, in Lodz, Poland's second-largest city, on April 24, 1914. He had been a prize student and had been recruited into the Polish diplomatic service, where was quickly given coveted assignments to London and Paris.

He enlisted in the army and was serving as a cavalry officer in 1939 when German soldiers, followed less than two weeks later by Russian troops, invaded Poland and divided the country. Mr. Karski was captured by the Soviets and placed in a detention camp. He escaped and joined the Polish underground. Most of the Polish officers imprisoned with him were later executed by Soviet troops.

Mr. Karski became a skilled courier for the underground ...

... crossing enemy lines to serve as a liaison between the Polish fighters and the West. He was captured by the Gestapo while on a mission in Slovakia in 1940 and tortured. Fearful that he might reveal secrets to the Germans, he slashed his wrists. His suicide attempt failed and he was put into a hospital. An underground commando team helped him to escape and he resumed his work as a clandestine liaison officer. In October,1939, the Germans enclosed the main Jewish areas in Warsaw with barbed wire. In less than a year the Ghetto was closed with about half a million Jews confined within its walls. Food rations were cut and thousands of Jews began to die of hunger and disease. By July 1942 the first mass deportations of Jews from the Ghetto commenced. That summer as many as 10,000 Jews were taken each day to the Umschlagplatz, a square in the Ghetto, where they were forced to board trains for the journey to the extermination camps.

It was in the third week of August of 1942 that Mr. Karski entered the cellar of an apartment house on the so-called Aryan side of the Ghetto wall and met with a youth from the Jewish Combat Organization, then secretly being formed in the Ghetto. The youth gave him some ragged clothes and an arm band with a blue Star of David and led him through a recently dug tunnel. As they emerged, Mr. Karski saw the Ghetto streets and tenements crowded with haggard, hungry and dying Jews.

Decades later, when asked to describe what he had seen, Mr. Karski, a fastidious man who hated violence even in films or on television, would usually simply say, "I saw terrible things." But on some occasions, such as in his appearance in "Shoah," Claude Lanzmann's documentary film about the Holocaust, he would tell of seeing many naked dead bodies lying in the streets and describe emaciated and starving people, listless infants and older children with expressionless eyes. He remembered watching from an apartment while two pudgy teen-aged boys in the uniforms of the Hitler Youth hunted Jews for sport, cheering and laughing when one of their rifle shots struck its target and brought screams of agony.

Mr. Feiner kept murmuring, "Remember this, remember this."

One of the Jews who had prompted Mr. Karski to enter the Ghetto and escorted him around was a lawyer named Leon Feiner. Mr. Karski recalled that Mr. Feiner kept murmuring, "Remember this, remember this." There was also another man, whose name Mr. Karski never learned. They both urged Mr. Karski to tell what he was witnessing to as many people in the West as he could. They knew the information would be hard to believe, but they wanted the West to know that the Germans were systematically taking thousands of Jews each day to extermination camps.

At the time of Mr. Karski's visit, the forced relocations from Warsaw had temporarily subsided, but they were to intensify in September. Mr. Feiner was to be among the hundreds of thousands who died. There were five points that the two men in the Ghetto asked Mr. Karski to pass on to the Allied leaders:

The prevention of the physical extermination of the Jews should be declared an official war aim of the coalition fighting Hitler.

Allied propaganda should be used to inform the German nation of the war crimes taking place and to publicize the names of German officials taking part in the genocide.

The Allies should appeal to the German people to bring pressure on Hitler's regime to stop the slaughter.

The Allies should declare that if the genocide continued and the German masses did not rise to stop it, the German people would be considered collectively responsible.

Finally, if nothing else worked, the Allies should carry out reprisals in the form of bombing German cultural sites and executing Germans in Allied hands who after learning of the crimes still professed loyalty to Hitler.

Mr. Karski later said the Jews' proposals were "bitter and unrealistic," as if they knew that their proposals could not and would not be carried out.

Referring to his postings in London before the war, he told them their five points went beyond international law and that he was sure the English would dismiss them.

For the rest of his life he remembered the response of the man accompanying Mr. Feiner. "Say it!" he said. "We don't know what is realistic, or not realistic. We are dying here. Say it!"

Mr. Feiner added: "Let not a single leader of the United Nations be able to say that they did not know we were being murdered ... and could not be helped except from the outside."

Mr. Karski asked what he should say to Jewish leaders abroad. Unhesitatingly his hosts told him they should consider hunger strikes, fasting until death if necessary, in a effort to shake the conscience of the world.

Mr. Feiner then asked if Mr. Karski was still ready to carry out another fact-finding mission. Would he be willing to see for himself what was happening at one of the camps to which the trainloads of Jews were being sent? Mr. Karski consented and a few days later he and a member of the Jewish resistance went by train from Warsaw to Izbica, a small town near Warsaw