Monday, October 5, 2015

The statue of Jan Karski, the legendary Polish courier

The statue of Jan Karski, the legendary Polish courier, sits  in front of the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in New York. The corner of 37th Street and Madison Avenue is called "Jan Karski Corner".   Consulate  occupies Joseph De Lamar’s ebullient Parisian palace of 1905- you can read the  story of this mansion in my previous post.

Robert Kostro, Director of Polish History Museum said:  "Jan Karski's story is timeless and universal as it shows how to behave when one is confronted with evil. His life is proof positive of what to do in face of impossible challenges such as violence, totalitarianism and hatred".
Jan Karski was born Jan Kozielewski to a Catholic family on April 24, 1914 in Lodz, Poland.  He grew up in a multi-cultural neighborhood where the majority of the population was then Jewish. He completed his diplomatic education between 1935 and 1938 and on 1 January 1939   started work in the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He  spoke many languages and had a photographic memory.




In 1939, when Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland at the start of World War II, Karski( he was only 25)  was taken prisoner by the Red Army and sent to a Russian camp. He escaped and returned to German-occupied Poland where he joined the anti-Nazi resistance serving as a courier between the Polish government-in-exile in London and the resistance organization in Poland. 
 As a courier, he traveled through German lines to Paris to meet with the Polish exile government. He was caught by the Gestapo during his second mission and tortured to the point of attempting suicide. Rescued by the resistance, he spent months recuperating.


Preparing for his third mission in 1942,  Karski toured Poland at the request of Jewish resistance leaders and was a horrified witness to brutality and mass starvation inside the Warsaw ghetto and the early death camps.  Karski traveled through Germany, France and Spain to London, where he delivered his report and microfilm evidence to Polish and British leaders before crossing the Atlantic in 1943 to do the same in the U.S.
In 1943  Karski   met with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and relayed to him in detail the horrors of the Holocaust.   "I do not believe you,"   responded Felix.  "Felix! What are you talking about?" interrupted Jan Ciechanowski, Poland’s ambassador to the United States, who was present at the meeting. "He is not lying!"   Frankfurter, a Jew himself, said: "I did not say that he is lying; I said that I don’t believe him," as if refusing to face the horrible reality.


Western leaders largely ignored Karski. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill claimed he had no time to meet with the Polish emissary. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt met with the  Karski in 1943, assured his support for Karski’s people, but made no mention of the destruction of the Jews.   "When I left, the President was still smiling and fresh.
 I felt fatigued," Karski later wrote of his meeting with the U.S. president.
Karski drew from his experience a profound lesson: “I learned that people in power are more than able to disregard their individual conscience if they come to the conclusion that it stands in the way of what they see as their official duty.” In 1944    Karski wrote a book on the Polish Underground  "Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World"  with a long chapter on the Jewish Holocaust in Poland. The book quickly became a bestseller. Bill Clinton, Karski’s student at Georgetown, later said that "all freedom-seeking people around the world should know Karski’s story."  


Karski became an American citizen and earned a doctorate from Georgetown University, where he had a long and distinguished career as a professor of international affairs. In 1982, he was honored as one of the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and in 1994 he was made an honorary citizen of Israel.

"Holocaust belongs to the Jews", he said, "The tragedy of the Jews is incomparable, there was nothing like it in the history of humanity."

During an interview with Hannah Rosen in 1995, Karski said about the failure to rescue most of the Jews from mass murder,
“ It was easy for the Nazis to kill Jews, because they did it. The Allies considered it impossible and too costly to rescue the Jews, because they didn't do it. The Jews were abandoned by all governments, church hierarchies and societies, but thousands of Jews survived because thousands of individuals in Poland, France, Belgium, Denmark, Holland helped to save Jews. Now, every government and church says, "We tried to help the Jews", because they are ashamed, they want to keep their reputations. They didn't help, because six million Jews perished, but those in the government, in the churches they survived. No one did enough".

Statue in Georgetown

After the war, Karski earned his PhD at Georgetown University, where he served as a distinguished professor in the School of Foreign Service for forty years. He died in Washington, DC, in 2000.
 In 2002 the Georgetown university dedicated a bronze statue by Polish sculptor  Karol Badyna on its campus that that was also a bench with a room for a visitor to join the chess game.  The versions     of the statue have been installed in Karski home town in Poland and in   Tel-Aviv.
Statue in New York at Polish Consulate


The statue in New York near the Polish consulate  was  unveiled on November 22nd, 2007.  The ceremony was attended by many distinguished guests, including the representatives of the President of Poland and the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Former US President and student of Jan Karski at Georgetown University Bill Clinton sent his personal letter.  In 2009 the southeast corner of Madison Avenue and East 37th Street was renamed for Jan Karski.
 In 2012, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor awarded by an American president, to Karski.