The passage of a half-century has not dimmed Jan Karski's memory of the horrors he saw as a courier for the Polish Underground, nor have the years diminished his legend as a witness to the Holocaust. People still speak of Karski's daring visits to the Warsaw ghetto and the Belzec concentration camp -- and dangerous journeys to tell what he had seen.
With antisemitism resurfacing in Poland's elections, last night the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith and the Archdiocese of Washington presented Karski with the league's first Pope Pius XI Award at the Washington Hebrew Congregation. At the same time, the league and the archdiocese announced the development of an innovativecurriculum on the Holocaust to be used in Catholic schools. The program is being put together by teachers Jeffrey Hartling of Good Counsel High School in Silver Spring and Catherine de Laubenfels of La Reine High School in Suitland.
"I am infinitely proud that I became a cause -- or better -- a pretext for this inspiring event," Karski said. Karski, a Catholic, recalled that a few years ago Pope John Paul II addressed the congregation of a Roman synagogue and said, "You are our older brethren. We are all children of Abraham."
Last night, ADL Director David C. Friedman planned to give Karski a rare copy of the honoree's 1944 Houghton Mifflin book, "Story of a Secret State." Karski long ago gave all his copies away. Friedman read excerpts from the book, telling of Nazi atrocities and the Polish Underground's heroism.
In 1942 Karski made his way through conquered Europe to London, where he told Anthony Eden and other British War Cabinet members of the Polish Underground's fight and the horrors of the camps. In July and August 1943 he went to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and members of his Cabinet, and high members of the Catholic Church and American Jewish leaders, including Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. He once wrote, "The widely spread opinion that the Western leaders were unaware of what happened to the Jews is no more than a myth. They knew."
At 76, Karski retains his Polish aristocratic gallantry -- he kisses his visitor's hand and points out the portraits of his wife, the beautiful and talented dancer and choreographer Pola Nirenska. His speech has a charming, lilting accent, as well as grace and eloquence. He's very thin, a body of bones and nerves, the underground agent capable of sliding into secret hiding places, or passing unnoticed in the melee. Karski has been a U.S. citizen since the 1950s and is an adjunct professor of Middle European studies at Georgetown University and the Inter-American Defense College.
"After my first trip to Washington in July 1943," he recounted, "I had intended to go back to Poland, back underground."
But when he reached London, officials of the Polish government-in-exile showed him the transcript of a Nazi broadcast naming his nom de guerre and saying he was "spreading lies about the Third Reich." Karski was told that the scars on his wrists, from the time he had tried to commit suicide rather than betray his knowledge of the underground, would make him identifiable to the Nazis. "The exile government did not know what to do with me, because I knew everything."
So he came back to the United States to continue his witness, in major magazine articles, in his best-selling book, written in a few months and published almost immediately, and during a frantic year making 200 or so lectures.
After the war, Karski, as did many who survived, became silent.
"For 30 years, I could not talk about the atrocities. Most Jews were the same. They became hard-working doctors, lawyers; they did not want to remember the horrors, the humiliations," he said. "I would not write about it anymore. I could not teach classes about it. I would break down."
When he met Pola Nirenska at a Washington party after the war, he knew she was a famous dancer. "I had seen her when she danced at the Polish Embassy in London years before, but I was only a little doggy and had no chance to meet her. When we met again, I called her and asked her to dinner. She said as we hardly knew each other, it would be more proper for us to meet at lunch. And we did."
However, Nirenska, who had come to the United States after his year of fame, knew little of Karski. Even to this day she has not read "Story of a Secret State." She always spoke to him in English, and he, not knowing her age when she left Poland to study dancing, always replied in the same language. Only after they were engaged, when his older brother came to meet Nirenska, did Karski hear her fluent Polish.
Today, after some 30 years of marriage, they still speak English to each other -- and still don't speak at all of the Polish tragedy or the Holocaust.
But after the Holocaust Memorial Council was formed, children began to ask questions, and in 1985 Karski was one of those who bore witness to the Holocaust in the documentary film "Shoah." In July of this year, at an 80th birthday tribute to Nirenska at Dance Place, she choreographed a series of poignant dances about the Holocaust. Karski had to buy a ticket to see the performance.
Karski still is witnessing because, as he planned to say last night, "in some countries -- this blessed country included -- antisemitism is raising its ugly head. This -- after the Holocaust. After the Second Vatican Council.
"We Poles, we knew what suffering, persecution, death mean. Some 3 million ethnic Poles perished in the last war. But all Jews were victims." He added, "The Jews prayed or fought for centuries to recover their promised land. Now they have it and will not be pushed out. But they are surrounded by an ocean of hatred and enmity... . For me, friendship or good will toward the Jews requires at least friendship for or better support of Israel. Never again."
He told of bringing a message in early 1943 from Polish Jews to Jewish leader Shmuel Zygelboym in London urging the Jews there to "refuse food and water. Let them die in view of the whole world. We are dying here. Perhaps that will shake the conscience of humanity."
That April, the people of the Warsaw ghetto fought with primitive weapons against the Nazis. In May, the entire ghetto was burned. "Then Shmuel Zygelboym took his life in London. He left a letter that he decided to die as a protest against the passivity of the Allies toward the fate of the Jews."
Today, Karski watches the Polish elections. He was embarrassed, he said, by the vote and the stories of a rise in antisemitism. "The United States is a big country, an old democracy; it can afford an occasional crackpot vote. But Poland cannot."