Thursday, May 19, 2016

No. 11 Jan Karski

Courage and Hope in Times of Despair

The speech of the University Stony Brook Freshman, Jakub Juszczyk. 
Delivered during Karski’s Awards Night at the Polish Consulate in Manhattan May 9, 2016.
The event was co-organized by Polish-Jewish Dialog Committee 
and Polish American Congress, Long Island Division
(originally, it was an essay prepared for the scholarship competition 
of “Polonia of Long Island”)

During times of crisis, when situation becomes increasingly drastic and tyranny turns to victory, heroes who rise against the epidemic of death and oppression can make a difference.

In 1939, as Adolf Hitler began to conquer Europe and the war was raging, his troops commenced
the process of annihilation of those whom he considered “inferior” - the Jews, the Slavs,
 the Gypsies. The number of Jewish individuals living in Poland before the war was the largest of all European countries (10 % of the overall population or 3.5 million). 
Notable is the fact that the Jewish community enjoyed sanctuaries and acceptance that it could not find elsewhere in the world.

Poland, when compared to other countries under the occupation, had the strongest resistance movement. It was the only country under the occupation, in which anyone found associating with Jews or helping them in any way was executed by the Germans, along with his or her entire family on the spot. Despite the threat of an eminent death, the Poles are credited with the greatest number of “Righteous Among the Nations”. Thousands of Polish people assisted the Jews, often at the expense of their own lives. 

Colonel Tadeusz Bednarczyk, the Polish underground’s intelligence officer who worked undercover as a taxman in the Warsaw Ghetto and had a very good orientation in Jewish affairs, stated that about 100,000 Poles were directly engaged in helping the Jews and about a million did so indirectly. Some of the most notable included Jan Karski and Irena Sendler, both of whom were given recognition beyond the borders of their homeland.

Jan Kozielewski, (who later took the name Karski), was born in 1914 in Łódz, Poland. He completed demography studies at Lwów University and embarked on a career as a civil servant at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. When Poland was occupied by Germany, Kozielewski joined the Polish Underground. His photographic memory made him ideal for the job of courier between the underground in Poland and the Polish government-in-exile that was first in France and after the fall of France, moved to London. 
During one of his trips, Jan Karski was captured by Germans and severely tortured. He was later smuggled out of the hospital and after a short rehabilitation returned to work in the underground. In 1942, when Hitler’s “final solution” began, Karski was given the mission, then as a member of the Home Army (Armia Krajowa), to inform the Polish government in-exile in London about the carnage that the German troops were performing on Polish soil. He reported on the brutalities of the Third Reich, including the extermination of the Jewry. Passing as an Estonian guard, he personally visited the transit point to the Bełżec death camp. As the first-hand witness of the atrocities of the Germans, he provided detailed descriptions of the horror of the Holocaust. Following his report to the Polish Foreign Minister,  Count Edward Raczyński, Karski was able to inform the Allied forces about the German crimes done on the territory of occupied Poland. 

In 1943, Karski arrived in the United States and met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to share the obtained information about the horrors taking place in Europe under Hitler's occupation. The President was far from interested and insisted on ignoring the subject. During their meeting, Roosevelt asked about the condition of horses in Poland. He did not ask one question about the Jews. When Karski asked if there was any message he should deliver upon his return, the President’s only answer was: "Tell them we shall win this war!" The Chief Executive of the United States was greatly disinclined to listen to the account Karski was providing, and ignorantly dismissed the man who was one of the most accurate describers of the Jewish situation in German-occupied Poland. 

Karski went on to meet with many other government and civic leaders in the United States, including Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, Cordell Hull and Rabbi Stephen Wise. Frankfurter, skeptical of Karski's report, said later "I did not say that he was lying, I said that I could not believe him.” Karski presented his report to media, members of the Hollywood film industry and artists. However, they refused to acknowledge his testimony to be true and did nothing to help the European Jewry. Karski to the last days of his life, could not understand why his message and proposals were ignored. 

In October of 2012, 12 years after his death, Jan Karski received, posthumously, the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the highest honor that the US can award to civilians) for his efforts to spread the information that he firsthand obtained - risking his and the lives of others - to the Allies in an effort to prevent the genocide. He will always be remembered as a man who tried to stop the Holocaust. 

During the very speech meant to honor Karski's deeds, President Obama used the phrase "Polish concentration camps," which echo loudly in Poland as this slogan is often used by individuals who are indolent or ignorant, or simply lack the proper education and understanding of European history, or are... full of ill will. 

Sadly, today, there are often instances in which such heroes are omitted and Poland is often referred to as a country that assisted the Germans in carrying out its extermination, rather than one that attempted to prevent it. This could be a result of ignorance or act of provocation. 

Besides Jan Karski and Irena Sendler (who helped to save 2500 Jewish children) or Henryk Sławik, a Polish diplomat who was providing the Jews with false diplomatic identities in German-occupied Hungary and the Ulma family, who were executed for hiding two Jewish families in their house, there were myriads of others who assisted the persecuted community anonymously, and history will never know the names of most of them. 

Possibly, when people will learn of the scope of what the courageous men and women did during the German occupation and how difficult it was to stand against Germans’ demands, they will understand the importance of the Poles who voluntarily helped their fellow men survive. 

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to remind you about courage of our Polish countrymen in times when so many forget or disturb historical facts. 

added by zk:
On the Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom Hashoah, Thursday, May 5, 2016 (4 days before the Karski’s event), Rabbi Zev Meir Friedman and his students from Random Mesivta ,a private High School on Long Island were protesting in front of the Polish Consulate in New York:

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