Warsaw — Seven decades after Jan Karski, a low-ranking ex-military officer and Polish diplomat, risked his life to tell the world about the Nazis’ extermination of Europe’s Jews, Poland is telling the world about Karski.
The Polish government has declared 2014 “The Year of Jan Karski,” an international celebration of his life that will feature a series of lectures, conferences and educational programs. The American kickoff will be an academic seminar on April 24, the centennial of Karski’s birth, in Washington.
A hero to the Jewish community and a role model to Poles — and not known to the majority of members of either group — “Jan Karski is an international symbol,” said Wojciech Bialozyt, educational director of the Jan Karski Educational Foundation, which was founded to lobby for the posthumous awarding of the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom to Karski. “Jan Karski’s legacy is universal.”
President Obama made the presentation at a White House ceremony in 2012. Karski died in Washington at 86 in 2000.
A native of Lodz, a devout Catholic (who later married a Jewish woman, and called himself a “Christian Jew”) and a Polish patriot and opponent of Communism, Karski during World War II was a reserve member of the Polish Army, a prisoner of war, and an underground courier with a near-photographic memory who undertook two missions in France.
Captured by the Nazis, he was tortured, freed by the Underground, and recruited to clandestinely visit the Warsaw Ghetto and other Jewish population centers to report to Western leaders about the Final Solution — the leaders, including Roosevelt and Churchill, dismissed his accurate, firsthand accounts of Nazi atrocities and inhuman living conditions as exaggerated.
“I faithfully and honestly reported what I remembered,” he wrote in the introduction to his 1944 memoirs, “Story of a Secret State.”
Persona non grata in communist Poland and close-lipped about his WWII exploits, Karski was little-known until in his homeland or abroad until Communism fell a quarter-century ago and he went back to Poland for the first time. He spent his post-Polish life as a professor of at Georgetown University; Israel declared him an honorary citizen; Yad Vashem, a Righteous Gentile.
The goal of the year-long celebration (jankarski.net; @JanKarskiStory), which is coordinated by the Foundation with the support of several Polish government ministries and non-governmental organizations, is to hold up Karski’s career as an example of selfless civic service, especially in the generation of emerging national leaders, Bialozyt says. In his 30s, he says he is typical of Poles his age; he never heard of Karski until newspapers here reported on his post-communist homecoming.
Karski, who exhibited comparable bravery as the better-known Oscar Schindler, lacks the late German’s personal foibles as a war profiteer and womanizer that made him perfect material for a Hollywood movie. He was religious, a loner, a tall, regal man.
The goal of the Foundation’s campaign is to make Karski’s legacy as well known in the general public as Raoul Wallenberg’s, Bialozyt says. Wallenberg was the Swedish businessman-turned-diplomat who disappeared into Soviet hands after saving thousands of Jews in occupied Budapest.
Fewer than half of all Poles know Karski’s story, he told The Jewish Week, adding that Karski offers a nuanced look at Polish society: Karski opposed both Communism and the election of the country’s first post-communist president, Lech Walesa; Karski worked for Poland’s government-in-exile, but was highly critical over several decades of a too-common strain of Polish anti-Semitism.
“He is still controversial,” Bialozyt said. “Karski shows complexity.”
“This was a man who did the right thing at the right time,” said Rabbi Michael Schudrich, Poland’s Long Island-born chief rabbi. “He risked his life. How many people would do that?”
Plans for the Year of Jan Karski include the issuance of coins and stamps in his honor here, a high school curriculum, several books, a scholarship program and training institute for future diplomats, an online virtual exhibition about Karski’s life, a traveling exhibition, and “Jan Karski Days” in several Polish cities.
Several cities around the world — including on the campus of Tel Aviv University, and next to the next Museum of Polish Jewish History here — are home to “Jan Karski Benches.” The sculptures depict a lone figure sitting on a bench.
In life, Bialozyt says, Karski often found himself alone and isolated, often by his own design.
If this year’s centennial program succeeds, Bialozyt says, Karski will achieve in death the fame he never did in life.