Mission not accomplished

No one questions Jan Karski's credibility, including those scholars who promote the narrative of Polish inaction or even Polish complicity in the German plans for the total destruction of the Jewish nation. But the truth about his report and his fate does not shine through. The attitude of the Allies towards his report is not the subject of academic sessions or international conferences.

"The Warsaw Ghetto will go up in smoke. But we will die with arms in hand. We will declare war on Germany. It will be the most hopeless war in history", the Zionist apparently said something he shouldn't have.

The Bund leader leapt up, as if surprised by his comrade's words. "Indeed, we are organising an uprising in the ghetto. Not because we expect to win. We will lose this struggle. But we want the world to look at it and feel remorse for having left us alone,” he said.

It was October 1942: a courier of the Polish Underground State, Lieutenant Jan Kozielewski, aged 28, was preparing to travel to the West for the third time, this one all the way to London, to the Polish government-in-exile. As a Jan Karski.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE "Before leaving the country, I received an order from the government delegate to meet with two leaders of the Jewish Underground, representing Zionists and socialists affiliated to the Bund. In fact, they acted on behalf of all Polish Jews", this is how Jan Karski described this part of his mission in 1944, in his book 'Story of a secret state', written at the government's behest and published in the USA in the same year in English, as well as in Polish ('The Secret State'), Norwegian, Swedish and French. The book was banned in the communist era, although it was not unknown - it was sometimes brought from the West by some people, but the first edition was not published until 1999 as 'The Secret State'.

In the book, Karski, then young, withheld most of the names; today it is known that the two leaders were Leon Feiner 'Berezowski', a lawyer who from 1941 represented the underground Bund in its contacts with the Government Delegation for Poland, and - probably - Menachem Kirszenbaum, chairman of the General Zionist party.

Karski, as part of these conversations, was twice in the Warsaw Ghetto, and was also smuggled into a transit camp in Izbica, near Lublin, where, disguised - and with documents - as a Ukrainian guard, he watched the horrific loading of people into the lime-strewn cattle wagons that carried them to the Belzec extermination camp. In his book, he does not write that it was a German extermination camp or a German transit camp, as it was obvious in 1944.

Kozielewski-Karski was a courier for the government delegate also because he had an extraordinary, photographic memory, not only for images, but also for numbers, dates and documents. When he later met with Prime Minister Władysław Sikorski and British Minister Anthony Eden in London, he not only presented his report, which had already been written up there on the Thames, but also spoke at length and in specific terms.

He wrote the book as a young man, still in the heat of the moment - more than half a century later, as an old person, he recounted all these events and conversations in the underground with no less commitment and concern for the concrete. It is not only worth but necessary to watch the documentary film from 2000, entitled "The Death of Zygielbojm", directed by Djamila Ankiewicz (co-produced by TVP, and there are also several films devoted to Jan Karski himself). We learn - from the source - what the facts and conversations were at the time. When Karski, thanks to his underground contacts, visits the Warsaw Ghetto - in the autumn of 1942 - he is struck by the lack of old people.

"Why do you hardly see old people? Are they at home?", I ask.
"You can't see them because they...don't exist. They left for Treblinka, sir. Maybe they are in heaven? The Germans are a practical nation. Those who still have the strength are taken to work. The others are murdered (...) we will all leave from here, sir. One way... - said the guide without any emotion" (Jan Karski, "The Secret State").

The cut-off date was 22 July 1942, a few months before the talks and Jan Karski's trip. On that day, the Germans began their "liquidation action" - daily deportations of ghetto residents to the Treblinka extermination camp. They boarded trains at Umschlagplatz - the reloading area on Stawki Street - from where the transports to the gas chambers departed. Now a monument stands there, at which Pope John Paul II prayed in 1999.
When Kozielewski-Karski was preparing for his mission, he was 28 years old. Photo from the exhibition 'Jan Karski. Man of Freedom', organised by the Polish History Museum, at the Polish Theatre in Warsaw in 2012. Photo: PAP/Paweł Supernak
For the past eleven years, it is on this day, 22 July, that the March of Remembrance has been marching through the streets of Warsaw to commemorate the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto. This year, the march is scheduled for Friday, 21 July. The Jewish Historical Institute website reads: "This year's March of Remembrance will be dedicated to the resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto that preceded the outbreak of the uprising on 19 April 1943. Contrary to widespread belief, the uprising was not spontaneous, it was preceded by months of preparations for armed struggle and years of underground work: at first, these underground organisations focused on education, publishing the undercover press and providing support for their sympathisers - over time, when the first news of the extermination of Jews on a massive scale appeared, they began to think about organising armed resistance."

This is what the two representatives of the "Jewish Underground", as the author calls them, tell Jan Karski about all this, naturally in succinct summary. This is what his report later tells Karski about, what Karski tells him - as I have already pointed out - in London and in Washington. I could quote again from "The Secret State" or Karski's statements from the film, but an attentive reader can, after all, turn to them himself. And read the description of the harrowing meeting with Arthur Shmuel Zygielbojm, to whom he relayed the words of Leon Feiner: "you will tell the Jewish leaders to make contact with the prominent leaders of England and America and with the most important institutions in those countries. That they demand guarantees that action will be taken to save the Jewish people. To enforce such declarations, let them undertake hunger strikes in public places. Let them refuse food and drink. Let them die a slow death in front of the world. Perhaps this will speak to the conscience of humanity...". (Jan Karski, "The Secret State")

Why is no one now citing Jan Karski, although he is an absolutely unquestionable authority on the subject? Important prizes and foundations are named after him, he is the hero of educational programmes, the patron of schools. He is present in monuments, murals and benches. So what, one would like to say. No one questions his credibility, including those of us contemporary scholars who promote a completely different narrative. But the truth about his report and its fate does not make it into the mainstream, which is dominated by the rhetoric of Polish inaction and even Polish complicity in the German plans for the total destruction of the Jewish nation. The attitude of the Allies towards his report is not the subject of academic sessions and international conferences. The escape of the leaders of the time from responsibility has not become a topic of deliberation and discussion. Karski is a recipient of the highest Polish and American honours, he was posthumously promoted to general rank, but his voice did not enter the social and the political arena. He did not speak to his contemporaries or to us.

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I am not writing this in contradiction to the March of Remembrance; on the contrary, I am writing with the hope that among the young people eagerly distributing ribbons with the names of the murdered among the participants there will also be people who are interested in the most profound content of this date and this event, that they will try to get to know Jan Karski's mission, and that they will undertake new topics of research, as there seems to be no shortage of material in the archives. And after 80 years one can even count on the opening of most of them, perhaps even the British ones, or at least demand it.

And Jan Karski himself is worth getting to know more closely, as it is rare to find a personality with such a consistent life, in which words and deeds do not clash. To the end of his life he remained faithful to the values in which he had grown up: "I was and am a Sodalis Marianus", he said in about 1993, invited by groups of rescued Jews who wanted to honour the Righteous among the Nations in his person. I was at that meeting and I still remember his emotional but strong voice and the impression he made with this confession of his Catholic affiliation, to the Marian Sodality, ridiculed and reviled not only by the communists.

In conclusion, however, I would like to take up a completely different thread and ask for the unfulfilled for years mundane and modest matter of marking the access to the Museum-German extermination camp in Treblinka, where the Jews of Warsaw - and not only Warsaw - died. I applied for this a dozen or so years ago and having achieved nothing, I let it go. But the matter remains, because - completely unlike in Krakow, where you can see directions to the Auschwitz Museum right from the train station - there is nothing to be hoped for in Warsaw. What would be the problem if such a "signpost", a map - with a queer code - was already at the Umschlagplatz Monument? Has anyone seen it perhaps?

Years pass, more and more people visit the Treblinka Museum, prayers are also held there - but for any Warsaw Council, any national or local road authorities, any branch of the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) or any other memorial structure - nothing and nobody. Anyway, what am I talking about: whoever has visited the Treblinka Museum, raise your hand. And who has seen any signposts along the way?

– Barbara Sułek-Kowalska

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Tomasz Krzyżanowski
Main photo: Last year's March of Remembrance took place on the 80th anniversary of the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto. Photo by Andrzej Hulimka / Forum
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