Friday, June 20, 2014

Learning More about Jan Karski

On Tuesday we had conquered the move well enough that I could take some time off for something else. My first activity was to return library books before leaving for Europe next week. This was accomplished by using the new Green Line light rail for the first time for real activity, having taken a practice run to the airport on Sunday when all the buses and trains were free throughout the entire Twin Cities.

I took it to the Dale Street Station which is right next to the Rondo branch of the Saint Paul Public Library system. Then I took the train back east to the Rice Street/Capitol Station.

The art associated with this station relates to Human Rights.

 To reach the Capitol building one walks through a small park.

The roses are very fragrant this time of week. And then nearby I found a memorial to Lief Ericson.

The monument marks the discovery of North America by Ericson in the year 1000. I understand how this may have happened, now that I have become familiar with the time of years 900-1300 known as the Medieval Warm Period.

The capitol building is undergoing significant renovation. Thus, while I was approaching it from the north side, I had to walk around to the south side to enter the building.

Up the steps and then into the Capitol. I found the Karski exhibit presented in a series of posters in the North Hallway.

I had learned about Karski first when I was in Kielce, Poland and found a statue of him.

Here I first saw a picture of what he looked like at age 28.

By this time he had already lived a lifetime of experiences. He was born in Łódż and christened in the Catholic church as Jan Kozielewski. Karski is a name he adopted when he became part of the Polish Underground during World War II.  At the time he was growing up Łódż was a very multi-ethnic city with a majority population of Jewish people. 

His father died when he was six years old and his older brother, Marian, became a father figure for him. His mother, Walentenja, was very firm in her belief that Poland should be a free country. She was also firm in her belief that all people should be treated with tolerance regarding their differences. She taught her children to be kind to their Jewish neighbors.

Karski was well educated, graduating from a university where he received both military and diplomatic training. As part of his diplomatic training he served in Romania, Germany, Switzerland, and the UK. 

When Poland was invaded in September, 1939, Karski became part of the Krakow Calvary Brigade. He was captured by the Red Army and taken into an area which is now present day Ukraine. There he persuaded the army officials that he was a private, not a military officer and was allowed to return to Poland. This action saved him from the Katyn Massacre. 

In 1940 while acting as a courier for the Polish Underground, he was captured by Nazis in an area of the Tatra Mountains in present day Slovakia. He tried to commit suicide as a way to avoid possibly revealing any secrets, but was unsuccessful. He was taken to a hospital in Nowy Sacz and rescued from there by the Polish Underground. 

We say the Polish Underground but the people involved called it the Polish Secret State. 

This naming distinction becomes important later. 

By this time his brother, Marian, was part of the police force in Warsaw. Karski worked with Marian in 1942 who smuggled him into the Warsaw Ghetto so that he could see first hand the conditions inside. He also worked briefly disguised as an Estonian at a Death Transfer Camp near Lublin. Karksi was chosen for this mission because of his command of a number of languages, including English.

With all this information Karski now went to England where he met with Polish government in exile. He met with high-ranking British military and political figures, telling them about the Holocaust underway on the continent. He met with President Roosevelt in Washington, D.C. in 1943 telling this same story. All who heard him were skeptical and unconvinced.

Karski never returned to Poland until 1989. In 1944 he worked with Hollywood to make a film about the Polish Secret State. He became a faculty member of the School of Foreign Affairs at Georgetown University for the remainder of his working life. 

In 1974 he received a Fulbright Award and used this award to write the book, The Great Powers and Poland: 1919-1945. As a Fulbrighter myself I was excited to learn of he is part of the Fulbright Family and humbled that I'm in part of a group that includes someone such as Karski. 

In 1989 Karski returned to Poland where he was awarded the Order of the Eagle. 

And in 2013 he was awarded the Medal of Honor by the United States, an action related to the coming centenary of his birth in 2014.

The story of Karski is a sad story in many ways. Lives perhaps could have been saved had the railroad lines to the death camps been bombed and destroyed. And I wish I could remember the source of this quote: Yes, Poland should have done more to help the Jews. On the other hand, Poland did more than any other country. One source I found on the internet says that Roosevelt asked Karski about the status of Polish horses, but didn't ask him anything about Jewish people living in Poland. I remember being on plane coming back from Poland with a seat mate who said it was interesting how Poland gave up the Jews. Well, that comment upset me very much, but one has to sit beside this person for the next 8 hours, so I simply said I thought he needed to learn more and hear more stories. The story of Karski is a shining star for what Polish people tried to do and what people in other countries didn't try to do.

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