A couple of months ago, while walking up several blocks down from Grand Central Station, I saw a handsome building that turned out to be the Consulate General of Poland. I took a photo not only of this consulate at the corner of 37th Street and Madison Avenue but of the statue you see here. The figure, seated on a bench, is friendly and approachable, with a chess board (not seen here) that he frequently enjoyed playing on.
The statue by Karol Badyna depicts someone used to engaging people and seeing them at their most human. What it can’t begin to convey is the risks that Jan Karski took and the heroism he displayed when so many other people were at their worst.
Karski (1914-2000) was named one of the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to Jewish victims of the Holocaust, for his service in the Polish Underground—more exactly, for repeatedly warning the Allied governments, at the highest levels, of the mass murders that the Nazi regime was already launching in Eastern Europe.
A young diplomat fluent in several languages, Karski developed several other capabilities when his country was overrun by the Germans at the outbreak of WWII: endurance, persistence, cunning and courage. Captured and imprisoned, he managed to escape, becoming a courier between the resistance at home and the Polish government-in-exile in London.
Escaping yet again from prison after gruesome torture at the hands of the Gestapo, he became an eyewitness to starvation within the Warsaw ghettoes and the atrocities committed in the early concentration camps. Grimly determined to tell the world what he’d seen, he took no chances in how he traveled: the Gestapo knew to look for his missing teeth and scars on his hands.
After making it through to the West, Karski offered not only a report but microfilm evidence of the mounting horrors being inflicted on Europe’s Jews. But Winston Churchill claimed he was too busy to meet with him, and though Franklin Roosevelt did, he was dilatory in mounting any major effort to forestall the horror to come. While setting up the War Refugee Board, FDR refused to bomb the trains transporting Jews to their deaths in the concentration camps. (For more on the FDR-Karski meeting, see this blog post I wrote about nine years ago.)
Karski drew a somber lesson from his experience: “I learned that people in power are more than able to disregard their individual conscience if they come to the conclusion that it stands in the way of what they see as their official duty.”
After the war Karski became a U.S. citizen. After getting his doctorate at Georgetown University, he taught there for several decades as a professor of European studies. One of his many students was Bill Clinton.
Recently, a different U.S. President (I shudder just thinking of him in the Oval Office) managed the all-but-impossible feat of issuing a proclamation on International Holocaust Remembrance Day without mentioning the fate of 6 million European Jews. For that misbegotten leader, Karski’s thoughts on this tragedy should be required reading: "The Holocaust belongs to the Jews. The tragedy of the Jews is incomparable. There was nothing like it in the history of humanity."