Michael Szporer, The Washington Chapter of the Fulbright Association:
How to write of a man whose heroic stature far exceeds his modest frame, one of the larger than life figures of the last century? I do not know why Jan Karski befriended me, but I certainly feel privileged to have known him. In his impish way, he loved to chide me, nicknaming me "Endek" [from Endecja] once, meaning "zealot," because of my association with Solidarity. It was the Professor's way to make me own up to myself.
Karski did that to people and nations.
I would return his banter, say I was really more like him with Josef Pilsudski, having left my heart in Vilnius in more ways than one. Jan Karski was fond of Josef Pilsudski, the Lithuanian founder of modern Poland. We debated much, over wine at diner in an Irish pub he found pleasant near his modest apartment in Chevy Chase filled with photos by his beloved wife Pola, a dancer, and quite an avid photographer.
Quite unabashedly, I am a Jan Karski zealot! Karski explained to me better than I could myself why I felt close to Solidarity. It had to do with my private war and exile, he said. I tried to grasp how he, so articulate and astute observer of human behavior and deeds, could have been so misunderstood by some, as had happened in his later years.
To hear, as some wrote of him in homages, that he was the precursor of our age dedicated to the spirit of human rights, would have probably embarrassed him. Karski was extraordinarily modest, dislocated by an incredible chain of events of his life, which he might have felt diminished anyone in their grandeur, and certainly overwhelmed him. They would have anyone but he lived them as Karski, as the man who tried to stop the killing of a people.
Karski believed in the great solidarity of humankind. It is what he most loved about America, and its triumph in this modern, post-ideological age, when ideologies became just ideas, and heroes like him people leading ordinary lives. It would be like Karski to believe that he retired from history after the war and became a Georgetown University professor, that when he returned to communist Poland as a Fulbrighter, he returned as a forgotten man. He was not forgotten, I am sure, but he must have been holy even to the communists.
Karski was a living legend, and living legends never die -- ought not. The Professor would chastise me for that line, if only because what makes us what we are is what we do, how we live. Karski lived honestly. He wished for Poland, really for that sad part of the world from which he came and which has seen so much chaos and human suffering, to grow past its divisions. He wished for the world to mature to decency.
Like Czeslaw Milosz, Tomas Venclova, and Josif Brodsky, the great witness to the Holocaust thought that the ethos of his homeland was overwrought, at times hysterical and wallowing in past woes. Central Europe was still clinging to past formalities, without sense or honest appraisal of itself, and had to heal after years of wars, devastation, ethnic animosities and the terrible atrocities of Hitler and Stalin.
Always the cavalry officer to the core, who escaped Katyn fate by sheer chance of his boots, who later leaped out of a Gestapo window, Karski was no wallower; and he had little use for self-aggrandizement and arrogant banality. He was a keen observer of his time, a visionary until the end. I would add in his later years, he became a healer of souls, not only of nations, but of individuals. It was not only his tolerance, or Caritas, but an understanding that witnessing life meant commitment.
How Jan Karski loved life, how he relished in its nuances! His penetrating eye saw through events and people. Simply knowing him made us better, perhaps a touch truer to ourselves. He was the gentlest, and most compassionate individual, I had ever known. Sometimes simple words ring true, sometimes heroes are for real.
Death Of A Hero
by Abraham Brumberg
The story is all too familiar these days: a survivor dies, and another vital link to the Holocaust is lost.
A different kind of link was lost last Thursday with the death of Jan Karski, the onetime Polish diplomat whose heroism in bringing eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust to Allied authorities is the stuff of legend.
By now, Karski's story is well known: his Partisan exploits, his clandestine visit to the Warsaw Ghetto and a concentration camp to gather information, his four harrowing trips to the West bearing detailed accounts of the horrors unfolding in his country.
Decades later, the details have been subsumed into the vast body of Holocaust knowledge, but the symbolism of his personal witness remains as powerful as ever. It was the witness of a Christian who didn't need to get involved with the troubles of the Jews, but did anyway. It was the witness of a man who repeatedly risked his life to do the right thing, only to find that the leaders he entrusted with his horrific information were not willing to listen, or unable to cope with the immensity of what they heard. It was the witness of a man driven by a deep sense of morality and personal responsibility that endured even in a time when so many of his countrymen cast morality aside for the dubious comforts of uninvolvement. It was the witness of a Pole who spoke with special authority about the essentially Jewish character of the Holocaust, while not diminishing the suffering of his own people under Nazi domination.
For decades, Karski refused to speak about his wartime experiences: according to some reports out of a profound rage at the way Western leaders expressed shock at postwar revelations of the Nazi atrocities. Karski knew better; he personally delivered the message to British and American leaders, including President Franklin Roosevelt, and he witnessed their refusal to act on that information when it might have made a difference. Eventually, he was convinced that his testimony was too important for silence.
After 1980, he appeared at countless Holocaust conferences and educational events. He became a unique asset for that community of dedicated Jews and non-Jews who are determined to make sure the memory of the Holocaust and its vital lessons are not lost after the last survivor has died.
That community will keenly feel the loss of Jan Karski, a beacon of decency, integrity and bravery that penetrated even the evil darkness of the Nazi genocide.