My faith keeps telling me that humanity has committed another original sin […] This sin will haunt the humankind till the end of its days. This sin is haunting me. And I hope it will never stop
In September 1939, Poland was occupied by the two neighbouring countries – Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. In the territory incorporated into the Third Reich and within the borders of the General Government created by the German occupying power, the German Nazis pursued the policy aiming at the total genocide of the Jewish people.
Initially, the German policy was to isolate the Jews from the Poles. The Jewish population was publically humiliated, forced to wear armbands or patches with the Star of David, drove to force labour and – since 1940 – resettled to the ghettos. Since autumn 1941, leaving the ghetto, hiding on the “Aryan side” or providing aid to Jews – be it arranging a hideout or an ad hoc support – was punishable by death.
On 20 January 1942, during the conference in Wannsee near Berlin, the “final solution” to the Jewish question was sealed and the total genocide of the Jewish people in death camps was formally approved. On 16 March 1942, the liquidation of the ghettos, i.e. mass deportations of Jews to extermination camps, began.
Some Jews resisted the order to move into ghettos. There were some who – having moved into a ghetto – took the risk of escaping to the “Aryan side.” It is estimated that in the Polish territory, 30,000-40,000 Jews survived in hiding or under a false identity. Some survived thanks to selfless help extended by Poles. It also happened that Jews managed to rescue themselves owing to their own resourcefulness, or – much more often – received support in exchange for an ample financial gratification.
He wanted to be a diplomat. The Second World War made it impossible for him to pursue his dream. Instead, Jan Kozielewski, aka Karski, became the most famous emissary between the Polish Underground State and the Polish Government in Exile.
In September 1939, as a second lieutenant of the 5th Battalion of the Horse Artillery, he was taken into captivity by the Soviets. He claimed to be a private, so he was sent to a stalag near Kielce. He jumped off the train and returned to Warsaw where he engaged in underground activity. In 1940, he was arrested by the Gestapo. He was beaten and tortured; he tried to take his own life, fearing he would not be able to persevere and keep the information secret. “I knew that Catholic religion considered this kind of death as sin. […] Clearly, I was not born a hero who, under torture, perseveres till the very end and dies uttering the name of his homeland.” He was saved, and soon recaptured from hospital. He reverted to his underground activity.
In the summer of 1942, Karski undertook his most important mission – to deliver to London information from representatives of various parties on the situation in the country, including materials prepared by the Office for Jewish Affairs of the Home Army Headquarters which documented the extermination policy of the occupying power towards the Jews.
He entered the Warsaw Ghetto twice. He was also let into a camp from which the Germans deported Jews to their death.
“[…] The freight car was designed for eight horses or forty soldiers. […] The Germans gave orders to load 130 people in each car, and kept squeezing in ten more. […] They beat the people with rifle butts, shot people inside the cars, yelled at the desperate Jews. Some […] climbed on the shoulders of those who were already inside. One could hear horrifying, ear-piercing howling coming from the cars.”
He delivered the report to politicians, servicemen, clergy, journalists, writers and representatives of Jewish organisations. He repeated the postulates of the desperate Jewish leaders from Poland. None of the most prominent politicians – neither Anthony Eden, foreign affairs minister of the United Kingdom, nor Henry Stimson, war secretary of the United States, nor – finally – Franklin D. Roosevelt, the President of the United States himself, did not take any measures to prevent the Genocide.
In 1944, a book by Jan Karski titled Story of the Secret State was published in New York. 400,000 Americans found out about the wartime stories of Poles, the Polish Underground State, and the Holocaust of the Jews. Karski went silent and remained so for many years. He settled in the United States, completed doctoral studies and lectured political science and history of diplomacy at the Georgetown University in Washington.
“After the war had ended, I learned that the governments, leaders, academics and writers knew nothing about the fate of the Jews,” he said at the International Conference of the Liberators in 1981.
“They were stunned. The Genocide of six million people remained a mystery. […] This is when I became a Jew. Just like my wife’s relatives, […] all the Jews who had perished became a family of mine. My faith keeps telling me that humanity has committed another original sin; consciously or unconsciously; due to self-imposed ignorance or lack of sensitivity; minding their own business, driven by hypocrisy or soulless rationalism. This sin will haunt the humankind till the end of its days. This sin is haunting me. And I hope it will never stop.”