June 12, 2001

A Polish hero


On June 20, an important event took place in Buenos Aires. The Swedish Ambassador to this country, Peter Landelius, presented his Polish counterpart, Eugeniusz Noworyta, wirh a sculpture for the Warsaw government. The ceremony was carried out at the Polish Embassy with the attendance of a large audience. It was the homage to the legendary Jan Karski paid by the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation.

Raoul Wallenberg was the young Swedish diplomat who risked his life to save tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews when Nazis started deporting them in mass. Jan Karski was also a diplomat, but in this case of Polish nationality, who also risked his life to condemn the murderous machinery of the Third Reich.

Karski was born shortly before the Fist World War in the city of Lodz, Poland, in a Catholic family. He was raised by Jesuits and studied Law. He spoke many languages, traveled throughout almost all Europe and entered the diplomatic career. He was refined, elegant and very devoted.

He was called to arms in 1939, when the world was going up in flames due to Hitler’s warmongering. Shortly afterwards, when Poland had been divided between Germany and the Soviet Union, he was taken as a prisoner by the Red Army and put into a concentration camp. He was able to escape and headed for the region occupied by the Nazis, where underground groups of resistance had started.

”An anonymous messenger”

His knowledge of languages and countries determined his bold mission as a courier. His heroic deeds achieved legendary proportions.

With an outstanding memory, not only visual but of texts as well, he crossed enemy lines to transmit secret information to the different groups of the Polish resistance and from them to the government agents in exile. In June of the year 1940 he fell into a trap, he was arrested by the Gestapo in Slovakia and he was subjected to many humiliations. He was afraid that torture would make him confess things that endangered others, and, in spite of his Catholicism, he tried to slash his wrists with a razor he had hidden in the sole of a shoe. But he was rescued in time in an action worthy of a movie and taken into a safe place where he could recover from his poor health condition, broken by sadistic beatings. A few months of recovering allowed him to resume his job, which grew in importance and consequences.

With modesty, in the books and statements Jan Karski made after the war, he said he had barely been an ”anonymous messenger”. But that function forced him to cross barriers behind which death was waiting. In spite of his lonely performance, he reached the most important leaders of Europe and the United States, as well as vast numbers of writers and journalists. ”My credentials were my scars and some military medals.” Because of him, it was known about the structure of the Polish underground movement, the relationships between political and military organizations, the resistance methods, the underground press, the characteristics of the Nazi oppression. Finally, he added the slaughter of Jews to his reports, which was unprecedented not only due to its systematization but also due to its effectiveness.

”I saw Belzec”

He got used to set out clearly for not more than twenty minutes and he only dedicated the final minutes to the Jews’ tragedy. However, this last part became what he proudly called ”my Jewish mission”. His unexpected mission appeared shortly before he slipped away to London. He was dedicated to collecting messages and false documentation when he was told that the representatives of two Jewish underground organizations wanted to see him. Karski asked for authorization to the chief of the Polish resistance, the fat and old Cyril Ratajski, who answered: ”Jan, you must help them”.

He kept dramatic meetings with both leaders. ”They gave me their messages, terrible messages! What was happening was unparallel. Nazis had decided to murder all the Jewish population in the world.”

He understood that it was not enough with transmitting reports from other people, so before abandoning his land, he decided to see reality with his own eyes. He knitted the star of David on his worn-out jacket and infiltrated twice into the Warsaw ghetto. It was October 1942. Of the original 600 thousand victims the Nazis had gathered at the beginning, only 50 thousand remained, the rest had been sent to the gas chambers. The terrible scenes he saw there not only confirmed the reports, but also forced him to visit an extermination camp. He did not pay attention to the risk and entered Belzec. In his memories he remembers: ”I saw Belzec. I stayed for less than an hour and it was enough. I could not take it. I suffered some kind of nervous collapse. After I left the camp I vomited blood.”

He secretly got to London and had a meeting with Polish, British and American officials. After talking with the president of the Polish government in exile, in December 1942, the latter, moved by what he had heard turned to the allies so that they warn Germans about their responsibility for the crimes. The president also sent a letter to the Pope Pious XII, from whom he never had a reply. ”At your feet, Holy Father, I implore you for intervention on behalf of the Polish citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish.”

The British Minister of Foreign Affairs, Anthony Eden, replied each and everyone of Karki’s demands with a categorical ”no”; he did not even allow the entry in Palestine of the refugees who could barely run away from hell. Karski could not either move the Cabinet of War. In his meetings with writers and journalists, he got different results, that varied from tears to skeptical expressions: H. G. Wells, for example, preferred to digress about the causes of anti-Semitism instead of joining into rescue measures.

In 1943, after the amazing uprising of the Warsaw ghetto, Jan Karski was sent to the United States. There he initiated a tremendous activity, which took him to the Oval Room. President Franklin D. Roosevelt held him for four hours, interested in the political problems on the other side of the border. Though he worried about the Jews’ tragedy, Roosevelt was not willing to distract efforts: he would not destroy trains taking crowds to the slaughterhouse, and he would not bomb the extermination camps. Then, Karski turned to leaders, officials, bishops and journalists who expressed their sympathy but chose to suppose that the report was exaggerating.

”After the war – he wrote – the Western leaders manifested their horror for what had happened. These personalities insisted that they ignored the genocide policies of the Third Reich, because they were kept in secret. Such opinion, however, is false. They knew it!”

They knew it due to this unforgettable Pole, catholic, brave and good-hearted, who was included in Jerusalem among the Righteous who fill the world with dignity and whom the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation have just paid homage to from Buenos Aires.

* Marcos Aguinis‘ most recent book is The cruel charm of being Argentine