On Tuesday, May 29, 2012, President Barack Obama will give the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Bob Dylan and posthumously to Jan Karski. What do these two men have in common? Nothing — I just wanted to get your attention.
Most Americans know who Bob Dylan is, but who was Jan Karski?
Jan Karski was a Polish resistance fighter who was among the first to tell the world, in the Summer of 1942, that the Nazis were not “transporting the Jews to the East,” as they claimed, but were committing mass murder in occupied Poland. At that time, Karski was a 33-year-old diplomat in the Polish government-in-exile in London; he was preparing for a secret mission to carry information about the massacre of the Jews in occupied Poland to America. Before leaving for Washington, DC, he met with two Jewish leaders from the Warsaw Ghetto. They briefed him on “Hitler’s war against the Polish Jews.”
During a ceremony at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on April 23rd this year, President Obama spoke about Jan Karski as “a young Polish Catholic who witnessed Jews being put on cattle cars, who saw the killings, and who told the truth, all the way to President Roosevelt himself.” Jan Karski had tried to tell the world the truth, while “so many others stood silent,” in the words of President Obama.
After coming to America in July 1943, Jan Karski got his PhD and then taught history at Georgetown University for many years. He became an American citizen in 1954. In the year 2000, Dr. Karski died at the age of 86.
Here is the back story on Jan Karski:
On September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, Jan Karski (not his real name) was a young soldier in a horse-drawn artillery unit, which was hopelessly outdated compared to the well-equipped German army. Karski deserted, running toward the East, but on September 17, 1939, the Soviet Union attacked Poland from the other side. Karski was captured by the Soviets; he barely escaped the Katyn Forest massacre which the Soviets blamed on the Germans at the Nuremberg IMT.
Karski fled into one of the many huge forests in Poland and joined the Polish Underground which continued to fight throughout World War II, although not on the battlefield. Karski worked as a courier, carrying messages from Warsaw to the Polish government which was in exile in France at that time. On one of his missions, he was captured by the German Gestapo and tortured. To escape the torture, he pulled a razor blade out of the sole of his shoe and slashed his wrists. The Germans took him to a hospital and he survived.
Karski escaped from the Germans and, posing as a Jew, wearing a yellow Star of David, he sneaked into the Warsaw Ghetto so that he could observe the horrible conditions there. He learned that the Jews were being sent from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka, a death camp that was 60 miles to the East.
After witnessing what was happening to the Jews in Poland, Karski went to England where he spoke to members of the British War Cabinet, but Winston Churchill refused to see him. Then it was on to America, where he spoke with Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, and finally with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. All of these men found his story difficult to believe.
In a secret meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Karski told Roosevelt about the Auschwitz death camp and that 1.8. million Jews had already been killed in Poland. He said that commanders of the Polish Home Army (a resistance group) had estimated that, without Allied intervention, the Jews of Poland would “cease to exist” in 18 months. Still, Roosevelt refused to bomb the Auschwitz death camp.
After failing to impress any of the Allied leaders, Jan Karski went public with his story. He delivered around 200 lectures and wrote a best-selling book entitled The Story of a Secret State. Still, it was several years after the war until it became universally known that Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor were death camps where the Jews were gassed.
So what did Jan Karski do to get the Presidential Medal of Freedom, if no one listened to him? Although America did nothing to save the Jews from the gas chambers in what is now Poland, President Roosevelt did establish the War Refugee Board, a Federal agency that helped the Holocaust survivors to come to America. John Pehle, who became the head of the War Refugee Board, said that President Roosevelt decided to establish the board after his talks with Jan Karski.