Jan Karski was a Polish Catholic who put his dreams of becoming a diplomat on hold in 1942 to carry out a dangerous mission, traveling across Nazi-occupied Europe in a vain attempt to stop the slaughter of the Jews.
Working on behalf of the Polish Underground, he went to the Warsaw Ghetto and a Nazi death camp to witness the atrocities being taking place. On his mission he carried explicit documentation on microfilm — embedded inside a key — hoping that his eyewitness account would persuade Allied leaders to take action to halt the extermination of Poland’s Jews.
His heroic deeds have been captured by Emmy-Award winning Polish-Jewish filmmaker Slawomir Grunberg in the documentary Karski & the Lords of Humanity, which had its New Jersey premiere March 6 at Temple B’nai Shalom in East Brunswick, with Grunberg and scholars addressing an audience of more than 200.
The film, which combines archival footage and animated sequences, will also be shown as part of the JCC MetroWest’s New Jersey Jewish Film Festival on Monday evening, March 28, at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown.
Karski’s undertaking was made even more perilous because he was wanted by the Gestapo, having previously been arrested as a resistance fighter. After being tortured, he had escaped with the help of his comrades in the underground and a sympathetic doctor.
“If the Allies do not intervene, the Jewish population will cease to exist in a year and a half,” wrote Karski in his famous report, the first to provide definitive evidence of the Final Solution.
According to the film, neither United States President Franklin Roosevelt nor British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, nor American-Jewish leaders, nor the pope were willing to take a stand — each for reasons of their own. The Allied leaders feared that focusing on the persecution of Jews would offend the Russians, an ally that had suffered significant losses at the hands of the Nazis.
The program, sponsored by the temple’s Daniel Pearl Education Center, also included panelists Dr. Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, an associate professor of English, cinema studies, and comparative literature at Rutgers University, and Joanna Sliwa, a doctoral candidate at the Strassler Center for Holocaust Studies at Clark University who has taught courses at Rutgers University’s Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life. The discussion was moderated by Pearl Center committee member Sally Bauer Cohen.
Karski died in 2000, but Grunberg used interviews with him featured in Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 Shoah documentary. “It was the first time I’ve worked with archival footage,” he said. It took Grunberg seven years to complete, because he met resistance from potential funders to his unconventional use of animation in a film about the Holocaust.
The film was nominated for best documentary March 7 at the Polskie Nagrody Filmowe, known “the Polish Academy Awards.” The critically-acclaimed film, which is about to be more widely distributed in the United States, has played throughout Poland, and Grunberg said it was greeted with surprising enthusiasm by Russian audiences. It has also aired in Israel, South Africa, and Australia, and negotations are under way to show it on German TV.
Sliwa, a Polish Jew whose family came to the U.S. when she was a child, said encouragement by Polish officials and the resurgence of Jewish life have caused interest in Holocaust movies and books to “become a phenomena” in Poland.
“Jan Karski was only 25 when he tried to save the world,” noted Grunberg, who said he believed Karski’s ethics and heroism caried a powerful message, particularly for young people.
“Karski could be a great role model for young people as someone who took a risk, who showed bravery and great morality in his effort to save the world,” said Grunberg, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1981.
In his quest to “risk his life for humanity,” Karski allowed himself to be smuggled into the Warsaw and Izbica ghettos by the Jewish Underground. Izbica, in eastern Poland, was a spot were many Polish Jews had fled. Between March and May 1942 some 12,000 to 14,000 Jews from Czech Republic, Slovakia, Germany, and Austria were also deported there.
Those who didn’t die from disease or starvation were shot or transported to their deaths at Sobibor or Belzec.
“My father’s family perished in Belzec,” said Grunberg, who used graphic archival footage of dead bodies being collected and starving children in the ghettos as Karski described the shocking conditions and “sufficating stench of death” he encountered.
Flitterman-Lewis said while many Allied leaders were sympathetic, particularly Churchill, politics trumped those sympathies. Additionally, press reports about the atrocities had begun to circulate.
“People knew and should have done something, but didn’t,” she said. The loudest applause of the day came when she added, “I always thought if Eleanor had been president things would have been different.”
Karski immigrated to the U.S. in 1952 and earned a doctorate at Georgetown University, where he later taught for 40 years. Among many other accolades, he was honored by Yad Vashem, was made an honorary citizen of Israel, and in 2012 posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.