The story of Jan Karski, who has been described as a superspy during World War II, may be worthy of a Hollywood movie. However the man viewed as war hero in his native Poland has remained off the international radar, probably because his contributions to mankind - including the first revelations about the Holocaust - were disregarded by Western leaders and remain an embarrassment for the US and the UK.
The life and work of Jan Karski were commemorated yesterday (8 January) in a high-profile ceremony in Brussesls, organised by Polish MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, who is also vice-president of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP).
The ceremony was attended by former Prime Minister of Norway Kjel Magne Bondevik, Italian former Foreign Minister Franco Frattini and several other politicians and historians.
Jan Karski, whose real name was Jan Kozielewski, was born in 1914 in Łódź. He was raised as a Catholic but grew up in a multi-cultural neighbourhood where the majority of the population was then Jewish. He graduated from the Legal and Diplomatic departments of Jan Kazimierz Univesity of Lviv (then Lwów) in 1935 and held diplomatic posts in the late 1930s in Germany, Switzerland and the UK.
With the outbreak of WWII he was mobilised and taken prisoner by the Soviet army, but successfully concealed his officer’s rank, pretending to be an ordinary soldier. Thus he was handed over to the Germans during an exchange of Polish prisoners of war, escaping the Katyn massacre in which some 22,000 Polish officers were killed by the order of Stalin.
In November 1939, Kozielewski escaped from a German prisoner of war camp, joined the Polish resistance movement and adopted the nom de guerre Karski, which he kept throughout his life.
Karski made several secret courier missions between France, Britain and Poland. In 1940 he was arrested by the Gestapo and tortured, but managed to escape again.
In 1942 the Polish prime minister in exile, Władysław Sikorski, assigned Karski the mission of gathering evidence about the Nazi atrocities in Poland. He was thus smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto to observe what was happening to local Jews and, disguised as an Estonian camp guard, he managed to infiltrate the Bełżec extermination camp. He had also carried out of Poland a microfilm with further information from the underground movement on the extermination of European Jews in German-occupied Poland.
In 1943, Karski met British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden and traveled to the Untied States, where he met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, becoming the first eye witness to inform Western leaders about the Holocaust.
But as former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski said in a video message to the European Parliament, Roosevelt was “not committed in his reaction”. Brzezinski, the son of a Polish diplomat and a teenager at the time, has met with Karski to discuss the unsuccessful attempt to draw the attention of the US leadership to the plan of the Nazis to exterminate all Jews.
Brzezinski said Karski also met with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who was Jewish, but told him he could not believe what he was told.
“This story summarises the great tragedy of WWII”, Brzezinski said.
Roosevelt asked about horses
According to some reports, US President Roosevelt asked no questions about the fate of the Jews, but inquired what had happened to horses in Poland after the country was invaded both by Nazi Germany and Stalin's USSR.
Marian Marek Drozdowski, author of a 250-page biography of Jan Karski said that the Polish hero, who chose to live in the United States, where he died in 2000, was prevented by US censors to disclose Soviet atrocities. Drozdowski also compared Karski's spying talent to that of Ian Fleming's fiction hero James Bond.
Drozdowski, who met with Karski in the 1990s, said that he would be embarrassed by such commemorations. “He only thought he was doing his duty”, Drozdowski said.
Maciej Wierzynski, author of the book about Karski 'The Emissary in His Own Words' said that Karski's opinions about Polish history were both extremely lucid and "politically incorrect". As an example, Karski considered that the Polish resistance did not contribute to the shortening of WWII by a single day. This did not mean that he believed that the sacrifice of Polish heroes was in vain, he added.
In Parliament, the organisers of the Jan Karski commemoration used the opportunity to promote the concept of "responsibility to protect", a UN initiative introduced in 2005. The idea is that when a state manifestly fails to protect its citizens from mass atrocities and peaceful measures have failed, its “sovereignty” cannot be an excuse to prevent the international community from intervening through coercive measures.
"Neither Roosevelt, nor the foreign minister of the UK then Anthony Eden, or other top leaders, didn’t act as they should have in the light of what we call today 'responsibility to protect'," Saryusz-Wolski told EurActiv. The Polish MEP comes from Łódź, the same city as Karski.