“You carry the fate of our people.” Leon Feiner, the Polish Jewish Bund leader, hugged Jan.
In a key shaft, Jan concealed hundreds of microfilm documents verifying his eyewitness accounts of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Bełżec death camp.
Father Grudziecki placed a leather pouch containing viaticum around Jan’s neck. Should he be captured, he could receive Holy Communion before death.
A perilous journey lay ahead. The Carpathians, Germany, occupied France, Fascist Spain, and finally a plane to Britain.
By winter 1943 he reached England. He met with many influential leaders including Foreign Affairs Secretary Anthony Eden. Throughout his stay however, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was always too busy to see him.
America is my only hope.
Jan arrived in Washington, D.C. in July.
He stared in amazement at the White House communiqué. “The President has consented to a meeting.”
Waiting outside the Oval Office, he prayed. “Dear Lord, guide me. Millions of lives hang in the balance.”
“The President will see you now, Mr. Karski.”
How often Jan had dreamed of meeting Roosevelt. More than the American President, he was a world leader. Surely he would respond to Jan’s pleas.
“Good afternoon, Mr. President. Thank you for meeting with me.”
Roosevelt consulted the file on his desk. “Well Mr. Karski, you’ve got quite a dossier. Captured by Soviets, then exchanged back to German-occupied Poland. Polish Underground courier. Captured by Nazis in the Tatra Mountains, tortured and escaped. Toured Warsaw Ghetto. Smuggled into Bełżec.”
“You’re a fine linguist. I wish my Polish was half as good as your English.”
“Thank you sir.”
“What other languages do you speak?”
“French, Yiddish, German, Russian.”
The President mopped his brow. “Washington’s always steamy in July.”
He flipped through Jan’s folder. “Fought with the 5th Regiment of Mounted Artillery. Rode some of Poland’s best Arabian steeds.”
“Mr. Karski---Jan, if I may---how’s the horse situation in Poland?”
“During the 1939 siege of Warsaw we were forced to slaughter many of our finest for food. Then the Soviets took most of the rest.”
“Tell me about the Polish Underground.”
Jan described the Resistance---the atmosphere, the methods, the unyielding resolve.
Jan had been warned that Roosevelt often concealed evasiveness beneath surface charm.
I am here to save lives. If it means annoying the President of the United States, then so be it.
“Mr. President let us not as you Americans say, ‘beat around the bush’. My mission concerns a matter of life and death. Every day the Nazis murder thousands of Jews. You can stop the killing.”
“Jan, many innocent civilians are dying, including non Jews. That’s war.”
“Yes, but Hitler demands nothing less than total annihilation of the Jews. To this end Germany is diverting resources from the war effort. Hitler would rather lose the war than allow Jews to live.”
Jan told Roosevelt of all that he had seen.
“At Bełżec hundreds of Jews were stuffed into lime-strewn cattle cars with no food or water. The cars were hermetically sealed. Then it took six days for everyone to die. The cars were emptied, returned to a transit camp, and the process repeated.”
Jan rose from his chair. “The stench! The horrible screams! I cannot forget.”
“Jan, I can’t believe your account. I’m not saying you’re lying. I just can’t believe it. And what’s the solution? We’ve already heard of the death camps and my aides advise against bombing the camps or railways.”
“Mr. President, the Polish Underground is finding hiding places for Jewish children. We could save many more people if there was someplace for them. You can offer them safe harbor in America.”
“Jan, you’re a Catholic.”
“Yet you represent Jews.”
“Mr. President, I represent the Polish nation. Jews, Christians of every denomination, Muslims, Romani. I represent the love of freedom.”
Roosevelt closed Jan’s file. “I’ll think about your message, Jan. I enjoyed our talk. Perhaps we’ll meet again.”
Jan rose, thanked the President, and departed.
Jan did not give up. During the next six months in America he met with the Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, Congressmen, journalists, Jewish leaders, and Catholic leaders.
But to no avail. Despite his efforts, the Allies took no action. They could not accept the truth; too horrible to contemplate.
David, a Jewish friend, put his hand on Jan’s shoulder. “The Talmud teaches ‘One is not obligated to succeed. One is obligated only to try.’ ”
Jan put his head in his hands.
He had tried.
This story is true. The exact interchange between Jan Karski and President Roosevelt is slightly fictionalized but the result of their meeting is fact.
Although Jan Karski’s efforts to persuade the Allies to stop the Holocaust met a dead end, he lived long enough to receive the recognition he deserved. He was recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations in 1982. He was made an honorary citizen of Israel. He was awarded the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest honor. In 2012 the United States awarded him posthumously the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The 100th anniversary of his birth is this year---June 24, 2014.
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