If you go to the Polish Consulate in New York City there is a statue of a man sitting on a bench. Other cities have similar statutes. The statute is as gaunt as Jan Karski was in life. I see him, Old World, patrician in physical demeanor, ramrod erect, sometimes smoking a cigarette holding in the old fashion Eastern European manner. Jan Karski: a name de guerre. The Christian name was Jan Kozielewski. A Polish diplomat by training. By circumstance a prisoner turned courier. A messenger between the Polish Underground and the Polish Government in Exile and its Western allies during World War II. I knew this man. I never knew him.
I visualize him from memory. I hear his high-pitched, snorted laugh. I remember nothing about what he said. The laugh lingered. It always made me feel that this man had been abused. He was my professor in college. The laugh was a source of ridicule among his students. He taught was one of those comparative “something” classes that you were required to take at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. He never spoke about himself. Never about the War. It was only after leaving Georgetown that I learned who he was. A man who bore witness.
“The Messenger” is an odd book. As a biography it reviews Mr. Karski’s participation in the film “Shoah”. It reveals that only a few years after I graduated Mr. Karski was coaxed to participate in the film. To tell his story again. His silence since the War was not reserved to his students. He chosed to stay quiet after the War.
The second part of the biography, is a summary of Mr. Karski’s memoir “Story of a Secret State” that was published in 1944. It was a best seller.
The last part of the book is fiction. The author conveys what he believes are Mr. Karski’s thoughts through a first person monologue. This is the most interesting part of the book, because he universalize the Holocaust. In the monologue Mr. Karski presumably rejects the Poles as being more anti-Semitic than people of other countries: the Soviets, the British, the French, the Americans. Purportedly they are demonized as a distraction from Western complicity. Historically he stands apart. He has been honored at Yad Vashem as one of the “Righteous among the Nations.” He had been in the Warsaw ghetto and gained entrance into one of the camps to accurately report to the Allies what was happening. He had been caught and tortured by the Nazis and escaped. He feared the Soviets, as he feared the Nazis. The monologue raises the Katyn massacre by Stalin’s NKVD during early 1940. Four thousand of Poland’s intelligentsia were taken to the forest near Smolensk, executed and dumped in a mass grave. This message is not meant to detract from the horror of the Holocaust. Mr. Karski was virulently anti-Communist. A purpose is to address the human condition. The commandment from the Holocaust according to Israeli scholar Yehuda Bauer is:
“Thou shalt not be a perpetrator.
Thou shalt not be a victim.
And above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.”
The latter is Jan Karski’s message. Its historical retelling is more powerful than fiction. Ad advertisement in the February 16, 1943 edition of the New York Times is quoted. It is in the fiction part of the book. It reads:
” FOR SALE to Humanity
Guaranteed Human Beings at $50 a Piece”
The copy in part says, “Romania is tired of killing Jews. It has killed one hundred thousand of them in two years. Romania will now give Jews away for practically nothing”. The text notes that American politicians have done nothing and that Romania upon payment will deliver the 70,000 Jews in concentration camps to Palestine.
I figure this is dramatic license and research the purported event. It is not fiction. Romania had approached the U.S. State Department in advance of publication, but the State Department did not choose to do anything. Karski had already met with the British in 1942 and met with Roosevelt in July of 1943. What was transpiring was known. The ad was published by Ben Hecht, a non-religious Jew, turned Irgun supported and anti-Zionist, to dramatize the plight of European Jews. The American Jewish Congress (and similarly The Jewish Agency in London) responded at the time “The American Jewish Congress, dealing with the matter in conjunction with recognized Jewish organizations, wishes to state that no confirmation has been received regarding the alleged offer of the Romanian Government to allow 70,000 Jews to leave Romania. Therefore no collection of funds would seem justified.” Who knew what and when remains in question, although Mr. Hecht, in his book “Perfidy” claimed complicity of established Jewish organizations in intentional inaction.
We are all bystanders to atrocities. It is not that we don’t care, it is self-preservation and the absence of shared condition. On a micro-level it occurs in our daily lives. On a macro-level, nations find political reasons to avoid relief. The Khmer Rouge, Rwanda, recently Syria- the messenger is now real-time electronic, but the result continues to be Jan Karski’s nightmare.
This book is not as good as its subject.