The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

Shofar FTP Archive File: documents/reviews/karski.general

Date: Sun, 6 Aug 1995 14:35:51 -0400
Message-ID: <>
Subject: Karski

Here's a little info about my recently published book KARSKI: HOW ONE MAN
TRIED TO STOP THE HOLOCAUST. It's the story of Jan Karski, a
Polish-born Roman Catholic who has been made an honorary citizen
of Israel in recognition of his wartime efforts to tell the world
about the Nazi extermination of the Jews of Europe.

      The book is published worldwide by John Wiley and Sons. In
the U.S., it can be ordered by mail through the toll-free
telephone number 800-225-5945.

      Here's what some publications and leading public figures
have said about the book and the man:

      "Karski's is a fantastic story -- and the authors tell it
well. This is a riveting as well as a harrowing read."
-- The Times (London)
      "His engrossing biography is valuable, for it tempers the
widespread contention that Gentile Poland was indifferent to the
plight of the Jews."
-- Publishers Weekly
      "A real page-turner, with drama woven into every scene."
-- Kirkus Reviews
      "A record of extreme courage, desperate survival and moral
heroism that is also a burning and all-too-relevant indictment of
the world's ability to avert its eyes.... Read it."
-- The Good Book Guide (England)
      "Well-researched and unfailingly interesting."
-- The American Spectator
      "A gripping documentary, which expresses the complexity of
Polish politics under the Nazi regime and the dilemma of one of
Poland's great heroes."
-- Jewish Chronicle (London)
      "A must for anyone interested in the history of the
Holocaust and World War II."
-- Jewish Telegraph (England)
      "This is a book you just can't put down."
-- Lancashire Evening Post
      "You might have expected a worthy but dull book. It is not.
It reads like a spy thriller."
-- Church of England Newspaper
      "Absolutely absorbing."
-- Martin Gilbert, official biographer of Winston Churchill
      "A significant account of personal heroism-- not only
dramatic as a story but also a compelling moral message regarding
the human condition.... A superb read."
-- Zbigniew Brzezinski, former U.S. National Security Adviser
      "Karski is a true adventure, a story of incredible valor, a
story of personal courage and uncommon determination to bring to
Allied leaders the awful truth about the mass murder of the Jews
of Europe. The inspiring story of Jan Karski is moving and
thought-provoking-- a must read."
-- Miles Lerman, chairman, United States Holocaust Memorial
      "As a courier, at the risk of his life, Karski carried
information of great political and military importance. He
survived arrest and imprisonment. He did not break down in spite
of savage torture. He escaped from his torturers and fulfilled
his missions as before. And in November 1942, he delivered to the
West documentation of Hitler's crime-- the total extermination of
the Jews."
-- Lech Wažžsa, President of Poland
      "The mission which Dr. Karski endeavored to carry out with
extraordinary faith and courage during World War II still has a
message for us today. It calls upon us to remember the lessons of
the Holocaust; in addition it challenges us to reach out in a
spirit of justice and charity in order to eliminate from our
community, our nation and our world every vestige of hatred and
-- James Cardinal Hickey, Archbishop of Washington, D.C.
      "A great man is one who stands head and shoulders above his
people, a man who, when surrounded by overpowering evil and blind
hatred, does all in his power to stem the tide. Karski ranks high
in the all-too-brief list of such great and unique personalities
who stood out in the darkest age of Jewish history."
-- Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister of Israel
      "Here is the stirring tale of a stirring life. Through this
well-written book, I came to know the real Jan Karski for the
first time. I will never forget his courage, nor will any
-- Ken Adelman, syndicated columnist
      "Jan Karski emerges from these pages as truly one of 'the
righteous among the nations.' It is the shame of history that few
would believe his eyewitness accounts of the Nazi atrocities
against Polish Jews and that none of the leaders of the free
world would heed his call for help. This story is a must read."
-- Abraham H. Foxman, national director, Anti-Defamation League
of B'nai B'rith
      "Jan Karski: a brave man? Better: a just man."
-- Elie Wiesel, writer, winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize

      The Karski story is the tale of a young Polish, Roman
Catholic diplomat turned cavalry officer who, at the outbreak of
World War II in 1939, joined the Polish underground movement
after escaping from a Soviet detention camp. Most of the Polish
officers held with him in the USSR were later executed. Karski
became a courier for the underground, crossing enemy lines to
serve as a liaison between occupied Poland and the free world.
      In that capacity he brought perhaps the first detailed
eyewitness report of German abuses against Poland's Jews to the
West in February 1940. Captured by the Gestapo in June 1940, he
was savagely tortured. Worried that the Germans would extract
secrets from him, he slashed his wrists. But after the suicide
attempt failed, he was rescued from a hospital by an underground
commando team. The Germans executed over 30 Poles in retaliation
for the escape.
      Karski took a keen interest in the plight of Poland's Jews
under Nazi domination. He had grown up with close Jewish friends. 
(A happy by-product of the book's publication has been that he is
reunited with one of them whom he had not seen since 1938; the
man is now a retired physician in Corpus Christi, Texas.)
Karski's mother was a fierce Polish nationalist, but she also
preached and practiced tolerance toward the Jewish minority -- in
marked contrast to many of her neighbors.
      When Karski was planning a trip to England in 1942, Jewish
leaders asked him to carry a desperate message to Allied leaders:
the news of Hitler's effort to exterminate the Jews of Europe. In
order to present an eyewitness report, Karski agreed to tour the
Warsaw Ghetto in disguise. The suffering he saw there was only a
prelude to the atrocities he witnessed soon afterward in eastern
Poland, after he volunteered to be smuggled into a camp that was
part of the Nazi murder machine.
      Carrying searing tales of inhumanity, Karski reached London
in late 1942 and set out to alert the world to the emerging
Holocaust. He met secretly with top Allied officials, including
British foreign secretary Anthony Eden, and with intellectuals
like H.G. Wells and Arthur Koestler. Some reacted viscerally to
his message. Others responded with disbelief or indifference. In
July 1943, Karski traveled secretly to Washington, where he
briefed President Roosevelt in a dramatic meeting.
      After his cover was blown, ruining his plans to return to
Poland, Karski stayed in the United States. In 1944-45, he
devoted his efforts to raising public awareness of the Poles'
plight-- at the hands of both the Germans and the supposed Soviet
ally-- and the Jews' horrific fate.
      Embittered by his failure to bring about decisive action on
behalf of the Jews-- and by the betrayal of Poland to communist
rule-- Karski fled from his past after the war. He broke his
silence only after being "discovered" in the late 1970s by writer
Elie Wiesel and filmmaker Claude Lanzmann.
      Aside from Karski's own memoir, no fewer than 33 books have
discussed his efforts to alert the free world to the full horror
of the Nazi war against humanity. But I was amazed in 1986 to
find that there was no comprehensive account of his wartime
activities in print.
      My family background is neither Jewish nor Polish. But
because of its sheer adventurousness, Karski's story stayed with
me. Every year or so, I would check to see whether a book about
him had appeared.
      When, in 1991, I finally felt ready to take on the project
myself, I approached Jan Karski-- and soon learned why no such
book had been written. Professor Karski turned me down flat. For
over a decade, he said, he had been in the public eye, giving
lectures and granting interviews about his experiences. He was
tired of it now, and he wanted to be left alone.
      He suggested I team up with Stanislaw M. Jankowski, a Polish
historian who had interviewed him extensively. "He knows more
about me than I know about myself," Karski said.
      In November 1991, I met with Jankowski in Krakow and we
agreed to work together. Meanwhile, I had begun poking around in
various public and private archives, in search of documents
related to Karski's activities. The first place I looked-- the
recently declassified records of the U.S. Office of Strategic
Services (predecessor to the C.I.A.), at the National Archives--
yielded a major find. A series of memos chronicled the
intelligence agency's tracking of Karski while he was in England
and the U.S. from 1943 to 1945.
      Professor Karski agreed to meet with me-- just for one
interview session-- early in 1992. I traveled to his modest home
in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., and he and his wife,
Pola Nirenska, received me cordially. But I sensed a certain
guardedness on his part-- until I showed him the O.S.S. materials
and other documents I had gathered that discussed his activities.
      He leafed through the O.S.S. reports with an incredulous
smile on his face. "So, they were following me," he said, over
and over. Karski, the one-time Polish clandestine operative,
critiqued the work of his American counterparts-- "This agent is
not well-informed.... Ah, but this dispatch is accurate." By the
end of the visit, I knew his enthusiasm for the book idea was
      Professor Karski showed more and more interest in our work
in the ensuing months. He invited me to visit again in June 1992.
This time we sat for three straight days in his tiny study, its
walls totally covered with award plaques and honorary degrees,
its air thick with the constant pall of his filterless Lark
cigarettes. The tape rolled; I asked; Karski answered.
      The former courier's amazingly photographic memory, a
subject of wonder to those who encountered him during the war,
remained acute. But while his recollections were a rich source of
detailed information, we supplemented those interviews with
considerable research.
      Our investigation of Karski's activities took three years,
and covered seven nations. It took us to 12 different archives
that had significant information on Karski, and in the course of
our efforts we interviewed numerous people who interacted with
Karski during the war-- including a Polish Jew in Australia who
had served as one of his escorts during his Warsaw Ghetto tour in
August 1942, as well as members of the Polish commando team that
freed Karski from the Gestapo in July 1940.
      Pola Nirenska's death in July 1992 appeared to spur
Professor Karski to deepen his involvement in our efforts.
Assisting us seemed to invigorate him, to put some distance
between him and the grief. At the same time, he and I had a clear
understanding regarding the independence of our work, and he
encouraged us at every turn to make the book a "warts and all"
chronicle of his activities.
      In January 1993 I found a literary agent who shared my
enthusiasm for the project and guided me through the arcane world
of New York publishing. In March I quit my job as editor of Bank
Director magazine to work full time on the book. That decision
began to look disastrously premature within a month, as my agent
began collecting rejection letters from publishing houses--
several editors wrote that they personally wanted to take on the
book, but that their higher-ups were certain the public had no
great interest in the Holocaust.
      This was about the same time Steven Spielberg was putting
the final touches on Schindler's List.
      In John Wiley and Sons, we at last found a publisher that
shared our vision for the book. And in May 1993, I sat down to
      In writing the book, I was simultaneously fascinated by
Karski's efforts to warn the world about the Holocaust and
repelled by the study of the Holocaust itself. I do think it's
important that young people, for instance, learn about the
Holocaust, but I read and saw a lot of things that they should
not be exposed to. An acquaintence with the details of such
brutality is bound to leave psychic scars, even in an adult. I
had quite a few nightmares while I was immersed in that material.
So I was not drawn in by that element; I had to force myself into
      On the other hand, the tragic interplay of history that
afflicted Poland between 1939 and 1945 did fascinate me. It's a
history full of gray areas, with ample shares of folly on all
sides, and with a truly tragic sense of inevitability to it: Over
and over, it seemed that the Poles-- those who had not deluded
themselves-- knew they faced disaster at the hands of the Nazis
or the Soviets, but could not avoid it.
      I have read criticism -- largely spurred by the mass success
of Schindler's List, I think -- to the effect that a focus on
"heroes of the Holocaust" is distracting from or demeaning to the
enormity of the event itself. I strenuously disagree. The fact
that the Holocaust happened degrades all of humanity by
demonstrating the depths to which a society can sink.
      Not to bring to light those countervailing elements of human
goodness which emerged at the time is, I think, to distort the
image we have of ourselves and our own capabilities as
individuals. If our children learn of the Holocaust solely as an
indictment of humanity, they may never understand what positive
inner resources they have to do the right thing when they are
confronted with evil.
      There is a vital purpose for all the work we put into
Karski's wartime activities is much more than the story of one
man's adventures. It is a parable of human folly, urgently
relevant to the world we inhabit today.
      Jan Karski witnessed, and tried desperately to avert or
mitigate, both the tragedy of Poland's betrayal by its western
allies and the monstrosity of the Holocaust. He came face to face
with the adherents of Realpolitik in the British and American
governments who argued for caution, argued for prudence, argued
for routine in both the democratic world's alliance with Stalin
and its struggle against Hitler. Karski argued for action.
      His mission was a failure.
      True, the risks Karski took to witness the Final Solution
firsthand and the mind-shattering reports he delivered about it
forced Allied leaders to confront the horror for the first time.
True, at the very outset of the Cold War, he tried to dispel
American illusions of a benign Soviet ally. True, when Karski
broke the taboos of his exiled government and began to speak out
about the fate of the Jews, he played a major role in shaping
public opinion in the free world. True, the head of the U.S. War
Refugee Board credited Karski with motivating Roosevelt to
establish his organization, which saved some tens of thousands of
Jewish lives in the last years of the war.
      Nonetheless, his mission was a failure.
      The sacrifices of Jan Karski, of the Poles who died to save
him from the Gestapo and of the Jews who died despite his efforts
can only be redeemed if we now come to understand Karski's
failure-- and learn not to let it happen again.
      Hitler's campaign against the Jews was unique in history,
but it did not quench for all time the thirst for genocide among
tyrants. Given the opportunity by irresolute leaders and uncaring
peoples in free nations, other Hitlers and Stalins can continue
the work of those men. In any number of the world's tortured
nations, at any given moment, lone voices like Karski's are
crying out against institutionalized brutality.
      We hope our book will help to ensure that such voices are
never again ignored.

      I welcome any comments or inquiries from people online.
You can contact me by e-mail at the above address, or
write to me:
      E. Thomas Wood
      3801 Woodmont Lane
      Nashville, Tennessee 37215

      Thanks for your interest.
--Tom Wood, August 1995

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