Remembering Jan Karski by Mike Smith

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The Polish Consulate in Chicago hosted a commemoration, “Jan Karski – the History, the Legacy and the Responsibility,” on Thursday, April 24, 2014 to honor the memory of Karski on the centennial of his birth. It was an informative and moving program, to say the least.
There were over two hundred attendees. It was a diverse audience including members of Polonia and Chicago’s Jewish communities, as well as Holocaust survivors, Righteous among the Nations, participants in the Warsaw Uprising 1944, Home Army veterans, and Polish Siberian Exiles.
The Consulate General of Poland in Chicago organized the event with the honorary partnership of the Jan Karski Educational Foundation Chicago, the American Jewish Committee Chicago and the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.
Simply stated, Jan Karski is a legendary Polish hero. He was the first diplomat to bring eyewitness accounts of the brutality of the Nazi regime in occupied Poland and Europe to the attention of Allied Leaders during World War II. For his efforts, Karski was captured and tortured by the Gestapo. But he
was tough, and was the first person to personally tell President Franklin Roosevelt and other leaders about the Warsaw Ghetto and the Nazi death camps in occupied Poland. His service to humanity and
his bravery earned him the highest honors: President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Jan Karski the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the State of Israel awarded Jan Karski the Yad Vashem medal of Righteous Among the Nations, to name just two accolades. After the war, Karski immigrated to the United States and earned a Ph.D. at Georgetown University, becoming a professor there in the School of Foreign Service after his graduation. He also published “Story of a Secret State”, in which he related his personal experiences and efforts to attempt to stop the Holocaust. Jan Karski died in 2000 at the age of 86.It would be an impossible task to summarize the life of Karski in one evening. A full account of Karski’s life and adventures could fill hundreds of pages and several books. However, the Polish Consulate did a fine job of assembling a panel of speakers that generated a meaningful, insightful retrospective on Jan Karski. The evening began with a welcome and introductions from Vice Consul Konrad Zieliński, and brief remarks about Karski from Robert Rusiecki, Deputy Consul General. Then there was a special guest: Governor of Illinois, Patrick Quinn. His remarks were personal and from the heart. “Jan Karski was a true war hero who risked his life to make a difference during one of the darkest times in our world’s history,” Governor Quinn said, “The belief that one person can make a difference is personified by Jan Karski.” It was a pleasant surprise for the audience to hear that the Governor had a personal connection to Karski: “I was honored to sit in his class and hear firsthand his remarkable accounts of the Holocaust, just as I am honored to celebrate his legacy today.”
Moreover, Quinn also officially proclaimed Jan Karski Day in the State of Illinois.
Governor Quinn’s remarks were followed by the main program, a panel discussion that featured four speakers with varied themes about Karski’s legacy, moderated by Keely Stauter-Halsted, Professor of History, Hejna Chair in Polish History, University of Illinois at Chicago.
The panelists were: Michael H. Traison, who spoke about “Poland in the heart of Jews and Jews in the heart of Poland – a Civilization Jan Karski Hoped to Save”; Neal Pease, Professor of History, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, presented “Jan Karski, the Polish Government-in-Exile and the Polish Home Army during WWII”; Allan Reich, American Jewish Committee, discussed “Jan Karski’s broader legacy for humanity”; and Thaddeus Radzilowski, President of the Piast Institute, spoke about “Jan Karski – The Messenger.” The attendees also viewed a short film with Jan Karski’s testimony, “The World Knew,” prepared by the Polish History Museum and Poland’s Foreign Ministry, and Marcin Chumiecki, Director of the Polish Mission at Orchard Lake Schools, brought an exhibit on Karski to the Consulate for the event. While there is not enough space to recount every fact and perspective offered by the speakers, I can summarize a few main themes. Karski was an extraordinary person. His exploits were larger-than-life. However, despite his superhuman efforts, Karski was a humble, modest man, albeit a man with a keen mind and a photographic memory. He was a superb professor at Georgetown, and had a lasting, positive impact upon his students and anyone who met him. This was certainly in evidence by the remarks of the panelists as well as Governor Quinn. We also learned a small fact that was reinforced by each speaker: no one could smoke a cigarette with more dignity and class than Karski!! Most important
to me was that, despite his accomplishments, his well-above-normal efforts and accomplishments,
his heroism, Karski still felt that he had not done enough to stop the evil of the Nazis. This is the mark of a great man.I was extremely pleased and honored to be invited to this event, and to be able to attend with my good friends, Marcin Chumiecki and Alicja Karlic from Tygodnik Polski. We left the event with a deep understanding that, by any standards, Jan Karski was a world-class hero. I congratulate the Polish
Consulate in Chicago for creating and hosting this most significant event. It was a wonderful evening.

Mike Smith, Walter Reuther Library,
Wayne State University

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