A Georgetown University, professor with whom I had contact, Jan Karski, will be posthumously awarded the USA's highest civilian award at a ceremony in Chicago this weekend. Here is a man who deserves recognition.
Year's ago I wrote a small piece about the professor.
An older, tired looking man was sitting alone on a bench, his fingers stained orange-brown by too many cigarettes. His back stiff, as if used to pain, he coughed heavily, then spat. His large pointy red nose seemed to run continuously. His brown hair was long, fine, straight and unruly. He pushed it back with a practiced gesture as he lit another unfiltered cigarette. Garnet-ringed eyes focused as ornaments on his deeply scarred face. I saw a faded red slash on his wrist as he brought the match to the tobacco. He stared vacantly into the whitish-blue heat that enveloped Washington. His plaid suit was wrinkled, but his black shoes were polished to a military shine. Slowly, he got up, legs unsteady, and shuffled to a nearby building, cigarette dangling from his hand. Dr. Jan Karski was going to teach another history class. No one spoke to him; he entered a building, coughing again, taking out a soiled white handkerchief to cover his mouth.
Blue and gray, the colors of Georgetown, festooned everywhere, on everything in the bookstore. A magnificent hillside campus overlooking the muddy brown Potomac River and the verdant Virginia shore beyond, a scene from a movie never made. On campus, gray buildings everywhere, except for a patch of green that is the final resting place of Jesuit scholars who gave their lives to education and activism—Soldiers for God, they called themselves. George Washington, in 1789, at the first commencement, with his white powdered wig standing on the steps of this same gray building in the pasture that Georgetown was.
I walked up a flight of stairs of large stones, ruts carved by millions of feet over the last two centuries. I stared at the heavily waxed gray and brown tiles on the floor of my classroom. Darkened walnut and oak chairs complained as people tried to get comfortable at desks their fathers probably used. I asked who the man on the bench was, this Professor Karski. No one knew, except that he was Polish by birth and professor of history. I would not have to take a class from him. Instead I suffered with professors whose egos outdistanced their intellect. I was a part-time doctoral student with a full-time job. It took me a decade to finish.
Dr. Karski soldiered on, and retired from teaching in 1984. He died on July 14, 2000, his story finally told: From his service as a cavalry officer then diplomat for the Polish government in exile, to his 1939 capture by Russian forces and escape, his 1940 capture and torture by the Gestapo, to his secret wartime meeting with Anthony Eden, Felix Frankfurter, and later, with FDR. Jan Karski lived a full life. The red gash on his wrist an artifact of a suicide attempt to prevent the Gestapo from getting information. His runny nose from pulling his own teeth the night before boarding a train in occupied Europe so that he would not be able to speak or be heard in his Polish-accented German. His hands never leaving his pockets, fearing the scars might give him away. His red tinted eyes, those piercing, garnet eyes. How many tears, how many times? That unending stare.
In August 1942 the Polish government sent him to Warsaw to report back to London on the Warsaw Ghetto. He went again on a secret mission to Belzec, a concentration camp outside Warsaw. He was an eyewitness, a reporter, a man crying for humankind. From London he spread the horrible news of the extermination of the Jews in central Europe.
He could carry no paper, no photo, only what was in his head. He told FDR about Auschwitz, the terrible death toll everywhere. Felix Frankfurter, also there, told him he did not believe him. Not that he was a liar, Frankfurter said, just that he could not believe him. Soon Dr. Karski's identity was compromised to the Axis powers, and he spent the rest of the war in America.
Speaking of the human depravity he had seen Jan Karski said, “This sin will haunt humanity to the end of time. It does haunt me and I want it to be so.”