Karski & The Lords of Humanity

Two and a half years ago I had the opportunity to view a film that was being considered for an Academy Award nomination in the documentary category,
Karski and the Lords of Humanity. It was shown for one week to qualify for the nomination. I was lucky enough to view it.

At the time I wrote the below blog.

The film will be screened this Sunday at 4:00PM at Hillel at UCLA (574 Hilgard Avenue, Westwood). I urge you not to miss it.

Karski's story is an inspiring one----a model of courage, commitment to principle,
and moral rectitude. It chronicles the amazing acts of an individual who cared passionately about matters greater than himself. 

An much needed message in these troubled times when courage and a moral compass are in such short supply.

The link for making a reservation is here.


A Real Super Hero


    By David A. Lehrer                                                                                                    November 10, 2015

Hollywood and our culture seems to be fascinated by "super heroes" people who have "super" powers and do extraordinary deeds---rescuing people in danger, calling attention to injustice and pursuing fairness.

In the real world there are rare "super" heroes who do perform deeds but they have no "super" powers----just the same capacities as ordinary mortals. Many years ago, I had the opportunity to meet a real life "super" hero, Jan Karski, during my career at the Anti-Defamation League. His heroic life is the subject of a documentary that is the Polish entry in Academy Award contest for best documentary, and which will be screened this coming week in Pasadena.

Jan Karski is one of the most amazing heroes of the twentieth century---a member of the Polish underground during World War II who was a courier between the Polish government in exile (first in Paris and then London) and Poland under the Nazi occupation. Having been captured by the Soviets when Poland was divided in 1939 then captured and tortured by the Nazis he was by the age of 26 a veteran of the two major totalitarianisms that haunted the century.

Rather than retreat from the battle he determined to change history. Because of his photographic memory he was an especially valued courier. He was asked to assess the plight of the Jews in Poland before coming to London in October, 1942. To be as accurate as possible he was smuggled INTO the Warsaw Ghetto where he saw first-hand,

Karski, who was Catholic, was smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942, as the Nazis were deporting hundreds of thousands of Warsaw's Jews to the gas chambers of Treblinka. Walking through the ghetto, he saw corpses piled in the gutter, emaciated children clothed in rags, and dazed men and women slumped against decrepit buildings.

When gunfire suddenly erupted, Karski's comrades hurried him into a nearby apartment. He watched as two uniformed teenagers with pistols came down the street. "They are here for the 'Jew hunt,'" Karski was told. Hitler Youth members would amuse themselves by venturing into the Jewish part of the city and shooting people at random.

Days later, Karski would travel to Izbica, in southern Poland, to witness Jews being delivered to a sorting station where they were robbed and stripped and then sent to the Belzec extermination camp.

Karski smuggled himself across occupied Europe (he had been caught and tortured on earlier courier missions and miraculously escaped) to Spain and then to London to report on what he had seen. He met with Foreign Minister Anthony Eden and sought a meeting with Winston Churchill (which was not granted). He traveled to Washington where he met with Jewish leaders, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and ultimately, President Roosevelt.

He sought to impress upon the leaders the plight of the Jews of Europe,

This was not the first time FDR heard about the mass murder of Europe's Jews. For nearly a year, detailed reports about the killings had been reaching the White House. In fact, when American Jewish leaders had their very first meeting with the president on this subject, in December 1942, FDR told them he was already "well acquainted" with the massacres they described. But the meeting with Karski was the first time President Roosevelt encountered an actual eyewitness to the killings.

Despite Karski's harrowing first-person account of the atrocities, the president was not moved. FDR was, as Karski politely described it, "rather noncommittal."

Roosevelt viewed the suffering of the Jews as just another unfortunate aspect of what civilians suffer in every war. He did not believe it was justified for the U.S. to use any resources to rescue Jews from the Nazis. Nor did he want to have to deal with large numbers of rescued Jewish refugees, clamoring to be admitted to the United States.

After his meetings, in 1944, Karski wrote, Story of a Secret State, with a long chapter on the Holocaust in Poland. Karski felt that he had failed in wartime mission to awaken the world to action, but his actions were profound and unique.

Yad Vashem, Israel's official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, awarded its highest honor, Righteous Among the Nations, to Karski noting that, "he had incurred enormous risk in penetrating into the Warsaw ghetto and a camp, and then committed himself wholly to the case of rescuing the Jews." He was made an honorary citizen of Israel in 1994. In 2012, President Obama posthumously awarded Karski the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

You can see a preview of the movie here. He was an amazingly brave "super" hero whose life can help us reset our moral compass.