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Escape from the Gestapo

by Chris Kulczycki Tue Dec 6th, 2005 at 11:15:46 PM EST

When I was a boy of 12 or so, a tall thin man came to our house. He was a friend of my father's and a Pole, perhaps a diplomat, well bred, cultured, educated; I could tell from his refined accent and impeccably tailored suit. We still thought in those terms back then.

Like many of my father's friends he had a scarred face and that old world dignity rarely encountered on this side of the Atlantic. I had met such men before. They would kiss my mother's hand and click their heels softly, not brashly like the German officers on television, but in a way that conveyed respect and grace. But this man was different; he commanded my father's respect like no one I'd ever seen. My father had dined with Kennedy and Johnson, but he never spoke of them as he did of Jan Karski. They were mere presidents; Karski was a hero.

Jan Karski, you see, had been tortured and had escaped from the Gestapo. He had crossed German lines many times carrying microfilm and documents for the underground. He had warned Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill of the holocaust, not that Roosevelt or Churchill did anything about it. If I am to write about torture, as we have for the past few days, then I should write about Jan Karski, about how human will, courage, can triumph over extraordinary evil.

More below:

Despite the perceived Polish tendency toward anti-Semitism, Karski is a hero to both Poles and Jews. Actually, I think this prejudice is more a matter of politics than race.  Jews were often associated with intellectual liberalism while there is a strong conservative ethos that has grown from the extreme patriotism that a country invaded as often as Poland cannot help but foster. Even my father displays it on occasion. Yet he, like every Catholic Pole I've met, was as proud of what Karski did to try to stop the holocaust as what he did to save his nation.

Karski was born Jan Kozielewsk; the name Karski was simply one of his many wartime covers. He received a Master's degree in Law and Diplomatic Science in 1935 at the University of Lwów. He then served in diplomatic posts in Germany, Switzerland and Britain, for the Polish Diplomatic Service.

Karski, an officer in the Polish army, was mobilized at the outbreak of World War II in 1939. He was taken prisoner by the Soviet Army. Two months later, in November, he escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp and returned to the General Government in German-occupied Poland. There he joined the underground Home Army (AK). His knowledge of foreign languages proved to be very useful when he was sent as a courier between the Polish government-in-exile in London and the AK in Poland.

From Karski's obituary in the New York Times:

In the late summer of 1942, Mr. Karski, who was then a 33-year-old clandestine diplomat of the Polish government-in-exile in London, was preparing for a secret mission to carry information from Nazi-occupied Poland to London and Washington. Before leaving, he was visited by two leaders of the Jewish underground who had managed to briefly leave the Warsaw Ghetto. They told him about what they called "Hitler's war against the Polish Jews."

They said that by their calculations, more than 1.8 million Jews had already been killed by the Germans and that 300,000 of the 500,000 Jews jammed into the Warsaw Ghetto had been deported to an obscure village about 60 miles from Warsaw, where the Germans had set up a death camp.

They asked him if he could carry their information to Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. They also asked if he would be willing to enter the Ghetto and see for himself what was happening.

Mr. Karski, who was blessed with a photographic memory, agreed.  -snip-

Mr. Karski became a skilled courier for the underground, crossing enemy lines to serve as a liaison between the Polish fighters and the West. He was captured by the Gestapo while on a mission in Slovakia in 1940 and tortured. Fearful that he might reveal secrets to the Germans, he slashed his wrists. His suicide attempt failed and he was put into a hospital. An underground commando team helped him to escape and he resumed his work as a clandestine liaison officer. -snip-

Decades later, when asked to describe what he had seen, Mr. Karski, a fastidious man who hated violence even in films or on television, would usually simply say, "I saw terrible things." But on some occasions, such as in his appearance in "Shoah," Claude Lanzmann's documentary film about the Holocaust, he would tell of seeing many naked dead bodies lying in the streets and describe emaciated and starving people, listless infants and older children with expressionless eyes. He remembered watching from an apartment while two pudgy teen-aged boys in the uniforms of the Hitler Youth hunted Jews for sport, cheering and laughing when one of their rifle shots struck its target and brought screams of agony.

Karski described his experience in the Ghetto. He wrote this in 1943:

Women breast-feeding infants in full view of everyone. Only they have no breasts... their chests are completely flat there. Infants with eyes of madmen are looking at us. This was not this world, this was not mankind.

The streets are crowded, filled, as if everybody lived outdoors. They are displaying their poor riches, everyone is trying to sell whatever he or she has: three onions, two onions,' a couple of tacks. Everybody is selling something, everybody is begging. Hunger. Terrible children. Children running by themselves, children sitting by their mothers. This was not mankind, it was a kind of hell.

Through this part of the central ghetto German officers used to pass. Off duty German officers made a shortcut walking across the ghetto. So uniformed Germans were walking. Dead silence fell. Everybody was watching them passing, frozen with fear, with no movement, not a word. The Germans were contemptuous, you could sense that they did not regard those dirty subhumans as human beings. Suddenly panic broke out. Jews were fleeing from the streets we were walking along. We were rushing towards one of the houses, my companion murmured, "The door -- open the door' -- someone opened it and we entered. We were hurrying to the windows facing the street. Then we were going back to the door and the woman standing by it. He said, "Don't be afraid, we're Jews." He pushed me towards the window, "Look." Two boys with nice faces and wearing Hitlerjugend uniforms were passing. They were talking. With each step they made, the Jews scattered, vanished. And they continued talking. Suddenly one of them reached into his pocket and without a moment's hesitation fired a shot. The sound of broken glass, the howling of a man. The other one congratulated him and they went away.

I was standing stock-still. And then the Jewish woman who must have realized that I was not Jewish embraced me, "Go away, it's not for you. go away."

We left the house and we left the ghetto. He told me, "You didn't see all. Do you want to come back? I shall come with you, I want you to see everything."

We returned the following day through the same building. This time the shock was not so great and I noticed other things. Stench, dirt. Suffocating stench. Dirty streets. The atmosphere of excitement, tension, frenzy. This was Muranowski Square. In one corner children were playing with rags. They were throwing rags at each other. He said. "Look, children are playing. Life goes on." I answered, "They are not playing, they are only pretending." Nearby there were several sickly trees. We were walking farther talking to no one. We walked like that for about an hour. Occasionally he stopped me, "Look at this Jew," a man standing motionless. I asked, "Is he still alive?" -- "Oh yes, he's alive all right," he replied. "Pan Witold [Witold was another of karski's cover names], please remember, he is in the process of dying. He is just dying. Look at him, please, and tell them over there. You saw, him, please remember." We went on. Horror! From time to time he whispered, "You must remember this, and this, and that. And this woman." Often I asked him, "What is happening to these people?" He answered, "They're dying. Don't forget. Please remember."

This went on for about half an hour, and then we turned back. I could not stand it any longer. "Please take me out." I did not see him any more. I was ill. Even now I do not want any more. I can understand what you are doing and therefore I am here. But I had not gone back to my memories. I couldn't any longer.

I conveyed my report and I told them what I had seen. It had not been the world that I had seen. It had not been mankind. I wasn't there, I didn't belong there. I had never before seen anything like that. And no one had described such reality. Nor shown it in a drama or a film.

Karski then went to an extermination camp. From The (London) Times:

Disguised as a Ukrainian guard, Karski was taken into an extermination camp by a real guard bribed by the Polish underground. The atrocities he saw in his brief spell inside the wire provoked such a reaction that he nearly gave them both away. "A quivering cargo of flesh," is how he later described the scenes before him. As well as starvation, stabbing and shooting, Karski watched as Jews were packed into rail cars that were coated on the floors with quicklime, sealed and moved a short distance away. After a few days the cars were opened, the dead Jews burnt, and a new layer of quicklime laid for the next group.

Karski's next mission was to escape to London and tell the allies what he had seen. "On a previous attempt he had been captured by the Gestapo and nearly tortured to death. The torturers beat him so severely that lost all his teeth and had most of his ribs broken. The Polish underground launched a rescue mission to save their courier from an SS hospital. In hiding after his rescue, Karski recuperated, and later made his way to Britain."

In November 1942, he delivered an impassioned plea on behalf of Poland's Jews to top Allied officials in London. On July 28, 1943, in a lengthy White House meeting, he told President Franklin D. Roosevelt about the extermination of the Jews of Europe.

Again from The Times:

The sense of the importance of his testimony sustained him through the hazardous trek across Nazi Europe. But when he told people in London what he had seen, they mostly thought he was exaggerating - except for Victor Gollancz, who had a nervous breakdown shortly after his meeting with Karski, and Arthur Koestler, who used much of the material in Arrival and Departure. Anthony Eden was polite but impassive. "How could I tell Eden what to do with this information?" Karski asked many years later. "I was a young man, a little guy, merely a courier. I had no leverage talking to those most powerful men."

America, where Karski went in July 1943, was worse. His report seemed to upset everyone's agenda. Roosevelt, with whom he had a long private interview, was only interested in the arcana of underground conspiracy. The Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, a Jew, spent an hour listening to Karski's story, then told him: "I am unable to believe you." Other prominent Jewish leaders accused him of lying. Faced repeatedly with incredulity or cynicism, Karski went into a form of denial and stopped talking of the scenes he had witnessed.

He remained in the US where he wrote The Story of a Secret State . It is a fantastic retelling of his wartime exploits. Though he did later admit that he left out details and changed names, dates, and places for political reasons, it is a mostly factual account. And it reads like a good suspense novel, you'll stay up all night finishing it.

An ardent anti-communist, his accomplishments were not recognized by the communist Polish government. But after the fall of communism, Karski received the highest Polish civil decoration, the Order of the White Eagle. He was also awarded the Order Virtuti Militari which is the top military decoration awarded for bravery in combat.

Karski became a U.S. citizen in 1954 and earned a doctorate from the School of Foreign Service soon after. He married the daughter of a South American diplomat in Washington, but this marriage lasted only two years. In 1965 he married the dancer and choreographer Pola Nirenska, herself a survivor of the Holocaust. She committed suicide in 1992. For nearly three decades until 1984 Karski taught international relations and comparative government at Georgetown University. Few of his students knew of his wartime experiences. In his spare time he restored houses and spent quiet time in his large Georgetown townhouse. Karski died on July 13, 2000.

Karski's only English language biography is Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust by E. Thomas Wood and Stanisław M. Jankowski. It is also a terrific book and will keep your interest, though the bits about Polish politics won't interest everyone.

After all the recent talk that we've had here about abuse and torture I find solace in knowing that there are men, and women, like Karski, strong enough to fight and win against such evil. There are those who can witness the unimaginable and report the unspeakable. As Jan Karski knew, word has to get out.

Do you have a hero? Tell us about him, or her.

Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.
Czeslaw Milosz
by Chris Kulczycki on Tue Dec 6th, 2005 at 11:56:31 PM EST
Karski would certainly qualify as a hero of mine. He is, unfortunately reviled by substantial segments of the Polish right because of his constant campaign against all revivals of antisemitism in post-communist Poland. He is in good company there, joined by Jan Nowak Jezioranski (similar biography) Wladyslaw Bartoszewski. Or with a rather different biography, but hated for similar reasons, the great poet and Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz.
by MarekNYC on Wed Dec 7th, 2005 at 01:20:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thank you for this story. With all the evil happening currently, we need this kind of stories to keep the light burning and the hope going.
by Fran on Wed Dec 7th, 2005 at 02:48:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I will tell about two very small heroes, from my family history.

One was a cousin of my grandmother. She was a very autonomous woman, raising her two daughters alone like a general. One of her daughters had a Jewish friend, and the friendship lasted even in the yellow Star of David on clothes times. And it happened that the Jewish friend's family and the mother came together, and the naive Jewish husband was murmuring something about how they will survive this somehow. Which my autocratic relative countered by declaring that 'f*ck no, you idiot, you will hide here in my house!' - and so it happened, the family was successfully hidden for a year, and survived (unlike the house - it was bombed out at the end when luckily everyone was downstairs, my relatives turned wealthless overnight).

I only learnt of this story a year ago.

The other small hero I will briefly tell about was a Polish Jew who joined the Red Army and helped a Russian squad as guide/translator. The most tragic part of my family's WWII history, which I will not detail here, was when the front washed over my family's homeland, and the female and child members of the family unsuccessfully sought a hiding in the woods. The squad of said Pole was the first Russians my family saw in this sorry story, and it happened that the squad leader - who was totally drunk - started shooting in the kitchen of the forestry house. It was this Polish Jew who tore the weapon from his hands (we don't know if this 'insubordination' had any result). He later also had valuable advice about how best to behave vis-a-vis the Russians, when they occupied the house under German fire.

I learnt of this only a few years ago, when we discovered a diary book my grandmother wrote to two relatives orphaned during these events, a book she wrote just after the events for handover when they grow up, but in the end decided against it.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Dec 7th, 2005 at 04:08:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Crossposted at Daily KOS (link), should you care to recommend.


Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.
Czeslaw Milosz

by Chris Kulczycki on Wed Dec 7th, 2005 at 06:43:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Very informativce, Chris, thanks a lot!

I once had a hero named Ahmed Shah Massoud, whom I learned about throw a journalist friend of the family when we were living in Taschkent (Uzbekistan). This journalist was a good friend of Massoud, and had at times accompanied him as a freelance during the resistance to the Soviets.

I remember one night in college, some time later ... I had arrived at this binge-bar frat-type occasion with an Afghan hat and had screamed for people to listen to what was going on in Afghanistan. At the end of the night, about two dozen of us were hollering "Masssouuuuuud". Ahhh the respect I had for the man.

The man was far from perfect (aren't we all). Yet, whatever mistakes Massoud may have made (like at times joining with the fundamentalists to fight the invaders), he was a man of honour and a true Afghan freedom-fighter.

Massoud was killed 2 days before 911, and our journalist friend, Marc Brunereau, died in a swimming pool 5 days before 911 (he would never go to the pool though, as he didn't know how to swim very well, this was the type of incident to make you wonder about conspiracy). Doctors concluded that he died of an embolism, a result of a schrapnel wound he had received a couple of years ago when bombed in Taloqan while accompanying Massoud. His death was very sad for his wife which we were close to, she informed us at the time that she couldn't really tell us about any suspicions she had, as the French secret service had hinted to her that her life may also be in danger. But his death was also sad for the world of free reporting, as the NATO operation in Afghanistan followed and he would have been one of the handful of honest foreign journalists that knew Afghanistan inside out, with contacts everywhere.

by Alex in Toulouse on Wed Dec 7th, 2005 at 07:06:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
When I heard Massoud died of his wounds in the hospital, I intended to write a gloomy rant in the usenet newsgroup I then frequented about the return of the Dark Ages to Afhanistan. I mulled over it by day. But when I got home and switched on the TV, to CNN, I saw a picture of WTC I burning besides WTC II, and then the second plane impacting... (It was a replay half an hour later, but maximum shock effect on me.)

Today apart from a few UN-patrolled areas Afghanistan is firmly struck in the Dark Ages, with warlords and Taleban guerillas holding real power, and Mad Max-style Americans fighting the latter, and no one cares because the country has a 'government'.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Dec 7th, 2005 at 01:15:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
One of my cousins, a Pastho/Farsi expert, is in Herat (Afghanistan) since last month. He's a soldier in the French airforce. He initially joined because he had dropped out of college and was bumming around, and thought "oh cool I can learn something in the military" (don't ask me what took him, he was always among the anti-military folks I knew before that, and always the odd man out throughout his childhood - i.e. the kind to save grasshoppers or scold my uncles for being barbaric to rabbits, when my uncles went on hunting trips) ... and although he does his job seriously, he's no killing machine (he is in the Middle-East/Afghanistan informations department of the airforce, stationed at the Ministry of Defence, which means he doesn't even know how to properly hold a gun or put a helmet on right, as he often goes to work wearing shorts).

This is just to describe the guy. Not all soldiers are maniacs. This one is a sensitive, smart person, who believes that the army should be first and foremost a force used to ensure peace, not to wage war (I know that the fine line between both these concepts can be blurry, but basically I'm just insisting that he's a really good guy). He once said that he would take up arms and rebel, should Le Pen be elected.

Well, he's been sent to Herat because he's studied Pashto and Farsi while in the military (but not through the army, he went during off-hours to the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales, a 210-year old university in Paris that specialises in rarer languages, and excelled there).

He sends occasional emails from Herat about what's going on there (he's stationed on some Italian military base). The first thing that struck him when he got there, was that a lot of the soldiers never even leave the base. He, however, gets to leave, visit schools, hospitals, act as a translator. The second thing that struck him, is that Afghans are incredibly polite in the way they deal with  foreigners. They ask questions in a light way, without ever trying to embarass you, they mark long pauses in conversation, to let you gather your thoughts. A remarkable people, basically. He is something of a popular figure in Herat, as each time he opens his mouth dozens if not scores of people gather around him, amazed that finally a foreigner speaks their language (no one else does!!). These gatherings however get his officers really anxious. The kids ask a lot of questions, like "is it true that in France you can live with someone without being married?". But of all the questions he's had so far, the one that really made him feel like crying, was this one that an old man asked him: "is it true that the streets of Paris smell like perfume, that planes fly over to drop perfume over all the streets?". It made him feel like crying because this naive, innocent take on life, was both fantastic and sad. He answered "no, paris is polluted, it's a lovely city, but reeks of car exhausts".

The other day he was invited to a girl's school. And he sat on the school's koran (you know, korans are usually placed on folded-up wooden resting gadgets, that look like chairs). The girls laughed and said "ah sir, you shouldn't sit there, that's the Koran!". He, of all people, should have known. He is highly knowledged in their culture, knows all their poets, everything about their religion ... but even he, almost made a very offending mistake. If he can do such a thing, imagine what the average Joe Schmoe who's over there with a gun can do ...

by Alex in Toulouse on Wed Dec 7th, 2005 at 01:44:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
ps: the informatinsn dept he's in basically reads and translates newspapers from these regions
by Alex in Toulouse on Wed Dec 7th, 2005 at 01:48:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
One of the best diaries ever.  I remember learning of Karski in my history class.  Incredible human being.

I have more heroes than I can count.  I always admired my grandfather, who fought in the South Pacific, for not caring about the fact that he was a veteran.  He didn't want medals or ceremonies -- just to go home and move on.  He hates war and has opposed every US war since WWII, saying that everything after the second war was unnecessary and stupid (I agree).

Keynes is, of course, a great hero of mine, not because of anything particularly heroic in terms of war and peace, but because of his ideas and his optimism about mankind, and his commitment to ending the world's major economic problems.  His stand against public opinion for Germany -- opinion which he later helped to turn around -- after WWI, and his blistering attacks against the American, British and French leaders at Versailles remains something I admire greatly.  History might have been less bloody if others had listened to him.

Having now read more about him, Lord Dowding places high on my list, because of his critical role in the Battle of Britain and (by extension) the larger war.  The American government had given up and assumed London would fall.  Dowding proved them wrong in winning what has got to be one of the most incredible battles in human history.  Had the RAF lost, America might have never joined the fight.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.

by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Wed Dec 7th, 2005 at 02:07:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The vast majority of Poles neither helped nor hindered the Holocaust. Many were horrified, many rejoiced. Among the former, the fear of death for them and their families prevented them from taking action (automatic penalty for helping Jews was death for the entire household), the latter often stayed their hands out of a reluctance of helping the hated German occupiers.  But it is important to remember that even among those who were genuinely sickened to be witnesses to this horrible crime, many were deeply racist, as indeed were the vast majority of Poles in that period. Wladyslaw Bartoszewski who I mentioned in the above comment was one such Pole, yet he became the head of, Zegota, Poland's largest organization devoted to rescuing Jews - thousands were saved, a large number, or a small one, compared to the millions of murdered trivial, for those who were saved, enormous. He devoted much of his energy in postwar years to combatting antisemitism, for which the Communists imprisoned and tortured him. Bartoszewski was brought into Jewish rescue work by an ultraconservative, religious wingnut novelist by the name of Maria Kossak Szczucka. Her 'Protest' written in 1942 shows how someone can remain racist yet recoil at the ultimate expression of racism, I excerpt some passages below. (translation mine)


In the Warsaw Ghetto, behind the wall that cuts it off from the world, several hundred thousand condemned wait for death. For them there is no hope of rescue, no aid from any corner. [...]

The daily quota of victims is 8-10 thousand. The Jewish police are required to deliver them into the hands of the German executioners. If they do not do so, they themselves will die.

At the platforms wait the trains. The executioners load 150 of the condemned into each, on the floor lies a thick layer of lime and chlorine soaked in water. The doors are sealed shut. Sometimes the train moves immediately, other times it waits a day, two days... It no longer matters. [...] Wherever, whenever the deadly trains arrive - they will contain only corpses.
What is happening in the Warsaw Ghetto has been going on in a hundred smaller Polish towns and cities for half a year now. The total number of the murdered is already over a million, and that number rises with every day. All are dying. The rich and the poor, the elderly, women, men, youth, infants, Catholics dying with the name of Jesus and Mary, along with the followers of the Old Testament. All are guilty of having been born into the Jewish nation, condemned to extermination by Hitler.

The world watches this crime, the worst every committed in history - and says nothing. The massacre of millions of defenseless people is being committed among a universal, malevolent silence. The executioners do not speak, they do not brag of what they do. England and America say not a word, even the influential international Jewery, formerly so sensitive to slights against its own remains silent. Poles also stay silent. Polish politicians friendly to the Jews limit themselves to brief journalistic notes, the Polish opponents of the Jews show a lack of interest in a matter which does not concern them. The dying Jews are surrounded only by handwashing Pilates.

So we express ourselves, we Catholics-Poles [an expression common in Poland among those who believed that only Catholics could be Poles] Our feelings towards the Jews have not changed. We still see them as the political, economic, and ideological enemies of Poland. [...]

We do not wish to be Pilates. We have no means to actively combat the German murders, we can't do anything, offer any advice, save anyone, yet we protest from the bottom of our hearts filled with compassion, outrage, and horror. [Actually Maria Kossak was very active in aiding Jews until she was sent to Auschwitz in 1943] God demands this protest of us, God, who commands us not to kill. Christian conscience demands it. Every being, calling itself a human being, has a right to brotherly love. The blood of the delfenseless calls out for vengeance to the heavans. Who does not support our protest is no Catholic.

We also protest as Poles. We do not believe that Poland can obtain any benefit from the Germans' atrocities. [A common refrain among Polish antisemites at the time was 'At least Hitler is doing one good thing for Poland.] On the contrary. In the stubborn silence of international Jewery, in the propaganda of the Germans seeking already to cast the odium of the massacre on the Lithuanians and the Poles, we sense the planning of an action hostile to us. The forced participation of the Polish nation in the bloody spectacle taking place one the Polish lands may bring an indifference to suffering, sadism, and above all the dangerous conviction, that one may freely murder ones neighbours.

Who does not understand this, who dares to link the proud, free future of Poland with the contemptible joy in the suffering of ones neighbours - is neither a Catholic nor a Pole.

by MarekNYC on Wed Dec 7th, 2005 at 02:15:55 AM EST
This is Zofia Kossak writing in 1936
Jews are so terribly alien to us, alien and unpleasant, that they are a race apart. They irritate us and all their traits grate against our sensibilities. Their oriental impetuosity, argumentativeness, specific mode of thought, the set of their eyes, the shape of their ears, the winking of their eyelids, the line of their lips, everything. In families of mixed blood we detect the traces of these features to the third or fourth generation and beyond.

Jan Blonski, Professor of Polish Literature at the Jagiellonian University has discussed this paradox of antisemite and heroic rescuer in depth both in his seminal essay on Poles and the Holocaust "Poor Poles look at the Ghetto" (the title refers to a famous poem by Milosz written in 1943, the essay is mainly concerned with indifference and failure to act) and in a shorter essay "Pole-Catholic, Catholic-Pole", devoted to Kossak specifically. (For the former see 'My Brother's Keeper? Recent Polish debates on the Holocaust New York 1990, originally Tygodnik Powszechny 1987. Also Les Temps Modernes #516 (1989), the latter in Jews and Christians in a Pluralistic World London, 1991.)

by MarekNYC on Wed Dec 7th, 2005 at 02:29:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Jan Karski has certainly long been one of my heroes, and it's fascinating, Chris, to read your account of meeting him. And thanks for your excellent account of who he was and why he mattered.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Wed Dec 7th, 2005 at 06:38:10 AM EST
This is off-topic and may not be appropriate, but I feel compelled to note a young Japanese kamikaze pilot. His name is Ryoji Uehara, who died on May 11, 1945 at the age 22.

On the eve of his kamiakaze mission, he wrote a note (translation mine):

It is the highest honor to be chosen a member of the army special attack squadron. From my student days, I have long held a conviction that freedom will prevail, and that it is self-evident. The essence of the human nature is aspiration for freedom, and nothing can suppress it forever.  
Even if suppressed for a while, freedom will never perish and win the final battle.... Authoritarian, totalitarian regimes may have their glory days, but will lose in the end. The course of this world war testifies to this truth. Look at Fascist Italy. Nazi Germany has already surrendered. Authoritarian regimes are falling one after another like an edifice without foundation... That my conviction is proven may be a horrifying realization for my country, but gives the greatest pleasure to me.... Tomorrow a liberal will pass away. His profile may appear lonely, but rest assured that his heart is full of satisfaction.

I will become a patissier, God willing.
by tuasfait on Wed Dec 7th, 2005 at 10:00:05 AM EST
You know what is amazing about the Japanese ethos? That someone would write this note and then go on and immolate himself for the Emperor as a Kamikaze.

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Dec 7th, 2005 at 10:20:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Hm, I'm not so sure... he may very well have chosen to turn his mission into a suicide that harmed no American.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Dec 7th, 2005 at 10:26:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Ok, maybe he missed his target on purpose and crashed into the ocean instead of a warship. Still, he died a kamikaze. He believed his regime was authoritarian and doomed to failure, but his idea of dying honourably was very different from that of a European.

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Dec 7th, 2005 at 10:31:23 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Do you believe he really had a choice?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Dec 7th, 2005 at 10:33:47 AM EST
[ Parent ]
What would have happened if he had refused to fly his mission? Would he have been expected to perform seppuku on the spot? Summarily executed?

Are there no better options that to embark on a suicide mission for a regime you don't believe in? Maybe you can try to survive the mission and give yourself in to the enemy?

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman

by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Dec 7th, 2005 at 10:44:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The Divine Wind pilots were supplied with just enough fuel to fly one way. Very few actually hit their targets. There's a museum in Japan (off-hand, can't remember the name of the place) near the kamikazi airbase full of the personal objects and last sayings of these "chosen martyrs." What little choice one of them may have had was to miss the target.
by de Gondi (publiobestia aaaatttthotmaildaughtusual) on Wed Dec 7th, 2005 at 07:07:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
During those final days, it was a stark choice between "surrender" and "stay the course." I think he hated to surrender his country, just as a handful of Iraqis who, after agonizing over what to do against America, chose to take up arms for Saddam they hated. Or Wehrmacht troopers who fought Russians. (Sorry, DoDo.) At one point, he reportedly said he was dying for the one he loved but not for the emperor, so he would not be in the shrine.

In another note, he wrote to his parents (translation mine):

It was my dream to model Japan after the great British empire. The dream has been lost in vain. I am happy to give my life for the freedom and independence of my country. The rise and fall of a country is a grave matter for a man, but is meaningless in the time of the entire space. Just as the old saying says, the pomp will never last long. Even if US and UK win this war, they will lose one day. Even if they don't, they will all perish in the space time... The question is whether you live longer or not.

This young man was just extraordinary. There is none like him, before or after.

Uehara was educated in college, but there was another navy lieutenant, Usubuchi who went to the cadet school. On board the battleship Yamato on another suicide mission, young college graduate officers couldn't understand the mission, whereas the cadet school graduates were enraged that questioning the mission was betrayal. They were about to fight, when this young gunroom chief calmed them all down with these words (recounted by a survivor, translation mine):

Those who do not value progress will never win. The best that could happen to our country is to lose this war and wake up anew.  Our country has forgotten the real progress for a long time, always caught up in moralizing and perceived integrity. Lose this war and wake up, how else can our country be saved? If not now, when? We are all the vanguard of the path for Japan to follow. Isn't it good enough? We are dying for the dawn of the reawakening. What more do you want?

I will become a patissier, God willing.
by tuasfait on Wed Dec 7th, 2005 at 11:46:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Great post. I'd like to mention a forgotten American hero(ine)who unfortunately did not escape from the Gestapo - Mildred Fish Harnack.  She was the only American woman to be executed by Hitler. She and her husband Arvid Harnack were part of the underground resistance group known as the Red Orchestra (Rote Kapelle).  They had close ties to the Soviet spy agency NKVD,which is why she was dismissed as a "traitor" in the post-war McCarthy era. But in truth both Mildred and Arvid also passed along intelligence to the American embassy in Berlin: they wanted to defeat Hitler and would work with any group - American or Soviet - that would help achieve that dream.

More about Mildred on my blog and a review of an excellent bood about Mildred and the Red Orchestra here.

Dialog International

by DowneastDem (david.vickrey (at) post.harvard.edu) on Thu Dec 8th, 2005 at 07:27:08 AM EST
Excellent piece of history to share. Thank you.

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Thu Dec 8th, 2005 at 09:55:42 AM EST

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