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Polish Resistance Figure Jan Karski, Honored with Posthumous Medal of Freedom, in His Own Words

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Last week, the White House apologized to Poland over language used by President Obama in honoring the late Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski. Obama referred to a “Polish death camp” when awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom without noting Poland was occupied by Nazi Germany. During World War II, Karski helped alert the world to the Nazi Holocaust. He visited the Warsaw Ghetto and traveled to the United States to give eyewitness testimony to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. We air excerpts of an interview with Karski conducted by Andrew Leslie Phillips in 1986. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show with the late Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski in his own words. Last week, the White House apologized to Poland over language used by President Obama in honoring Karski. Obama referred to a “Polish death camp” when awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom without noting Poland was occupied by Nazi Germany. Former Polish Foreign Minister Adam Daniel Rotfeld accepted the award in Karski’s name. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney later said Obama misspoke.

During World War II, Jan Karski helped alert the world to the Nazi Holocaust. He visited the Warsaw Ghetto, as well as a concentration camp, and traveled to the United States. He gave eyewitness testimony of the Holocaust to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. Karski died in 2000.

We now go to an interview with Jan Karski that was conducted by Andrew Leslie Phillips. It was recorded in Jan Karski’s home in Washington, D.C., in 1986. Here, Jan Karski describes what he saw in the Warsaw Ghetto.

JAN KARSKI: The house I entered into one of those four ghettos, the outside front of the house faced a regular street. Only the back of the house, through the basement, you entered one of those four ghettos. Of course, I heard about it, but, no, what I saw, it was horrible. Oh, my god. Children, women, old men, everybody having something to sell—an onion, a piece of bread, a piece of cloth—begging: “I am hungry, hungry. Please, please.” Old some Jewish man—well, I remember him standing, immovable. So I said to my guide, “He’s standing. Is he dead?” He says, “Oh, no, no, no. Witold, he’s dying. He’s not dead yet.”

In the streets, naked bodies—dead. So I again whisper to him, “What is this?” He says, “Well, you see, when a Jew dies, the Jews have to pay tax to have him buried, but they have no money for tax, so they put man, woman, child in the street. But then it doesn’t work, Witold. Then people who pass, if he has shoes, if he has any clothes, so they take it out. A dead man does not need any clothes.” So I saw completely naked some skeletons lying in the street—stench, horrible. It was inhuman. And he just guides me, “Follow me, follow me.” Only from time to time I remember he was whispering, “Witold, remember, remember, remember.”

AMY GOODMAN: Jan Karski, Polish resistance fighter. He also discussed the specific Jewish demands he was to make of the Allied leaders.

JAN KARSKI: What is happening to the Jews is unprecedented, is unique. The Jewish masses do not realize it. The leaders know it. All the Jews will be murdered in this war. Hitler decided to murder all Jews regardless of the outcome of the war.

Next point: extermination of the Jews is not prompted by the war strategy. It is a separate problem, purely ideological problem. Hitler wants to liquidate all the Jews in Europe. As a result of it, the Allied leaders must treat the Jewish problem as a separate problem, as well, because otherwise they will win the war, but there will be no Jews. And the Jews cannot accept it as a necessity.

They must use also unprecedented ways. What are they? First, let them flood Germany with millions of leaflets and describe concentration camps, Nazi officials, spelling names, spelling statistics, spelling the methods, so that the German population will learn. Perhaps they don’t know what is happening. And what is equally important, they will be unable to say in the future that they were not informed. They can do it. They are dropping bombs on Germany every night. They can drop millions of leaflets.

Next, the Allied governments must publicly appeal to the German people to impress upon their own government that they must change the policy towards the Jews. They must show the Allies evidence that they did exercise such a pressure. If they were unsuccessful or if there is no evidence that such a pressure was exercised, the Allied government must make a public declaration: German nation will be responsible for the crimes against the Jews. Perhaps this will help.

AMY GOODMAN: Polish emissary and resistance fighter Jan Karski later revealed to leaders in the Allied countries, including the U.S., what he had witnessed in the Warsaw Ghetto and the concentration camp, Belzec. Here he talks about his meetings with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and President Roosevelt.

JAN KARSKI: When I arrived in Washington, I had no certainty that I will be received by Roosevelt. At a certain point, my ambassador, Jan Ciechanowski, told me, “Well, I set an appointment with you. The man’s name is Justice Felix Frankfurter. We are personal friends. He is a justice of the Supreme Court. He’s extremely important man. He’s a personal friend of the president. Everybody knows it. And he’s a Jew himself. To him, you can be sure; tell him everything. It may be important.”

Now, Frankfurter: “Do you know who I am?”

I said, “Yes, sir. Your name is Felix Frankfurter. You are justice of the Supreme Court.”

“Correct. Do you know that I am a Jew?”

“Yes, sir. Mr. Ambassador told me.” And for at least one hour—at the time, it was fresh, you know, and I was excited, and I knew this is a powerful man, etc.—everything—Ghetto, the Jewish demands, Belzec, you know, what I saw. And then I came to the end. Silence. I look at the ambassador. And silence.

Then Frankfurter gets up and starts to walk the room, without a word. So when he went to the left and turned his back to us, ambassador to me made this sign to me: Don’t say anything. So I keep quiet. It took him three minutes, I don’t know, four minutes, then Frankfurter sits down and, looking straight in my face, says — I remember every word, every gesture of this conversation after 40 years — “Mr. Karski, a man like me talking to a man like you must be totally frank. So I say, I am unable to believe you.”

Ciechanowski breaks in: “Felix, you don’t mean it! You cannot tell him to his face that he’s a liar! Felix, it is his fourth mission! Well, he was checked and rechecked 10 times. Felix, you don’t mean it!”

Frankfurter: “Mr. Ambassador, I did not say that this young man is lying. I said that I am unable to believe him. There is a difference.”

ANDREW LESLIE PHILLIPS: Apparently the interview with Justice Felix Frankfurter had some effect on President Roosevelt, because it was not long before the Polish ambassador, Ciechanowski, came to Karski with good news.

JAN KARSKI: Ciechanowski tells me in joy, “Johnny, the president wants to see you in the White House. My suspicion is Frankfurter told the president. He suggested to the president, let him see this young man, he has an important story.” And I so was invited to the president.

In 1943, Roosevelt was considered by hundreds of millions of people as the savior, as the master of the world, great leader, etc. So I was appalled, and I had all the time this feeling I am facing master of humanity, imperial. You know, he projected tremendous power. And I remember he smoked cigarettes on a long cigarette holder, you know, and his gestures.

He started the conversation that he knows about me, and he would like me to tell him what I think he should know. And then I come to the Jewish problem. Yes, again, he allowed me to speak to the Jewish demands. Again he asked me some questions, not very important, and then started to ask questions concerning communist underground movement. He did not say anything of significance concerning the Jews, but he listened to everything.

And then his secretary broke in twice. “Mr. President, people are waiting. This lasts too long.”

“All right. All right.” He gives a sign that the interview is finished. And then I got inspired. I get up, and I said, “Mr. President, I go back to Poland. Every Pole will know I saw President Roosevelt. President Roosevelt is the last hope of all of Europe. Everybody will ask me what the President told you. “What will happen to us?”

I remember again every gesture. “You will tell your leaders that we shall win this war! The guilty ones will be punished for their crimes! Justice, freedom shall prevail. You will tell your nation that they have a friend in this house.”

AMY GOODMAN: Polish resistance fighter and emissary, Jan Karski. The Unheeded Message of the Holocaust is the name of the documentary produced by Andrew Leslie Phillips. He spoke to Jan Karski at his home in 1986 in Washington, D.C., describing his wartime visit to the United States to warn President Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter what was happening in the Holocaust. Jan Karski was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom last week by President Obama.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’ll talk about drones. Stay with us.

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