We must tell our children about how this evil was allowed to happen—because so many people succumbed to their darkest instincts; because so many others stood silent. But let us also tell our children about the Righteous among the Nations. Among them was Jan Karski—a young Polish Catholic—who witnessed Jews being put on cattle cars, who saw the killings, and who told the truth, all the way to President Roosevelt himself.President Barack Obama, announcing Jan Karski’s posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom
As a college student at Gdańsk University in the 1980s, I learned that Polish Nazis had existed, and that they bore swastikas, the symbol of their pride, tattooed in their armpits. I imagined them shaving their armpits just before the war, before Hitler invaded Poland on the first day of September 1939, and then waiting, after Germany’s defeat, for the hair to grow back to cover their worst secret. Walking the streets of Gdańsk, and passing the men of my grandfather’s generation, I wondered sometimes which ones had swastikas in their armpits. Did I know anyone who had a hidden swastika? I felt uneasy about sharing with them my language, my heritage, my culture, my music, my architecture, even the food we considered Polish. Something I don’t really believe in—a collective, tribal guilt—got its grip on me.
These days, events taking place in the country I love and call home—the United States of America—are the source of a similar shame. Over time, the events proceeding from Charlottesville, beginning in August of last year, threw me back into that same feeling of guilt.
Walking around the house with my laptop in my arms so as not to miss anything, I watched neo-Nazis, white supremacists, neo-Confederates, and Klansmen unified and marching the streets of Charlottesville. They called it the “Unite the Right” rally, and they came prepared. The protesters carried Confederate flags, Gadsden flags, and the flags I knew to hate as a child growing up in post-World War II Poland, the flags with a black Hakenkreuz, the Nazi flags. Many demonstrators were armed, some even carried semi-automatic weapons. I watched their faces, and at first I couldn’t take them seriously, because I knew them. I knew those faces from the restaurants I go to, from the shopping malls, from the sidewalks of the cities I visit. What unfolded before my eyes on my laptop’s screen was a theater, a play with no historical consequences I could detect or even imagine.
What a pathetic joke, I thought. Make-believe Nazis. They don’t even understand the extent of Nazi evil—that was my assessment. The scene of men raising their arms in a Nazi salute was just a spectacle to me. I couldn’t relate them to the history of my ancestors, of Europe during the war. I wasn’t able to connect the dots between the Hakenkreuz flags and the young, terrified man who first took off his “uniform” (a white polo shirt), and nearly wet himself when confronted with his beliefs about Hitler and his followers.
Even when one of the alt-right protesters rammed his car into a crowd, killing a woman and injuring many other people, I still could not equate his actions with those of the Nazis during World War II. After all, Hitler and the Nazis didn’t ram cars into crowds. They didn’t act on the spur of the moment. They were meticulous and extremely calculating. The Nazis built concentration camps in strategic places all over Europe to avoid long commutes (to save money and time), and proceeded to exterminate those they labeled as not deserving to live—the Jews, the physically and mentally disabled, the homosexuals, the Romas. Before exterminating them, the Nazis robbed them of their possessions, their gold teeth, their long and lustrous hair. They turned the corpses of their victims into soap, and their skin into lamp shades. Hitler and the Nazis not only objectified those whom they killed, they literally turned them into objects, imposing and claiming the “lesser, un-human” nature of their victims to justify their crimes against humanity. These were the Nazis I knew from the history I had studied diligently, and from my family stories passed down from generation to generation.
The Nazis of Charlottesville were men with bamboo tiki torches from Home Depot, the same ones we use in our gardens during summer parties. The Nazis of Charlottesville, I thought, were playing the role of Nazis, they were pretend Nazis, actors in a tragic-farce spectacle.
I met Jan Karski for the first time at the Polish Embassy in Washington, D.C. in 1993, just months after I arrived in the States. The Embassy was a place where generations of Polish expatriates gathered frequently to celebrate holidays, commemorate the past, and spin predictions of a better future. I quickly learned that among expatriates—those who had left Poland after World War II, or who had asked for political asylum before communism fell in 1989—the highest respect was given to those from the Armia Krajowa, the so-called “Home Army,” the Polish underground resistance movement. I wanted to learn more about them.
Growing up in communist Poland, I had learned in school that the Home Army was an underground military movement that operated secretly in Nazi-occupied Poland, and that they answered to the Polish Government in exile in London. What I hadn’t learned in school, but had learned secretly, from my family, was that the Home Army never recognized the communist regime of post-World War II Poland, and that many were imprisoned and killed by that government; they were bitterly disappointed by the outcome of the Yalta Conference, in which Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin decided to hand Poland over to the Soviet Bloc. Those in the Home Army who had been fighting the Nazis abroad never returned to Poland. Among them, the highest respect was given to Jan Karski.
Karski’s role in the Home Army, as a liaison officer on a secret mission between Nazi-occupied Poland and the Polish government in exile, was to ensure that the West was informed of the atrocities being committed by the Nazis, especially those pertaining to the extermination of the Jewish people. This mission was well documented in his memoir, Story of a Secret State, first published by Houghton Mifflin in 1944. By the time I met Karski, I already knew the story of his successful, and at the same time, failed, secret mission.
Karski’s success in documenting the atrocities was unprecedented. He had entered and exited the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw several times. Disguised as a Ukrainian prison guard, he was smuggled into the Bełżec extermination camp, where he witnessed and documented mass murders committed by the Nazis. Known for his photographic memory, Karski was able to recount every detail of his discoveries in the testimony he gave first to Władysław Sikorski, Prime Minister of the Polish government in exile and Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Armed Forces, and then to Anthony Eden, the British foreign secretary. Karski’s was the very first eyewitness account of Nazi atrocities given to the West.
In December 1942, based on Karski’s account, the Allies denounced Nazi crimes, and sent Karski to America to meet with President Roosevelt. And in the Oval Office, and then again later, testifying before Congress and in a meeting with the Supreme Court Justices, his mission failed.
When I met him in 1993, in the Polish Embassy, in the corner, on chairs with golden frames, Karski seemed still to be completely shocked by what had happened in 1942. “They didn’t believe me,” he said, his piercing eyes focused on something that wasn’t there. I struggled to find the next perfect question to match Karski’s mood. He was a charismatic person—tall, slim, with impeccable posture—who must have looked good in the Polish Army uniform. He was dignified in every move and gesture. His manner of speech was gentle, yet laser-focused and decisive, and his memory was a revelation. To my surprise, he was curious about my family, and asked questions about my ancestors. He wanted to know what my family had lost after Poland was hijacked by Stalin and the Soviets.
“Everything,” I told him. “They left us the house and a small garden.”
I explained that my family had told me about our history when I was in college, when it was safe, because times had changed. He nodded, but didn’t say anything; I knew he understood what Soviet communism was, and how vital it had been for those living in Poland in the 60s and 70s to conceal their pre-war identities and their former wealth. He knew what it was, and that is why he didn’t return to Poland after the war.
After several meetings with Karski, I finally summoned the courage to ask him again about his testimony before Congress, when Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter famously said about Karski’s testimony, “I did not say that he was lying, I said that I could not believe him. There is a difference.” But Karski only repeated his previous answer, “They didn’t believe me,” but I felt his response didn’t exhaust the subject. I couldn’t reconcile his answer here with his openness about other aspects of his secret mission. He told me about how he smuggled microfilm under his genitals, how he lost several teeth, how he swallowed a cyanide pill in prison, wanting to end his life before he could divulge secrets under torture, and how he had been rescued by a prison guard.
We talked about Poland before the war, and the exhilaration my grandparents’ generation had experienced when—after one hundred and twenty years of occupation—Poland regained its independence after World War I. We talked about post-World War II communist Poland, and the shortages of basic items, from bread and butter to wedding dresses and winter boots. Maybe I was emboldened with my own gratitude for Karski’s generosity, and for his curiosity about my family, and that is why I asked him the same question one more time, but this time, I offered my own suspicions. “Maybe they didn’t want to believe you, but they knew you were telling the truth,” I said to him. My suspicions were based on those in power not seeing value for themselves in the truth. He paused for a long while before he looked me in the eyes, and said, “Maybe.”
I had told Karski the truth about my family, but I didn’t tell him the truth about myself, another layer of my shame. The truth about my family included the story of my maternal grandmother’s brother, a newly ordained Catholic priest, a young man with metal-rimmed round glasses, who was detained by the Nazis in the second week of the war, and never returned. My grandmother had stood in the doorway while he was asked by two Gestapo officers to step into the Kübelwagen, the German jeep that took him away. That was the last time she saw him. No one ever found out where his grave was. The truth included, too, the story of my grandmother’s older brother who fought in the Polish II Corps, Polish Armed Forces in the West under British command in the Italian Campaign, and was wounded in the battle of Monte Cassino. Finally, the truth included the story of my grandfather, who was imprisoned by the Nazis in the third week of the war, and forced three times to dig graves during mass murders in the Piaśnica Forest, where twelve thousand Poles were murdered. After the third time, my grandfather escaped. Today, above my desk, in my home in the States, hangs a copy of a document in German from the Polish Archives, which states the date of my grandfather’s arrest—20.9.1939— September 20, 1939. Nazis were always good at keeping records. I read, “verhaftet,” which means “arrested” in German, and then I read, “geflohen,” which means “fled.”
I had contemplated asking Karski if he knew of the Polish Nazis with swastikas in their armpits, but I never did. What stopped me was knowing that this would change the conversation from the noble Polish fight and sacrifice to the subject of World War II traitors and snitches, and this would potentially embolden me to reveal the truth about myself. The truth was, I didn’t believe in the idea of the noble sacrifice. I never revealed my conviction to my family, or anyone else, but I could never bring myself to agree that fighting against all odds, and, as Poles would often say, “do ostatniej kropli krwi”—to the last drop of blood—was something admirable. Even now, writing it down, expressing it openly, feels like disrespecting my grandparents’ generation, like a sacrilegious act.
The questions I couldn’t ask Karski pertained to that noble sacrifice. For example, why was the Warsaw Uprising in the summer of 1944 justified by the Home Army? Why were children—Polish Scouts—asked to risk their lives as couriers for the underground postal service? How was it possible that the Home Army trusted the Allies—the United States and Britain—who were actually, at the same time, striking a deal with the Russians? When I scrutinize the outcomes—200,000 people died during the two-month uprising, half a million were driven out of the city, the city was bombed and leveled to the ground, seventy-five percent of the Home Army perished—I can’t help but wonder, how were these “noble sacrifices” conducted? On whose orders? On what basis? Who measured the risks? Who sent to certain death the best and the brightest of the Polish intelligentsia? And who did they imagine would be left to rebuild the country after the war?
As I was walking around my house last August, performing such mundane chores as folding laundry, sweeping the kitchen floor, and feeding the birds on the upper deck, I carried my laptop along with me. I don’t know if this constant need to follow the news is connected with living in the age of fear now, but I know that many of my friends carry the news with them in a similar manner. The speed with which we absorb unfolding events is instantaneous, and that might contribute to the notion that perhaps we, too, are to blame for what it happening, or again, that we seek a last-minute reprieve, a waking up to find that it was all a dream. Or it might even indicate that we don’t believe that what is happening is the “real” version, because everything can be corrected, redacted, or even erased.
Can it really be erased, though?
Strangely, soon after the events of Charlottesville all my questions were answered. It became clear to me that the interpretation of events is far more important than the events themselves. Donald Trump offered several mutually exclusive expositions of the events that had unfolded in Charlottesville, exposing the dark underbelly of this country to the world. In his first public appearance, he condemned “all sides,” a statement that inspired the former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard, David Duke, to express his appreciation. In the second statement, Trump condemned the Alt-Right, and in the third statement he went back to an inverted version of his original assessment: “There are good people on both sides.” Trump’s equation of two terms, Alt-Right and Alt-Left, were especially disturbing. As I watched these statements move through the media, I realized how alarmingly difficult it would be to escape the false dichotomy they had introduced.
It is essential to identify and condemn language that is rooted in false dichotomies, whether deliberately or out of ignorance. Alt-Right and Alt-Left do not exist on the same plane.
The events of Charlottesville, and Trump’s comments following the events, made me realize that the neo-Nazis with tiki torches were not pretend Nazis. They were real. Their arms raised in the Nazi salute were real. Their contorted faces as they chanted “Jews will not replace us” and “White Lives Matter” (another false dichotomy, with “Black Lives Matter”) were also real.
In the events of Charlottesville we saw history being made, as if it never happened before, or despite the fact that it has happened before, or perhaps, precisely because it happened before. I don’t know which describes the events most accurately, I thought to myself, folding laundry, my laptop vibrating just slightly on the dryer packed with the next load. But I believe that we witnessed how history might be set in motion.
The Polish Nazis—with swastikas tattooed in their armpits—were quiet. No one knew they existed until it was too late. No one knew that for years before World War II some of them had reported on their neighbors and coworkers to the“Zentralstelle IIP Polen” (Central Unit IIP-Poland) unit of the Gestapo. Their reports were registered by the Germans in “Sonderfahndungsbuch Polen” (“Special Prosecution Book—Poland”) in which over 60,000 people were recorded, mostly members of the Polish intelligentsia, who were to be executed after Hitler’s invasion.
Trump’s comments threw me back into the many layers of my shame, where the history of the United States of America and the history of Europe turned into one solid block composed of these extreme opposites—the Polish Nazis, Karski’s noble sacrifice, and the ships SS St Louis and SS Drottningholm carrying hundreds of Jewish refugees seeking political asylum, and being turned away from American shores. The dark underbelly of America became real, and history pointed to a future that not long ago seemed impossible. No one expected this country to turn back the clock of the world.
The reason for the noble sacrifice suddenly became clear to me: to preserve our humanity, there is no other choice but to stand on the right side of history, because history has no mercy in the judgment of our deeds. Today, seventy years later, Karski’s testimony to Roosevelt and before Congress still stands as a beacon of truth and righteousness, and this will never change. Frankfurter’s comment, “I did not say that he is lying, I said that I couldn’t believe him,” is still synonymous with playing politics in full view of the world, politics that disregard human life, not just in words, but in reality. Jewish refugees were sent back to war-ravaged Europe to their certain deaths, and this, too, will never change.
Language is who we are. We are the words that create our reality. If we abandon truth, clarity, and righteousness for false dichotomies ginned up for political expediency, we too will find ourselves defenseless against the judgment of history.