Honoring the Catholic Spy Who Warned About the Shoah

A powerful new documentary focuses on Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski, an overlooked wartime hero who endeavored to save the Jews.

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From the film 'Karski & the Lords of Humanity.'
From the film 'Karski & the Lords of Humanity.'

“He’s the only person I ever met whom I considered truly noble,” says noted Holocaust scholar, filmmaker and writer Michael Berenbaum, referring to Jan Karski, a Polish resistance fighter who warned Western leaders of the impending genocide of Europe’s Jews during World War II. Speaking at the screening of a new Polish documentary, “Karski & the Lords of Humanity,” at the recent Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, Berenbaum said, “I’ve met Nobel Prize winners, but I truly felt I was in the presence of nobility when I was with him. He elevated every conversation.”

That may be, but somehow Karski’s commanding presence and death-defying mission to save Polish Jewry evaded Hollywood and even the independent lens until now. But after 10 years of trying to bring the elusive member of the Polish underground’s larger-than-life story to the screen, director Sawomir Grünberg succeeded.

In a way, the seeds of the project were planted decades ago, becoming what the Polish-born U.S. resident calls “the mission of my life.”

“I was immediately struck by him,” says Grünberg, who met Karski in the late 1990s while working on a different movie. “I didn’t really recall him from ‘Shoah.’”

Tellingly, the film opens with Karski’s interview in Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour Holocaust opus. In the segment, he becomes too overwhelmed with emotion to speak and abruptly leaves the room.

The next 75 minutes of Grünberg’s documentary are spent explaining what Karski was so choked-up about – namely, what he witnessed after he voluntarily snuck into the Warsaw Ghetto to spread the word about the secret slaughter of the Jews by the Nazis.

“It was a turning point for him,” says Berenbaum. “It tormented him. And he told me he hoped it would haunt him for the rest of his life.”

Though the film makes clear that Karski was always someone with high moral standards and even spoke out against Polish passivity and anti-Semitism in the early years of the war, the film shows how his secret missions into the ghetto turned him into the intrepid advocate he became.

The key “Lord of Humanity” referred to in the title is President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom Karski pleaded with to intervene on behalf of his country’s Jewish leaders.

“It was an ironic use of the term,” says the film’s writer, Katka Reszke, who got the idea from Karski – who used the phrase with much aplomb. “The true humanitarian was Karski, of course.”

It’s just one of the many paradoxes in the story, which weaves together never-before-seen clips by E. Thomas Wood (the author of “Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust”), interviews with contemporary figures like former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who met Karski as a child – and sepia-toned animation. Yes, animation.

Waltz with Karski

“The team who approached me to make the film had suggested using actors to recreate pivotal scenes in his life,” says Grünberg, who’s based in New York. “But I don’t care for that storytelling device. You usually can’t afford great actors and you wind up with scenes that look less than professional.”

Having just screened “Waltz with Bashir,” Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman’s graphic 2008 take on the first Lebanon war, Grünberg thought animation just might work better.

But then came the hard part.

Stepping out of the cinematic Holocaust box almost was his undoing. Even though a graphic representation of the Shoah had been used to great acclaim by Art Spiegelman, who in 1980 started serializing “Maus,” film foundations proved far more conservative.

“Grant after grant turned me down the moment they saw the word ‘animation,’” Grünberg recounts. “Funders just couldn’t wrap their heads around it. It was like heresy. But I really stuck to my guns.”

This was particularly true after he met Polish artist Tomasz Niedzwiedz, whose grandparents rescued Jews during the Holocaust.

“We worked so closely, though we never met until the premiere,” says Grünberg. “But we deliberated over everything – the right size of a cup in his hand, details of his uniform. Everything was done with painstaking care, because it really became a mission for him, too.”

Another turning point was when Grünberg showed a rough cut to a friend who worked in Polish television. The friend screened it for Dariusz Jablonski, producer of a Polish film about the Jedwabne pogrom, “Aftermath” – considered the most controversial Polish film in recent history.

“He said he wanted in as producer,” recalls Grünberg. “That was major, because I had faced so much rejection that everyone around me, including my writer, wanted to quit.”

The postproduction house that handled Oscar-winner “Ida,” DI Factory, then signed on, which meant special effects, color correction and sound mixing were done with the highest quality – further vindicating Grünberg’s decision to eschew traditional approaches to Holocaust filmmaking. The results are stellar.

While the film doesn’t linger on personal details, it offers enough of a window into Karski’s soul to portray the man more than the myth. At its core, it tells the story of the Polish resistance fighter whose prewar ambition was to become a diplomat, but who found it impossible to remain diplomatically neutral about what he witnessed – the massacre of his country’s Jews.

Perhaps the greatest paradox of the film is that Karski, recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in 1982, considered himself a failure because he didn’t succeed in convincing Western leaders to intervene early enough. And while men like German industrialist Oskar Schindler are legendary, few outside of Poland know of Karski. Even in Poland, which celebrated a Karski centennial last year, there is no Jan Karski school, for instance.

“Poles often say, ‘I’ve heard of him,’ but they can’t tell you what he did,” says Reszke. “There have been no major films of him, certainly not outside of Poland.”

A Catholic born in the city of Lodz, Karski (formerly Kozielewski) grew up surrounded by Jewish families, for whom he felt a great affinity. On the path to becoming a civil servant, he traveled to Nuremberg, Germany, as an intern for the foreign minister, witnessing the Nazi propaganda rallies of 1933 and the humiliation of German Jews that ensued. It sensitized him to their plight and gave him a tremendous sense of foreboding.

When war broke out, he joined the Polish underground, becoming a courier between the underground in Poland and the Polish government in exile – first in Paris, and then, after France fell, in England.

Because the government in exile wanted information about the various underground factions, he met with a diverse array of groups, including the Jewish Zionists and Jewish Labor Bund. It was the Jewish leaders who informed him of the impending Holocaust, inviting him to sneak into the Warsaw Ghetto and a concentration camp, and imploring him to tell Western leaders, “Our entire people will be destroyed.”

The genocide of the Jews taking place behind ghetto walls and barbwire shook him to the core.

“Karski’s mission as a resistance fighter was to talk about the situation in Poland, the activities of the Polish underground groups, how they work, the Soviet partisans, and not the Jewish question,” says Grünberg.

“My film focuses on one particular thing: the risks he took to be an eyewitness to the massacre of Jews. What he did, sneaking into the ghetto twice and going to concentration camps, is something 99.9 percent of people said no to. But he believed he could make a difference.”

Devastated by what he saw, he decided to make it his mission to be a messenger for his country’s Jewish population, whose annihilation was being secretly planned on a scale too large to be fathomed. And that was the problem.

Convincing FDR

“The world wasn’t prepared for the incomprehensible evil of the Nazis,” says Grünberg. “Convincing world leaders that what he saw with his own eyes was true proved to be even more challenging than all the death-defying missions he took.”

Undaunted, Karski propelled himself to the upper echelons of U.K. and U.S. government, all the way up to FDR.

If the film is critical of the U.S. president, it also shows Karski’s difficult encounters with Jewish leaders like Arthur Zygielbaum, a member of the Central Committee of the Bund who had fled Poland for London, where he became part of the Polish Government in Exile. He greeted the Catholic spy with great suspicion, declaring him “too good to be true,” and became so unhinged by his testimony he committed suicide two days later.

Karski’s encounters with U.S. Jewish leaders like Supreme Court judge Felix Frankfurter weren’t much better. He told Karski he didn’t believe him. “I did not say this young man is lying,” Frankfurter famously said. “I said I am unable to believe him. There is a difference.”

The documentary builds up to Karski’s fateful meeting with FDR in June 1943. Though he didn’t sway the so-called “Lord of Humanity” straight away, six months later FDR started the War Refugee Board, which helped save the lives of some 200,000 Jews.

Still, one has to wonder how many more Jewish lives could have been spared had FDR acted on Karski’s request immediately.

“Experts estimate between 1.5 to 2 million,” says Grünberg. “At the time of their meeting, the Lodz Ghetto was on the brink of being liquidated, so all those Jews who were sent to Auschwitz could have been saved. FDR could have even dropped a bomb on the gas chambers, which would have been a nice gift. But Jews weren’t a priority to him.”

Still determined to expose the horrors of the Holocaust and get the West to intercede, Karski published a memoir, “Courier from Poland: The Story of a Secret State,” in 1944, which he had hoped would lead to a Hollywood deal. But it didn’t. Karski then retreated to academia, giving up his lifelong dream of becoming a diplomat, marrying a Polish-Jewish dancer who had lost her whole family, and vowing to stay mum about his thwarted wartime mission.

After the fall of Communism in Poland in 1989, Karski finally earned the recognition he deserved at home, where he had been persona non grata. He received the Order of the White Eagle, the highest honor of a civil servant there.

Lanzmann’s “Shoah” also boosted his profile, something this new documentary hopes to do as well. So far, it’s off to a good start, playing in 50 theaters in Poland – where one of the topics in the most recent presidential election was the country’s complicity in the massacre of its Jews during World War II.

Though the crowd at the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival applauded the film’s honesty, some audiences have been more mixed.

“One guy stood up at a screening and asked why the detail about how Karski condemned his fellow Poles for being anti-Semitic, and went against the underground’s orders in rallying for the Jews, had to be in the film,” recounts Grünberg. “I tried to be as honest as I could. I had no particular agenda, only to tell the truth.”

Like his mentor, the award-winning documentarian has never shied away from controversial topics, from directing a film on Jedwabne to movies on the treatment of gays and transgender people in Poland, to one on school prayer in the United States – the latter film winning him the Jan Karski Documentary Film Award in 2000.

“This was before I even thought of directing a film on him,” says Grünberg. “Unfortunately, I was working on another film when the ceremony took place in which he, personally, would have awarded me the prize.” Karski died three months later.

“It remains my biggest regret,” says Grünberg.

Still, the film fulfills his dream to carry Karski’s message and legacy around the world, where it just may inspire change.

“I hope at least one young person sees this film and says: I’d like to be someone like him and go out into the world and try to make a difference,” says Grünberg. “That would be the ultimate honor.”

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