It was 80 years ago today that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, ending America’s tentative and increasingly untenable neutrality. World War 2 holds me in its spell — perhaps because history seemed to hang in the balance; perhaps because such evil was carried out in appalling ways; perhaps because it wasn’t that long ago — so much so that I have known and presided at the funerals of men who served during the War, or shortly thereafter. This includes John Gatton, who was on a ship that landed at Normandy on D-Day. I treasure the times I heard John share his story; I only wished I had taken more time to sit with him — even if to hear the story again. For it’s a story that needs repeating. A story full of heroes and villains and average people.
And it’s regular people who did heroic things that Rod Gragg describes in his book, My Brother’s Keeper. MBK is full of stories of average people who went out of their way — and often into harm’s way — to save people from the ever-tightening grip of the Nazis. I’ve only read 7 of the 30 stories Gragg tells, but I can already tell this book is one I’m going to loudly recommend. For each story is little known, but should be widely shared.
Like that of Jan Karski. He was just 25 when the Nazis & the Soviets invaded his home country of Poland, where he served as an officer in the army. Captured by the Soviets, he escaped, thus avoiding the Katyn Forest Massacre. He was then imprisoned by the Germans, but escaped from them by jumping from a moving train. He joined the Polish Underground, and became a courier for them — carrying messages from Warsaw to the Polish government-in-exile. On one of his missions, he was captured by the Gestapo and tortured — but, yet again, he escaped their clutches when Underground agents were able to rescue him.
In 1942, two Jewish leaders visited him and urged him to go on a secret mission to London, and even Washington, to let them know what was happening to Jews in Poland. To better understand what Jews were facing, Karski agreed to visit the Warsaw Ghetto. Gragg writes that Karski was shocked by what he saw: bodies in the streets, dead where they fell from starvation, illness, or Nazi gunfire. Karski’s guides told him that the Nazis had already killed 2 million Polish Jews, and were on a mission to destroy the rest.
Karski, who clearly had a knack of getting in and out of places, then disguised himself as a camp guard and visited a transit camp. He watched as Jews arrived on cattle cars, starved and frightened, and then were put on other train cars to head to the death camps. Those who didn’t move fast enough were beaten or bayoneted to death.
Karski now knew what his next mission would be. He had to get to London and tell the British authorities what was happening. This meant he would have to travel through Germany, through occupied France, to neutral Spain, just to get passage to London. Karski was afraid that his Polish accent would give him away, so he had a dentist pull some of his teeth so his mouth would swell up and he could avoid speaking.
He made it to London (with his track record, are you surprised?). There, he obtained an audience with Anthony Eden, the British foreign secretary, sharing with him what he had seen and heard. Eden’s response was far less than Karski had expected. He was told Britain was taking in 100,000 Jewish refugees. Britain would also join other Allies in issuing a statement against the killing, but that seemed to be it.
So, Karski decided he had to get to the American president. You won’t be shocked to learn that he was able to gain an audience with Roosevelt, facilitated by the Polish government-in-exile. He told FDR that the Nazis were killing the Polish elite, but they were attempting to exterminate the entirety of the Jewish people. As with the British authorities, Karski left the meeting, thinking he hadn’t made much of an impact.
But, in fact, he had. Eden went public with what he had learned about the Jewish slaughter. And the U.S. made the liberation of Jews a part of their war aim. Roosevelt also set up the War Refugee Board, which would go on to be responsible for rescuing more than 200,000 Jewish refugees. The Board’s director would, in fact, say that Karski’s meeting with FDR “changed U.S. policy overnight from indifference to affirmative action.”
And so, this elusive spy, unknown to me before I picked up Gragg’s book, played a huge role in shaping the purpose of World War 2 — a war that, for the U.S., officially started 80 years ago today. It was a war Karski didn’t go looking for. But when it came his way — when unabashed evil surrounded him — he did not back down. He did not remain silent. He stood up. He spoke up. And this obscure figure from history helped change history.
I’m not Jan Karski. Or John Gatton. But I can’t help but wonder: Is there a place where we must not remain silent? Is there a place where we need to stand up? And speak up?