By Michael Brinley
Echoes of Holocaust remembrance reverberate through nearly every strata of our modern society. The greatest evil ever perpetrated against humankind has become a part of everyday speech, a thing to nod at in passing, a thing that, for better and for worse, is fading further and further into the past. This change presents problems to those who safeguard the memory of horror and annihilation. They find their task more difficult, in no small part due to past success. Unfortunately, the truth of the Holocaust remains contested in many places around the world, dismissed as propaganda and utilized by pragmatic and cynical powerbrokers. Many have heard of the Holocaust, but nearly as many are woefully ignorant of any details related to the Third Reich’s “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Problem.”
Take, for example, Jan Karski, the subject of the latest exhibit on the ground floor of the Allen Library. Karski was the Polish resistance fighter and intelligence courier who brought the first eye-witness reports out of the Jewish Warsaw Ghetto and the transit depot outside of the Bełżec death camp. Karski’s biography reads like a spy-novel and his heroic legacy speaks powerfully to the virtues of courage, tolerance, and compassion. Karski is remembered and valorized among the Polish and Jewish communities disseminated around the world, as a true hero of WWII and the 20th Century as a whole. However, many remain woefully ignorant of his efforts.
As early as 1943, Karski was travelling to speak with Allied leaders and thinkers, meeting with and giving a warning to FDR himself about the atrocities against the Jews he had witnessed. He wrote a report in 1944, Courrier From Poland: The Story of a Secret State, in which he continued to lay out the evidence he had gathered and to warn the world of the Nazi undertaking. Karski’s warnings went largely unheeded when first delivered and in many ways demonstrate the difficulties of preventing atrocity. It is as though the very crimes that seem the most unbelievable are the ones that are most easily accomplished.
Karski’s commitment continued after the war, as a lifelong ally of the Jews. Having fled from the Red Army’s “liberation” of Poland, Karski settled in the United States and worked as a professor at Georgetown University until his death in 2000. He received the title of “Righteous Among the Nations” from Yad Vashem in Israel.
These stories of bravery, compassion, evil and indifference contain the crucial lessons of history. In all their horrific and riveting detail they problematize our perception of the simplicity of right and wrong action. They expose what Hannah Arendt termed, “the banality of evil” and the complex webs of complicity that bind each and every one of us to all other human beings. They are necessary “myths for the modern person.”
With this in mind, take the opportunity to stop and look through the exhibit, which has been running on the ground floor of the Allen Library North at the University of Washington since February 15th. The exhibit, which has been touring the country for the last year, was organized at the UW by the Polish Studies Endowment Committee and co-sponsored by the Consulate of Poland, the UW Libraries, and the UW Stroum Center for Jewish Studies. It ends on March 15th and should not be missed.
Michael is a first-year graduate student at the Ellison Center for Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies.