Karski: The story and the history
Supervisors: Prof. Antony Polonsky, Prof. Michael Berkowitz
Subject area: Holocaust studies, Polish-Jewish relations
The Jan Karski story is about a Polish resistance courier who left Warsaw on a clandestine mission to London carrying news of the Holocaust to the West. Karski arrived in London in late November 1942, by then Nazi Germany had already murdered millions of Jews and it had become clear that unless the Allies act, the Nazis will carry out their plan to murder all remaining Jews in Poland and other occupied countries. According to the story, Karski was deeply concerned about the Jewish tragedy and he risked his life travelling across occupied Europe to bring news of the Holocaust to the West. He warned Western leaders and tried to persuade them to act. This was the central purpose of his mission: it is why Karski is sometimes described as ‘a man who tried to stop the Holocaust’. But his mission was a failure, the powerful Western allies did nothing to save the Jews, they were focused on winning the war against Germany, not on rescuing Jews. As Karski put it many years later: ‘the Jews were left alone to perish’.
How accurate or true is the Karski story? And how do we go about establishing its truth or accuracy? What difference do original, archived documents make to the accepted story? These are the broad questions pursued in Wojtek’s research which proposes to examine closely the historical evidence which the Karski story is based on.
With some significant exceptions, most of the current literature on Karski is based on testimonies he gave after 1978, many decades after the war. But the focus of Wojtek’s research is not on Karski at the time of the testimony, it is on Karski at the time of the war. It would seem that the primary source of the evidence we are looking for, rather than the later testimonies, must be the original wartime documents, especially those written by the man himself, many of which are available in the London archives. These have often been used selectively to confirm the Karski story rather than to examine it critically. Wojtek’s research aims to restore the balance by adopting a critical approach to the story and by raising three key questions about the historical evidence it is based on: was the Jewish tragedy a primary concern for Karski during the war? Did it determine the central purpose of his wartime mission? What answers, if any, do we find in the original archived documents?
Wojtek’s background includes a PhD on the early philosophy of Wittgenstein: in 1981 he received a doctorate from King’s College London where his supervisor was the late Professor Peter Winch. His PhD dissertation at King’s, entitled ‘The Notion of Form in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus’, looked at the early Wittgenstein’s idea that formal logic gives us access to what determines sense and nonsense in language. Although not part of his current research, philosophical questions about the relationship between historical documents and the validity of a current or ‘common’ understanding of a historical event form an important background to Wojtek’s examination of the Karski story.