In 1943, Jan Karski, a Polish diplomat and courier for the Polish resistance, met with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and relayed to him in detail the horrors of the Holocaust. Karski had personally witnessed Nazi atrocities in the Warsaw ghetto and a Nazi transit camp in Poland. He told Frankfurter of his experience, but his appeal fell on deaf ears. “I do not believe you,” the judge responded.
“Felix! What are you talking about?” interrupted Jan Ciechanowski, Poland’s ambassador to the United States, who was present at the meeting. “He is not lying!”
Frankfurter, a Jew himself, said: “I did not say that he is lying; I said that I don’t believe him,” as if refusing to face the horrible reality.
Karski’s mission was difficult, if not impossible. In 1942, the Polish resistance and Jewish leaders in the besieged country tasked Karski with telling the West about Poland’s plight and the tragedy of its people, hoping for help from the allies. Though reports of Nazi war crimes had reached Western leaders prior to Karski’s mission, he was the first eyewitness to the atrocities to give an account in person. Karski, the man who tried to tell the world about the Holocaust, would have turned 100 years old today. He died in 2000 in Washington D.C. after a decades-long career teaching history at Georgetown University.
Everywhere he went, Karski, a devout Roman Catholic, was met with disbelief or inaction. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill claimed he had no time to meet with the Polish emissary. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt met with the Pole in 1943, assured his support for Karski’s people, but made no mention of the destruction of the Jews.
“When I left, the President was still smiling and fresh. I felt fatigued,” Karski later wrote of his meeting with the U.S. president.