Beside White Gravenor Hall, a man sits upright on a bench next to a chessboard, engaged in critical thought forever cast on our campus. Jan Karski, a beloved professor of government from 1954 to 1984, was a key member in the Polish underground movement during World War II. In his late 20s, Karskiwitnessed the atrocities in Nazi concentration camps and Jewish ghettos in Poland, was tortured by Gestapo forces and thereafter escaped the country to confer his findings directly to President Franklin Roosevelt and others. He was met with disbelief and caution, but his persistence and the later publication of his discoveries contributed to the ongoing investigation of the devastation and evils of World War II.
This week, Jan Karski’s legacy was honored at “A Tribute to Jan Karski,” a celebration of Georgetown University Press’ publication of “Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World,” a new edition ofKarski’s groundbreaking accounts of the Holocaust. Some of his most esteemed peers, includingRyszard Schnepf, ambassador of Poland to the United States, Madeleine Albright and Rabbi Harold White, gathered to commemorate his life, illustrate his persona and challenge the Georgetown community to follow his example.
Karski identified an injustice — and actively did something about it — and was acutely aware of the social and political implications of his actions as well as the threat of torture and death. At the time, the Holocaust was not what the Holocaust means to us today. It was an unclear, unbelievable and relatively hidden atrocity. Karski was moved by his faith and commitment to justice to take the risks associated with speaking out against oppression and actively fought against indifference.
Karski’s legacy is not posting a Facebook status about one’s position on the crisis in Syria or promoting one’s understanding of a modern genocide. It is a call for a faith-driven approach to civic and international engagement, working on behalf of oppressed and violated peoples. Having the courage to speak out against injustices that are not easily identifiable and be aware of the risks associated with that outspokenness speaks to his example.
As students in a place of immense privilege, Karski’s legacy is nuanced. He does not call us to solve the next international crisis or discover a major human atrocity. Seeking problems internationally can sometimes remove us from our responsibility in our economic, political and social relationships. For me,Karski’s legacy calls us to careful examination of our own surroundings for oppression — just as he did — in a dynamic and risk-taking way. Only in considering the veiled forms of oppression that pervade society can we recognize that Karski calls us daily to be citizens that participate and advocate against injustice. In incremental ways, we can carry on Karski’s legacy by partaking in the right relationships with others, probing instances of suffering and fearlessly following love’s guidance.
Who knows what history will make of our failure to act on issues that will soon be as glaringly evil as the Holocaust? At what expense are we willing to oppress and fail to tolerate others — in direct or indirect ways? The next time we walk by Karski on his bench, we should sit with him and carefully contemplate how we can turn faith into love, whatever the consequences may be.
Tessa Pulaski is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service.