Today President Obama awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to 13 people, three of them posthumously. On the list were a number of familiar names–Bob Dylan, Madeleine Albright, Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low, John Glenn. I was glad to see the inclusion of Dolores Huerta, whose efforts alongside Cesar Chavez in support of the rights of migrant farm workers I celebrated a couple of weeks ago. Among the less familiar (to me, anyway) names, I found one honoree whose presence, for many Catholics and others involved in prolife activities, struck a note of irony, a note that rang all the louder the more I learned about him.
Jan Karski, who died in 2000, had been an officer in the Polish Underground during World War II. Smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto and the Izbica transit camp, he saw the horrors of the Holocaust at first hand, and was deputized to bear witness to the Allied leaders. Karski’s testimony–which he shared all the way up the chain of command to President Franklin D. Roosevelt–was among the first eyewitness accounts of the plight of the Jews under the Nazis to get to the West while the war was going on.
As with many examples of prophetic testimony, Karski’s speaking truth to power earned him little thanks. He was disbelieved–often, as Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter confessed, because his message was incomprehensible. “I did not say this young man is lying,” Frankfurter responded. “I said said I am unable to believe him. There is a difference.” The pleas he conveyed from Jews in Poland–to make the liberation of the Jews a central aim of the Allied war effort, to use Allied propaganda resources to convey the truth of the Holocaust to the German people–were dismissed in favor of broader military objectives.
As reported in a New York Times profile, Karski shared his frustration:
“Almost every individual was sympathetic to my reports concerning the Jews,” Mr. Karski said. “But when I reported to the leaders of governments they discarded their conscience, their personal feeling. They provided a rationale which seemed valid. What was the situation? The Jews were totally helpless. The war strategy was the military defeat of Germany and the defeat of Germany’s war potential for all eternity. Nothing could interfere with the military crushing of the Third Reich. The Jews had no country, no government. They were fighting but they had no identity.”
Karski was so sure his efforts had failed that he experienced a suicidal depression. Historians later credited him, however, with making a real difference in Allied policy. It was determined that it was too dangerous for him to return to Poland, so he remained in the United States, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1954. Jan Karski married a Polish dancer, the daughter of an observant Jew whose entire family had been lost in the Holocaust. Honored by Israel as one of “the righteous among the nations,” Karski told Elie Weisel that he considered himself a Jew and a member of his wife’s family.
But here’s the irony. Jan Karski was born–and remained throughout his life–a devout practicing Catholic. “I am a Christian Jew,” he said.
It was Jan Karski’s Catholicism that President Obama chose to emphasize when he honored Karski earlier this year on Holocaust Remembrance Day, as CNN notes:
“We must tell our children about how this evil was allowed to happen — because so many people succumbed to their darkest instincts; because so many others stood silent,” Obama said. “But let us also tell our children about the Righteous among the Nations. Among them was Jan Karski — a young Polish Catholic — who witnessed Jews being put on cattle cars, who saw the killings, and who told the truth, all the way to President Roosevelt himself.”
Perhaps the President sought to make that reference to Karski’s Catholicism an olive branch in his ongoing battle with the bishops over the HHS mandate and his ongoing wrangle with Catholic values on a number of levels. But I can’t be the only one wondering if the President ever listens to himself. It cannot have escaped a man as firmly committed to Planned Parenthood as he is that prolife activists often refer to abortion as a modern holocaust. And while I understand that people of good will may differ on the definition of when life begins, I think it’s difficult to dismiss the comparison when we talk about late-term abortion and allowing the death of infants who survive abortion–both of which the President has determined to be legal and correct. The lives of these helpless ones–like the Jews of Poland–have no identity, carry no political collateral.
Those in power did not listen, at first, to the truth Jan Karski spoke. Indeed, as Karski told Elie Weisel, even when they listened, they listened too late for millions, and Karski compared their silence to a kind of second Original Sin:
“My faith tells me the second Original Sin has been committed by humanity: through commission, or omission, or self-imposed ignorance, or insensitivity, or self-interest, or hypocrisy, or heartless rationalization.”
But there is more than irony in the story of Jan Karski. There is hope–hope that those who dare to speak truth to power will be heard, no matter how long it takes, no matter how hard the truth is to hear, no matter how obstinate the ignorance, insensitivity, self-interest, hypocrisy, or heartless rationalization. With the help of the Holy Spirit, people will “continue to tell the truth, all the way to” the President himself.
Maybe, like today, the President will even speak truth to himself. Let’s pray he will start listening.