Remarks by Ambassador Samantha Power, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, at the Jan Karski Educational Foundation Reception, November 20, 2013

Samantha Power
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations 
New York, NY
November 19, 2013

Thank you David, very, very, very much. I mean, even to appear in the same encyclopedia as Jan Karski, never mind the same chapter, paragraph, sentence, is incredibly humbling. And if I can live up to one fraction of the person that you described, it would be a tribute to, again, both my parents here today. So I‘m very, very honored by this. Karski is a great hero and has been a great hero of mine for a very long time.

Madam Consul-General, also, thank you so much. Wanda, you did an unbelievable job with some Karski karma of your own—“if you build it, they will come.” Look! They’re all here! Ambassador Sarkowitz—yes, hello, nice to see you—and friends, past and future. David, again, I’m staggered by your introduction and I want to look at your possessions--so, keep them close. I’m again, just tremendously humbled by this honor.

I will say if you hadn’t invited me to this reception, I would probably have crashed it just to explore the premises and to engage with all of you, particularly around the creation of this educational foundation that bears the name of Jan Karski.

When we look back at Professor Karski’s life—especially, David, in the terms that you’ve described, in the very accurate terms that you’ve described it—it is, I think, tempting to believe that he was part of some almost separate species of the intellectual, moral and physical courage. But that actually diminishes, I think, what he offers each of us. Karski was in fact very human.

By his own testimony—and this is part of the humility of course—he loved to have fun. He surrounded himself, as a young man, with fast horses and many friends. Aside from this prodigious memory that he had and those language skills, he seemed, at an early stage, unexceptional. He had moderate ambitions and quite a romantic view of life.

Like many in his generation, he was surprised by the war and horrified. As a Catholic, he could have survived the occupation, perhaps, by keeping his head down. But he was genuinely shocked by Nazi brutality and so infuriated by the aggression against his beloved Poland that he felt a duty to resist.

Now, his wartime role was primarily that of courier, a job with a short life expectancy, demanding the ability, as he put it, “to melt into the landscape, to seem humdrum and ordinary.” Resistance work also required a deep reserve of guts. Karski’s own sister turned away from him, and many of his colleagues lost their nerve—but Karski just grew ever more committed.

In retrospect, the most amazing feature of this dark, dark period is that good people, like Karski, didn’t succumb to the despair that must have been very, very tempting. Not only was their homeland of Poland occupied by Hitler’s forces on one side and Stalin’s on the other, but the Swastika held sway virtually everywhere in continental Europe. And without the benefit of hindsight—without looking back from today—one can imagine how all-encompassing it must have been; the black. The future must have seemed very clear: freedom had been murdered; liberty was dead.

But humans, thankfully, do not always bow before the facts; we are not simply logical creatures. Karski took on his most famous assignment at the moment of maximum darkness. It was in the summer of 1942 and he was asked to report on conditions inside Poland, and to relay messages from various Polish political factions to their counterparts in exile. He was told to travel with the truth to London.

Now, of course—again, it’s hard to remember, from the perspective of today—but it was highly unlikely at that time that the truth would matter. At the time, the Holocaust was already underway. Around the town of Chelmno, mobile vans were gassing an average of 1,000 people a day. Jews and others in Poland had tried to get the word out, but the first reports were judged too fantastic to be believed. Publishers of newspapers right here in the town, and others, argued that the proof was insufficient, while governments, like the one I now very proudly represent, shielded themselves from inconvenient knowledge. Walter Lacquer—some of you have read his fine work on the Holocaust—wrote later of the contradictory feeling that many in the West seemed to have. Around that point, they were prepared to acknowledge that Jews were no longer alive, but they did not believe they were necessarily dead. Talk about denial.

The Polish underground did not ask Karski to include an account of what was happening to the Jewish people in Poland; but Karski was a thorough man. Friends smuggled him through a tunnel and into the Warsaw ghetto. Disguised as a Ukrainian prison guard, he then infiltrated a transit camp where he witnessed what no outsider was supposed to see: Jews beaten and shot at for sport, then packed into trains; the sick machinery of the Holocaust.

With the images seared into his brain, Karski knew that the burden of proof was heavy. So he carried hundreds of documents on microfilm concealed in the shaft of a key, and made that death-defying journey across Nazi Germany, occupied France, and Fascist Spain to the office of the British Foreign Secretary, where he provided one of the first public testimonies of the most depraved singular crime against humanity ever committed. He made the inconceivable undeniable. He punctured the consciousness of those who were prepared to listen. Unfortunately, most weren’t.

To you and me, Karski was a hero. And his memory will remain with us and his legacy will be sustained by the Educational Foundation we launch today. But I also wanted this evening to mention another hero, maybe a little less well known: a Polish Jew by the name of Raphael Lemkin.

Lemkin was a contemporary of Karski’s, though it is unlikely that they ever met. If Karski's contribution—main contribution—was to bear witness to the Nazis' horrific crimes against humanity, Lemkin's first task was to lobby his Jewish friends and family to flee their homes before the Nazis got there. Lemkin managed himself to flee Poland, but his powers of persuasion did not extend even to his closest family members. Forty-nine of his relatives, including his parents, were murdered. He was devastated.

Now if Karski had convinced himself that facts and truth would move the world, Lemkin told himself that it was language that had proven inadequate to describe the monstrous intent of the Nazis. And he resolved to come up with a new word—a word somehow commensurate with the gravity of these unspeakable facts. Then, he told himself, when people heard this word in the future, then they would understand. And if those in the outside world heard it, they would act, surely. After emigrating to the United States and joining the War Department, Lemkin decided that what Winston Churchill had called “a crime without a name” must have one. And in 1943, this Polish linguist-lawyer invented the term “genocide.” It never existed before.

And so genocide, and accountability for it, became the story of Lemkin’s life. He made sure that the term was invoked during the Nuremburg trials, and he conceived and advocated tirelessly, right here at the United Nations—the new United Nations—for what was the first-ever human rights treaty, the 1948 International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide.

So there we have it: Karski’s thoroughness and bravery, Lemkin’s deep personal sorrow and dedication, all against a backdrop of Poland’s love of freedom. What do they add up to? What do they mean for us today?

During World War II, Hungarian writer Arthur Koestler cited the frustration of those who first raised the alarm about Nazi atrocities, saying that those who warned were often unable to reach listeners—were often, excuse me, able to reach listeners for a moment, only to see those listeners shake themselves, as he put it, “like puppies who have gotten their fur wet,” and return to the blissful place of ignorance and uninvolvement. “You can convince them for an hour,” Koestler said, but then “their mental health half-defense begins to work and in a week the shrug of incredulity has returned like a reflex temporarily weakened by shock.”

Koestler wrote more than six decades ago, so surely we have learned our lesson by now. But when chemical weapons are used and the doctrine of medical neutrality is obliterated and thousands of people die in Syria after being pulled from their hospital beds by government troops; when rebels are killing and raping with impunity in the Central African Republic; when the Pakistani Taliban elects a leader whose greatest qualification is having ordered the assassination of a young girl simply for demanding her right to attend school; and when Holocaust denial is enjoying a resurgence, we are reminded that every day, each of us has a duty to bear witness, to seek accountability, to pursue justice, and to act in the spirit of these two great Polish heroes: Jan Karski and Rafael Lemkin. These two men must have seemed completely naïve at the time–to believe that, in the case of Karski, facts, and in the case of Lemkin, a mere word—a new word—that these could make a difference. But these are the figures in history that we most admire and we most wish to resemble. Simple people with a pretty straightforward goal: nobody, anywhere, at any time, should be targeted for who they are, what they believe or to whom they pray.

That is why we must remind ourselves over and over again to be vigilant. It is why the Jan Karski Educational Foundation was created. It is why the American and Polish dreams root themselves in a love–not just a love, in a reverence–for freedom. And it is why I am so grateful for the invitation to be here with you tonight, so humbled for any affiliation with Jan Karski, and thrilled to be able express solidarity with you and the journey that we are on together.

Thank you so much.


PRN: 2013/239