Article

29 April 2015

The documentary Karski & the Lords of Humanity shown in Polish cinemas

Category: New publications, XXw, Reviews, History and film, Holocaust, News, Political history, Biographies

 

The film about wartime courier Jan Karski (1914–2000) received its Warsaw premiere at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, and in 25 cinemas around the nation.

 

Karski & the Lords of Humanity by Sławomir Grünberg utilizes filmed and archival interviews with Karski, who was born Jan Kozielewski in Łódź, then adopted an underground code name by 1944 when the wartime memoir Story of a Secret State was published in the U.S. and became a best-selling Book of the Month Club selection. Director Sławomir Grünberg combines excerpts from the acclaimed 1985 documentary Shoah by Claude Lanzmann and other footage with contemporary animation techniques, to focus on efforts by Karski, the Polish Underground State and Jewish leaders in 1942 to get information to the West about conditions in occupied Poland and the Holocaust.

 

The film's materials center on that covert mission – Karski's recollections from decades later, observations by experts including biographer E. Thomas Wood and the former U.S. national-security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, animated re-enactments including his incursions into the Warsaw Ghetto and a satellite site near the German extermination camp at Bełżec – and comprise a contemporary, populist investigation. Archival footage includes clips that had been staged in the Warsaw Ghetto for German propaganda. A subtle element of the filmmaking is revealed in its sound design – noise occurs when a corpse falls from a cart, as transport trains are sealed from the outside, and as a woman sobs over her bundled child. The source footage is silent, of course. It is also terrible, and somewhat familiar. The few enhancements are effective, adding an element to the viewer's experience beyond what dramatic or plaintive music alone could provide. The broad work of history is to discover means of opening accepted narratives to present understanding. Careful sound effects are fitting – while graphic animation has had telling impact since Maus was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1992.

 

One sequence shows the massive Houses of Parliament in London. Narration speaks of a minute of silence there in late 1942, when that elected assembly stood to commemorate Jews already dead in German camps. It's gauged as an uplifting moment, to stir the audience. But the Parliament's gesture, or protest, rings hollow given diplomatic failures such as the Evian Conference in 1938, to discuss forced emigration of Jews from Germany. Before the Evian meetings, British and U.S. delegates had agreed to not discuss immigration to Palestine, which the British opposed – future Israeli PM Golda Meir was present, only as an observer – or U.S. failure to fill its restrictive quotas for European Jews. Australia claimed not to have or want to import racial problems (while legally treating its Aboriginal people with brutal disregard). Only the Dominican Republic increased quotas – yet the next year, when the liner St. Louis was turned away from Havana harbor with over 900 German Jews bearing Cuban visas, it sailed instead for Florida, futilely. Karski & the Lords of Humanity doesn't take up those themes in its historical background, but its frank assessment of President Roosevelt's decisions is in keeping with recent scholarship in FDR and the Jews, by historians Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman.   

 

In his public life after the war, Jan Karski maintained silence about his mission, while teaching diplomacy at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., through the Cold War's long decades. Stephen Mull, the current U.S. Ambassador to Poland, studied with him at Georgetown, and during Karski commemorations in 2013 Mull spoke of knowing nothing of his professor's wartime experience. The new film considers this reticence in light of his sense of failure, after Western leaders' response to the Holocaust, or lack of response. In one interview passage with the late Władysław Bartoszewski – an Auschwitz survivor, resistance fighter and former Foreign Minister –  Bartoszewski recalls Karski saying: "You Mr. Władyslaw, at least tried to save concrete people, you even managed to save some. Myself, I wanted to save millions, but could not save anybody at all." The film proceeds to rationalize about the influence Karski's report may have had on negotiations for tens of thousands of Romanian and Hungarian Jews, near the war's end. Details are elaborated; the result doesn't dimish Karski's self-evaluation.

 

The astonishing gravity of that experience became public with the release of Shoah, director Claude Lanzmann's monumental documentary interviewing Holocaust survivors and witnesses. This exposure has broadened in recent years. Novelist Yannick Haenel's Jan Karski (2009) became an awarded best-seller in France, provoking a polemic with Lanzmann that led the director to release a film from his Karski interviews. (The novel's English translation took the title The Messenger, indicating that Karski's name held little marketability). In 2012, a posthumous Medal of Freedom was awarded to Karski by President Obama, and 2013, the centenary of his birth, was named the "Year of Jan Karski." New editions of Story of a Secret State and his scholarly opus The Great Powers and Poland: From Versailles to Yalta were published, the online archive "Jan Karski: Humanity's Hero" was created by the Polish History Museum for the Google Culture Institute. A new edition appeared of the 1994 biography Jan Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust, by E. Thomas Wood and Stansiław M. Jankowski. Interviews with Wood are prominent in the new film, and he does its voice-overs, his effective enunciation of Polish names and terms made perhaps even more impressive by his Tennessee accent.   

 

Vivid high points in Karski & the Lords of Humanity come in excerpts from Lanzmann's interviews late in Shoah and in The Karski Report (2010). Lanzmann filmed Karski for hours, though only minutes made it into Shoah, leaving an impression that Karski felt little had been done in Poland to aid Jews. The documentary by Grünberg takes Karski's wartime service in a different direction than Lanzmann achieved. This is due in part to Grünberg's full focus on Karski, in part because the message his film imparts is distinct from that of Shoah.

 

The two directors, each from European Jewish backgrounds (Grünberg is a graduate of the Łódź Film School, left Poland in 1981), are concerned with issues rooted in the Holocaust as we attempt to view it today. Grünberg's perspective is in a sense the reverse of Lanzmann's – as a Polish Jew, he knows realities and issues of Jewish life in Poland before, during and after the Second World War. He is also grounded in U.S. realities, having left for the States in Poland's period of martial law. Grünberg's collaborated in documentaries about Polish topics: In the Names of Their Mothers (2010) about Irena Sendler, a Catholic who rescued children from the Warsaw Ghetto Dir. by Mary Skinner); Trans-Action (2009) about Anna Grodzka, now the only transgender parliamentarian in the world; Saved by Deportation (2009); and The Legacy of Jedwabne (2005), regarding the 1941 pogrom in northern Poland. Topics in his filmography are diverse – School Prayer: A Community at War (1999) covers that divisive issue in Mississippi and received the inaugural Jan Karski Documentary Award for moral courage in 2000 (Grünberg had been unable to attend the ceremony, to receive the award from Karski).

 

The implication apparent in Grünberg's new film, and in extensive interviews the director has given in Polish media, corresponds with Karski's own awareness that Western leaders did not act as the Holocaust was first being revealed to them. The pointed perspective of Roosevelt's failure to focus war efforts on saving European Jews, can help shift the current discussion from arguments between and distinctions among victims to factual historical decisions of people with great power and competing demands, as Germans perpetrated the Holocaust.

 

Allied and Western military policies by 1943, when Karski met with Roosevelt and others, were entwined with political policies. Roosevelt's concessions to Stalin at the Tehran and Yalta conferences would be made as FDR faced 1944 elections. A willingness to rely on Soviet forces in the awful, costly victory drive on Berlin meant not having to make even greater demands on citizens at home, not requiring even greater losses among the armed forces. In an interview with Grünberg that will appear next on this site, the documentary director cited voter statistics in the U.S., comparing the large block with German heritage, who could react against accusations of genocide, to the far smaller Jewish population in the States. Soviet policy, meanwhile, was to generalize their enormous casualties as "Soviet" and not distinguish among the dead – in Vasily Grossman's war reporting, his revelatory articles "Ukraine without Jews" and "The Hell of Treblinka" were suppressed, as the writer named the genocide of Jews that had occurred on Soviet and eastern lands. British and U.S. air power had long-distance capabilities the Soviets lacked – yet railways to concentration and extermination camps were photographed from above, not targeted.  

 

Grünberg plans to make a three-part Karski documentary for television. This would cover his subject's life, in addition to the war mission in Karski & the Lords of Humanity: his interwar upbringing in multiethnic Łódź, diplomatic training that included time in 1938 with the Polish office considering Madagascar as an emigration location for the nation's millions of Jews. Little attention has yet been paid to Karski's Cold War decades, including tours the U.S. State Department sponsored for him around the globe in the 1950s. At a Warsaw conference in 2013, a long-time friend of Karski's mentioned his firm discretion, when asked about this volatile period. He married Pola Nireńska later in their lives – from a Jewish family in Warsaw, Nireńska worked with pioneering modern choreographers, but killed herself in their D.C. home in 1992. Karski's older brother Marian, who'd been a commander in the prewar and wartime police and engaged Karski in underground work, also committed suicide in the States.

 

Yet Karski's discretion, revealed in decades of not discussing his 1942 mission, remains a complicating issue. It ruled behavior in the Polish underground, with code names and contacts restricted to an operative's immediate group, yet when captured in the Slovakian mountains on an earlier mission and tortured, Karski doubted his ability to resist and slit his wrists with a concealed razor. Less explored aspects of this discretion, of access to classified or compromising information, need reappraisal. These include his activites over the course of the Cold War. His Story of a Secret State had been a very popular, revealing book about occupied Poland, yet he'd then closed up about much that he knew and had done. Karski's legacy to our complicated, troubling world must also lie in his teaching diplomats, his comprehension of and involvement in that world of alliances, oppositions, calculations. The new film encourages new generations to take his example in the face of challenges and adversity. Assessed more broadly, Karski's life can help demonstrate at what cost the postwar peace was lost, and to what aims – the world we inhabit remains scarred by Cold War manipulations. Which may be as pertinent to young, developing interests as the fact that neither occupied Poland nor the Western powers could or would halt German genocide against Europe's Jews.

 

For Karski & the Lords of Humanity, Grünberg spent seven years compiling research then began a Kickstarter campaign in 2014 to complete the project, before gaining support from the Polish Foreign Ministry. The film consolidates perspectives from Poland, where Karski's heroism had been a suppressed topic through the communist era, and the West, where even wartime heroism in Poland must contend with misinformation, as indicated this April with FBI Director James Comey's remarks about Poland as among Germany's "accomplices" in the Holocaust, first at a US Holocaust Memorial Museum speech then in the Washington Post.   

 

The screening at the POLIN Museum on 23 April was the Polish premiere, attended by Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna. In speeches that evening, Polish embassies were recommended for the role of presenting the film in the cinemas of their host nations, and others advocated that the film screen in some 6,000 schools around Poland (by late April, the Education Ministry had also announced its patronage). The following day, Karski & the Lords of Humanity opened in Polish cinemas. These screenings mark an important stage as the film seeks wider international distribution and a possible Oscar nomination – an elaborate process that indicates the documentary's significance in disseminating the story and historical implications of Karski's 1942 mission. 

 

Alan Lockwood

 

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