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Jan Karski: Poland and the Second World War

Part I

 “I am marrying you ‘per procuram’ with permission of the Church, not because you are rich or powerful, but because you are of the poorest, weakest, most wronged, and oppressed.”[i]


Part II


Throughout Jan Karski’s story, one of his primary goals was to illustrate how ordinary Polish citizens bravely and persistently fought for Polish sovereignty. Through amplifying individual citizens’ stories, Karski emphasized the idea  that when faced with German oppression and inhumanity, the Poles fought back with love and spirit, which required courage and sacrifice.


A central theme of Karski’s story was the Poles’ incredible love for their country. From a series of smuggled letters, Wanda and Witek fell in love and became greatly moved by each other’s undying devotion to their country.[ii] Wanda and Witek’s decision to get married, knowing they will likely never reunite, displays their trust in the institution of marriage in their state, even when their beloved state became underground to continue the fight for sovereignty. Similarly, Karski frequently contrasted people’s unassuming appearances with who they really were to illustrate that there was no textbook definition of and Underground member. Karski’s friend, Dziepatowski, was known for his musical talents and his introverted nature back in their carefree schoolboy days. However, when the two reunited after the Polish Army had been disbanded on the surface, Karski met a whole different Dziepatowski. Dziepatowski’s love for Poland sparked his courage to initiate people like Karski into the Underground to continue the fight for freedom.[iii]


Karski then met Danuta, Lucien’s sister, while he recovered from  torture inflicted by the Gestapo. Their common obstacle: Bulle, a Volksdeutsche, who traded his dignity and duty to his country for German citizenship and slightly less moldy bread. Since Bulle posed a threat to the Underground, likely willing to expose its members, he had to be taken out; however, because there was no evidence, Lucien had to be discreet with his method of disposal. Karski was shocked when he found that a seemingly ordinary girl like Danuta was involved in the execution of Bulle.[iv] Citizens like Danuta realized that to defeat the Nazis, they had to temporarily put aside their personal morals for the bigger picture. Karski’s collection of stories of the people who helped him along the way was an important means for him to establish that the Polish people were not complacent during Germany’s attempt to bulldoze their country. Such anecdotes provided Karski with a medium to convey this message to his primarily American audiences in an effort to show why the war was so devastating to Poland. Ultimately, Germany was consciously destroying not just the country but all of the individual people and their stories that make up Poland.[v]


Arguably, the most consistent form of resistance was resistance in spirit. Joining the Underground under Karski’s direction turned Tad Lisowski from a boy lacking ambition and responsibility into a man capable of boldly confronting the Nazis and fighting the Germanification of their beloved Poland. The movement even changed Karski  from a carefree playboy to a responsible and resilient Underground member. As a result, people motivated by love for their country had the determination to change in the face of oppression.

Karski used the stories of Witek and Wanda, Dziepatowski, Danuta, and Tad to emphasize the extraordinary amount of sacrifice that love requires. Ordinary Polish citizens sacrificed their lives: both their physical lives and the potential lives they were never able to experience.

Instead, their only reward was the knowledge that they were fighting for the right cause. Even the poorest, weakest, and most oppressed people played critical roles in the fight for Poland’s sovereignty. In fact, this very group of people represented the fundamental aspect of the human condition: the desire for freedom and the willingness to fight to protect that freedom. Karski’s storytelling in the form of a personal narrative highlights the humanity of the Poles so as a consequence, he revealed the inhumanity of the Germans as well as of the countries that ignored this injustice and oppression.

[i] Jan Karski, Story of a Secret State (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2013), 274.

[ii] Karski, 273.

[iii] Karski, 54-59.

[iv] Karski, 200-215.

[v] Karski, 279-287.


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