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Jan Karski

Film | Accession Number: 1996.166 | RG Number: RG-60.5006 | Film ID: 3133, 3134, 3135, 3136, 3137, 3138, 3139, 3140, 3141, 3142, 3143

Jan Karski tells of his capture and torture by the Gestapo when he was a courier for the Polish underground. He also describes his clandestine visit to the Warsaw ghetto and his meeting with Szmul Zygielbojm, six months before Zygelbojm's suicide. See pages 491 - 494 of the English translation of Lanzmann's memoir The Patagonian Hare (March 2012) for a description of his interactions with Karski after filming this interview.

FILM ID 3133 -- Camera Rolls #1-5 -- 01:00:33 to 01:32:10
Karski tells of his first missions as a courier for the Polish Government in Exile. [No visual until 01:01:56] He was caught by the SS with an incriminating roll of film and beaten severely. The SS soldier told him that he wanted to get in touch with the Polish underground, but Karski did not reveal any information to him. Karski cut both of his wrists and was transported to various hospitals under the supervision of the Gestapo. With help, Karski escaped from a hospital in Warsaw and after a period of recuperation went to Krakow in 1940. In 1942, he resumed his service as a courier and met with major political parties to deliver messages from the delegates of the Polish Government. He explains that the messages were never written down, but were either memorized or on microfilm. Karski was contacted by representatives of the Jewish underground, who he refers to as the Bund leader (Leon Feiner) and the Zionist leader (Bermann), and met with them in a house near but not in the ghetto. In a manner that Karski describes as desperate, the two leaders asked Karski to take messages to London about the extermination of the Jews. Karski was asked to tell the exiled Polish president to contact the Pope. He was also told not to contact non-Polish Jewish leaders in London because they might become too alarmed and "complicate" matters.

FILM ID 3134 -- Camera Rolls #7-9 -- 02:00:05 to 02:35:47
The Jewish leaders wanted Karski to go to other government officials with messages. They wanted the Allied governments to publicly announce that they would deal with the problem of the extermination of the Jews and to drop leaflets over the German population, telling them that the Germans would be held responsible. Karski was also asked to take messages to certain Jewish members of the exiled Polish government, including Szmul Zygielbojm and Dr. Schwarzbald of the National Council and Dr. Leon Grossfeld of the Polish Socialist Party. The two representatives made it clear that he was not to relay the message to any non-Polish Jewish leader because they feared that it would fuel anti-Polish propaganda. Karski discusses the frustration of Feiner and Bermann that the Home Army refused to supply Polish Jews with weapons. Lanzmann and Karski discuss whether this proves that these two representatives anticipated the Warsaw ghetto uprising.

FILM ID 3135 -- Camera Rolls #11,12,6,11A,32 -- 03:00:04 to 03:07:48
Lanzmann asks Karski how his visit to the ghetto came about. Karski says that it was the Bund leader's idea that if Karski saw the situation with his own eyes, it would strengthen his position when he went to London. Karski says that he and Feiner had no problem entering the ghetto through a tunnel. A brief shot of Karski's wife and then a long shot of Lanzmann with no sound.

FILM ID 3136 -- Camera Rolls #13-15 -- 04:00:09 to 04:33:01
In November 1942, Karski visited Belzec disguised as an Estonian auxiliary. His trip was organized by the Bund leader and the Jewish underground. Karski describes the brutal treatment of Jews as they were loaded onto trucks, either to be taken to Sobibor or left to die on the trucks. Karski says that at the time, Belzec seemed to function as a transitional camp. [CLIP 1 BEGINS] Lanzmann asks Karski to go into more detail about what he saw at Belzec [CLIP 1 ENDS].

FILM ID 3137 -- Camera Rolls #16-18 -- 05:00:08 to 05:18:45
[CLIP 2 BEGINS] Karski talks about watching Jews being pushed onto the trains at Belzec. He describes what he saw as, "a crowd which had many heads, legs, many arms, many eyes, but it was something like a collective, pulsating, moving, shouting body." Karski and Lanzmann talk about the use of quicklime in the trains again. [CLIP 2 ENDS] No sound from 05:11:20 until 05:14:48. [CLIP 3 BEGINS] Karski left the camp in a state of shock [CLIP 3 ENDS].

FILM ID 3138 -- Camera Rolls #19,19A,20,20A -- 06:00:01 to 06:21:07
Karski talks about his trip to London in late November, focusing on his meeting with Zygielbojm. Zygielbojm was aggressive with Karski and rude to him. Karski felt that the man was "disintegrating minute by minute."

FILM ID 3139 -- Camera Rolls #21,21A,22 -- 07:00:07 to 07:17:16
Karski describes how Zygielbojm went into a rage after he delivered his report to him. Camera focused on Lanzmann, no sound. Lanzmann asks Karski if he thinks his report contributed to Zygielbojm's suicide six months later. Karski says that he believes that the total helplessness of the Jews and the indifference of the world to the Jewish situation contributed to Zygielbojm's death. He says that while he never mentions to his students his own experiences in the Warsaw ghetto and in Belzec, he always tells them about Zygielbojm.

FILM ID 3140 -- Camera Rolls #23-24 -- 08:00:02 to 08:17:34
Lanzmann asks Karski to whom specifically he reported his news about the destruction of the Jews, and what were the reactions. He tells of being sent to Washington from London and of a meeting with Roosevelt. Karski first told Roosevelt that the Polish nation was depending on him to deliver them from the Germans. Karski said to Roosevelt, "All hope, Mr. President, has been placed by the Polish nation in the hands of Franklin Delano Roosevelt."

FILM ID 3141 -- Camera Rolls #25-28 -- 09:00:11 to 09:33:07
Karski says that he told President Roosevelt about Belzec and the desperate situation of the Jews. Roosevelt concentrated his questions and remarks entirely on Poland and did not ask one question about the Jews. Soon after his meeting with the President, Karski received a message from FDR with a list of several people with whom Karski should speak. One of the people that the President recommended was Justice Felix Frankfurter of the Supreme Court, who came to see Karski in the Polish embassy. Frankfurter listened to his report and said that he did not, could not believe Karski's report. Karski was interviewed by Lord Selborne who was in charge of the European underground movement of the British government. Selborne told him that he knew that Karski's story wasn't true, but that it was good for propaganda purposes, just as it was necessary in World War I to use atrocity stories against the Germans.

FILM ID 3142 -- Camera Rolls #29-31 -- 10:00:07 to 10:21:00
Karski talks about his interactions with the other people to whom he reported. Lanzmann asks Karski whether the people he gave his report to in Washington could truly grasp what was happening in places like Belzec. Karski replies that he doesn't think so. Karski says that what happened to the Jews is not comparable to any other event in history.

FILM ID 3143 -- Camera Rolls #33-35,34,36 -- 11:00:07 to 11:12:30
Karski shows Lanzmann a book with clippings of articles written by him or about him. Karski explains that he could no longer work as a courier or return to Poland because he was too recognizable. Instead, he gave lectures and wrote articles and a book about what was happening to the Jews. In spite of this, Karski says, "Hitler won his war." Close up of Karski as he flips through the pages of the scrapbook.

Event:  1978 October
Production:  1985
Washington, DC, United States
Created by Claude Lanzmann during the filming of "Shoah," used by permission of USHMM and Yad Vashem
Record last modified: 2021-06-03 12:47:10
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