Friday, January 18, 2008

the inability to describe

Jan Karski (1914-2000), non-Jewish Polish member of the Polish underground government after the fall of Poland to the Germans, was persuaded by two Jewish leaders to make a visit to the Warsaw Ghetto. They hoped he would see the conditions there at first hand, observe closely, and be able to convey in a written report, and perhaps orally in person too, a sense of the Nazi treatment of the Jews to the allied governments, such that England and the U.S. would specifically intervene to prevent the genocide that was already underway but had plenty more destruction to do by this point.

Karski's account of his experience was published late in the war (I believe 1944 the first time). The text of it I read was translated by Zofia Lewin and Wladyslaw Bartoszewski and published in London in 1969. An excerpt has been in my Holocaust site for many years.

Karski was never able to convince the Allies to respond. He was not sure they believed him; it seems likely that they did not. Afterwards, at least into the early 1980s, he blamed himself for his inability to convey in words what he had seen sufficiently to arouse response. In Claude Lanzmann's film Shoah, at the beginning of a long interview, he breaks down as he attempts to "go back" to the time of his failure to represent. "I go back..." he begins, stammeringly. "No, I do not go back...." and then he falls apart. To my mind he he not struggling to remember the horrors he saw in the ghetto; his struggle is not as a witness of the Holocaust itself. His trauma is remembering his inability to describe it through the conventional language and means of international diplomacy.

Here is a brief part of his account of his experience as a witness. Here he is quoting the two Jewish leaders who, in their first meeting with him, are trying to convince him to visit the ghetto:

"We want you to tell the Polish and Allied Governments and the great leaders of the Allies that we are helpless in the face of the German criminals. We cannot defend ourselves and no one in Poland can defend us. The Polish underground authorities can save some of us, but they cannot save masses. The Germans are not trying so enslave us as they have other peoples; we are being systematically murdered."

The Zionist broke in: "That is what people do not understand. That is what is so difficult to make clear."

That is what is so difficult to make clear. That he could not "make clear" was Karski's burden then and ever afterwards. What sort of diplomatic and/or reportorial and/or personal language would have succeeded? Or was a new medium required?

The photo above was taken of Karski in 1994 at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.