Sir Andrew Burns, the UK Envoy for post-Holocaust issues, reflects on the courage and vision of Polish diplomat Jan Karski.
This year’s Holocaust Memorial Day call to Speak Up, Speak Out against prejudice and hatred comes at a time when our press and media constantly remind us that discrimination and prejudice is still a depressingly frequent feature of our contemporary society.
History tells us that if we do not stand firm against prejudice in small ways, in everyday life, then there is a real danger that it will grow into something much more damaging and difficult to resist. We must pray that we never again in Europe have to face the horrors of the treatment meted out to Jewish communities and other persecuted groups during the Holocaust.
I have just been reading the gripping account by the Polish courier Jan Karski of the Polish Underground’s resistance to Nazi rule during World War II. He vividly describes the huge effort he had to make to escape from Poland in 1942 to bring to the allies a true account of what was happening in Poland. But nothing prepared me for the harrowing account in two chapters of his book (Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World) describing his secret visits into the Warsaw Ghetto and the extermination camp at Belzec.
It is perhaps not surprising that it took so long to convince the outside world that man could behave with such grotesque inhumanity to his fellow men and women. But it was Karski’s testimony in London and Washington that helped ensure an increasingly strong outcry against what was happening. Later this year we should remember the 70th Anniversary of the United Nations (ie Allied) Statement of 17 December 1942 denouncing the barbarous and inhumane treatment of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. It will not fall to us to have to be as brave and heroic as Karski, but his example should spur us on to fight hatred and prejudice wherever it is found.