Where does moral courage come from? How do we learn it?
That was the question asked of the actor in the one-man play about Jan Karski. His character was a soldier, member of the Polish resistance, and diplomat during the most extreme conditions of WW II.
Karski had a photographic memory and made detailed reports of conditions as a courier in 1940–1943 to the Polish government-in-exile. Jewish leaders in Warsaw requested he visit the city’s Ghetto and Belzec death camp. They asked him to report what he had seen of the Nazi efforts to exterminate the Jewish people to the Allies. He did.
He was captured, tortured by the Gestapo who sent him to a hospital. His SS captors hoped to break him to learn the details of the Polish underground movement. He escaped from the hospital. The Nazis killed all of 32 hospital doctors and nurses where he had been treated.
He spoke directly with Churchill and Anthony Eden, the British Foreign minister. In the US he met with FDR plus national political, press, and Jewish leaders including Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. In all his meetings he gave great detail of what he had seen. He asked Allied political leaders in both countries to act, to stop the Nazi’s genocide.
His wartime efforts are presented in a film Remember This of this one-man play. It has just been released in heaters and will be shown on PBS Great Performances in March.
Karski’s story is about more than the Holocaust. It is about human nature in all its greatness and horror.
His words, not just his personal example, live on as timeless and timely insights into human character.
In the film he observes, “Humans have an infinite capacity to ignore things that are not convenient.”
This looking away occurs beyond the horrors of war; it is true of everyday life.
He commented that “Governments do not have souls. Only people do.” Caring for fellow humans is not done by organizations, policies or even regulation. That is the responsibility of the leaders and members of an organization. There are no market “invisible hands” doing humane work.
When he briefed Justice Felix Frankfurter, the first person of Jewish faith on the Court, Frankfurter replied, “I don’t believe it.” He was not calling Karski a liar; rather he could not comprehend how humans could possibly be implementing a plan to eliminate an entire people.
A “Living Relationship”
Karksi stayed in the US following the war. Poland was occupied by the Soviet Union. He could not return. For 40 yeas he was a professor of International Studies and Polish history at Georgetown University.
He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Obama a decade after his death in 2000.
Even with this heroic story, one of the co-writers of the script on the faculty at Georgetown, confessed he had walked by Karski’s campus statue for four years and paid no attention to it.
That typical oversight is why stories need be told. And for their relevance to today’s and future generations.
The actor in the film stated he has “living relationship” with his character. Karski’s life resonates still. It is more than a remembrance of an extraordinary person. It is an example that inspires, even compels us, to ask about at our own lives.
Our Witness Today
In the Q&A following the film’s showing at the Shakespeare Theatre in DC, the question was asked of the actor: How did Karski develop the moral courage to act in these extreme circumstances?
The actor replied that he thought it was from his mother, a devout catholic.
I believe that people learn their values from watching others. Whether in extraordinary acts of courage or lives long lived in service to people, we select those qualities we want to express in own professions.
Karski’s example is helpful for those working in the cooperatives. One of our distinguishing features is an organizational design based on values and collaboration. We are called to a higher standard than might be practiced in other firms.
Credit unions were intended to protect and serve those who are exploited by others. Our meme is the little guy with the umbrella. But how easy is it to ignore our cooperative roots and imitate institutions for which credit unions were intended as an alternative?
Do we transfer responsibility for outcomes onto the organization in which we work? Karski reminds that only persons have “soul,” that is the capacity to do the right thing.
It is not the cooperative model that fails. Human agency matters whether consequences seem trivial or of utmost concern.
What I find compelling about his example is that after Allied leaders failed to respond to the Holocaust tragedy he reported, he never blamed others for inaction.
His witness of moral courage was not a basis for faulting others. He did the best he could so that future generations could benefit from his example.
That’s why the film is called Remember This.