Told through a combination of live footage and animated illustration, Slawomir Grunberg’s Karski & the Lords of Humanity brings to life the story of one man’s courageous efforts to share the atrocities facing Poland’s Jews during World War II. (EML: 4.5/5)
Review by FF2 Associate Eliana Levenson
Using live footage from Claude Lanzmann’s comprehensive Holocaust documentary “Shoah,” Grunberg opens with Jan Karski himself, explaining how he tried to shut out the horrors he saw and reported on for 35 years. It is clear from the way he speaks and his body language that the things he witnessed still haunt him to this day. To others, Karski’s silence on his role in the war is one of modesty but, for Karski, perhaps it is also a coping mechanism.
Born in Poland at the end of World War I, Karski was studying to be a diplomat when the Germans invaded. Using his multilingual skills, he became a spy for the Polish underground government, resisting the Nazi takeover. As a spy, Karski was captured, beaten nearly to death and escaped, but still he did not wish to abandon his role in the rebellion against the Nazis.
The war raged on and the Jewish people’s suffering remained invisible to the outside world. Then, the Polish underground called on Karski to meet with Jewish leaders so that they might share their story with someone who could make a difference. Karski accepted the task and agreed to bring the plight of the Jews to the Allied governments. It was to be his first hand recounting that would save the Jews from total extermination.
Karski’s account is supplemented with live footage, adding a powerful urgency to his story. How could people not have known that the Jews lay dying in the streets of the Warsaw Ghetto? That they were being shot down like animals by young boys with a Swatzika emblazoned on their arms? Even after all these years, Karski’s voice still breaks as he recounts the inhumane acts he volunteered to witness.
After witnessing both the tragedies of the ghetto and the horrors of a death camp, Karski traveled to England and the United States to share what he had seen with the Allies. It was his mission to inform the Allies so that they could step in, not to end the war, but to prevent the total extermination of the Jews. His accounts were met with a mixture of reactions from sympathy to laughter to pure disbelief. It was hard for a world that had no physical evidence of such inhumane acts to trust that the Nazis were truly capable of committing such evils.
While both Churchill and Roosevelt were sympathetic, fear of being seen as entering the war purely to save the Jews caused them to react without conviction to stopping Hitler’s Final Solution.
Jan Karski’s voice breaks as he admits that he felt like a failure when the UK and the US did not implement direct plans to end the genocide against the Jews. If he had stayed in Poland, physically helping Jews to flee as the Polish underground government did, would he not have saved more lives? Yet, as those who have studied his courage and bravery are quick to explain, Karski’s efforts were instrumental in ensuring that the Jewish problem was not invisible and that their suffering was not silent.
As someone who has studied Judaism for most of my life, I was shocked that I had never heard of Jan Karski or the risks he took to try and warn the world of the Holocaust. Karski was a man of courage, who took on the plight of the Jews, putting his own life in jeopardy to carry the message of Jewish suffering to those who had the power to do more.
Grunberg seamlessly integrates the interview footage of Karski with photography and videos taken by the Nazis and tops it off with reenactments via illustrated animation to bring life to Karski’s smooth retelling of his life story. Overall, this documentary serves as a powerful reminder of the atrocities that faced a people and how dangerously close these horrors came to being kept a secret.
Top Photo: The poster for the film showing Karski’s poise and power as a young man.
Middle Photo: A still of Jan Karski from the “Shoah” footage integrated into the documentary.
Bottom Photo: An example of the illustrated animations throughout the film. In this instance, Karski is recounting his experience watching the Jews unloaded from cattle cars at an extermination camp.
Photo Credits: Log TV Ltd