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Humanity in Action: Collected Essays and Talks: Jan Karski and Stefan Zweig

Published in 2014, Humanity in Action: Collected Essays and Talks is an anthology of written works by Judith S. Goldstein, the founder and executive director of Humanity in Action. "Jan Karski and Stefan Zweig" was a talk delivered at the Fourth Annual Humanity in Action International Conference at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, Poland, on June 27, 2013. Humanity in Action: Collected Essays and Talks is available for purchase as a Kindle eBook on Amazon

This conference in Warsaw is a dream come true. Over the past three years, the annual Humanity in Action conferences have taken place in Amsterdam, Berlin and Sarajevo. Each time we considered where to hold the conference, Monika and Magda invited us to go east. And now, thanks to their phenomenal work along with Phil and Antje, we are here in this vibrant country and city to probe into various fascinating aspects of Polish history in the 20th and 21st centuries. This inquiry is valuable not just for the history of transitions and the restoration of a democratic state but for the promise of Poland as a new center of European culture as Western Europe looks increasingly to the needs of Central and Eastern Europe.

It is an honor to be at this extraordinary and stunning Jewish Museum, even before it officially opens. We are most grateful to the Director Andrzej Cudak  and Jan Spievak, a Senior Fellows, who have made this happen.

We started the Humanity in Action Polish program seven years ago under the guidance of Humanity in Action Germany and with the singularly generous support of the German Foundation Remembrance, Responsibility and Future (EVZ).  This expansion has stretched our boundaries and horizons in numerous challenging ways, mainly in regard to diversity issues. This requires a short explanation. Among the many countries that are part of the Humanity in Action, Poland today has the least ethnic, racial and religious diversity. Before the Second World War, however, it was the most diverse. Thus, the temptation to throw ourselves back and concentrate on the disastrous history of the war years, to grapple with the so called vanished limb of diversity, particularly in regard to Polish Jewry. Thanks to the insightful and creative programmatic work of Monika and Magda, that past is only one substantial part of the subjects they take on. Thus, the Fellows explore how Poland has resisted and recovered from totalitarian regimes; how it strengthened its democratic processes; how it battles to reduce discrimination against the disabled and gays; how it organizes social campaigns; and how it impresses the Polish voice upon the European and transatlantic discourse. 

Our dear friend Konstanty Gebert has said that Poland has too much history to absorb. I am sure he is right but I am afraid as an historian, I can’t resist the temptation to think first in historical terms. Thus, I wish to speak about two people who can illuminate our present challenges: Jan Karski, the Polish resistance fighter and illustrious professor of international relations at Georgetown University in Washington, DC and Stefan Zweig, still widely read in Germany and Austria as a significant novelist, dramatist and biographer but unfortunately less known today in America.

A few years ago Claude Lanzmann published his autobiography, The Patagonian Hare. Lanzmann is best known for making the film “Shoah” (and having an affair with Simon de Beauvoir). The book is fascinating, long, often funny, insightful and a great example of his irrepressible narcissistic drive. In the climatic portion about making “Shoah” Lanzmann mentioned that he did three interviews with Jan Karski that were not in the film. Having read The Secret State, Karski’s remarkable book published in 1944, I was eager to see the interviews on YouTube.

I would like to share two segments with you because I think they are so moving and historically informative. The Polish underground movement to which he belonged sent Karski to England and the US in 1942 and 1943. His mission was to give first hand accounts of the resistance in Poland to the German occupation and generate confidence in a post-war democratic Poland—the “secret state” in formation. He was also tasked with informing officials and various leaders in England and the US about the fate of Polish Jewry. Thus, Karski a young Catholic was surreptitiously brought into the Warsaw ghetto in 1942 and in the uniform of a guard to Izbica, (not Belzec as he states in the interview) a transit camp that employed gas to kill Jews.

In the first interview Karski described his meeting with President Roosevelt in the White House in 1943, one that was arranged by the Polish Ambassador to the United States. The context is pretty clear: Karski was to bring first-hand testimony to the President to solicit his support for protecting Polish democratic interests against the Germans as well as pressures from internal and external Communist forces. The context for the second video segment is more complicated. Karski described his meeting with Szmul Zygielbojm in a London office. Zygielbojm was a member of the Polish National Council and the Bund, a Jewish political party with Socialist leanings that was active in pre-war Poland.

After watching the two interviews I was struck by the historic importance of the two voices: the dramatic disparities in power and personality between Roosevelt and Zygielbojm and Karski’s radically different reactions to the two men. They personify opposite extremes of authority and emotion. The President was cool, commanding, immobile due to his paralyzed legs, in total control of the conversation—and seemingly in control of the fate of a Polish democratic state.  Karski was in awe of the President’s power and stunningly aware of the constrained and inflexible borders of the President’s interest in Poland and Polish Jewry. The messenger clearly understood that he would not propel the President to strong supportive action for the Polish resistance, a democratic state or the Polish Jews. 

Zygielbojm in London reacted in a totally different way.  Overcome by emotion, he was agitated, distraught by his helplessness, nearly hysterical and despairing of finding ways to inform the world and those in power of what was happening to Polish Jews. In this case, Karski knew that Zygielbojm completely understood the searing news from Poland of massive destruction. A few weeks later, Zygeilbojm spoke passionately on the BBC: “It will actually be a shame to go on living, to belong to the human race if steps are not taken to halt the greatest crime in human history.” (1) In May 1943 Zygeilbojm committed suicide after once more asking, in a final note, that the world take action. 

In 1944 Karski published his first book The Secret State. He wrote for an American audience in compelling detail about his history as a young, little known resistance fighter, his visits to England and the US, his meetings with the President and leaders of the Jewish community in the West and his fervent hopes for the reestablishment of a Polish democratic state. They were unfulfilled. He did not return to Poland but instead became a professor in Washington DC and an expert on Communism and international relations. And, according to his testimony that you have just seen, despite his role and first-hand knowledge, he confessed that he never taught or discussed for the next 40 years what had happened to Polish Jewry in the Holocaust. This courageous man, could not do it, he could not talk about it. He had no more messages to share about what happened. He kept his grief to himself. In a certain sense, this powerful history, formed by a resistance fighter, democrat, forthright observer and bold messenger, is one of silence—a silence that reverberates with profound meaning and poignancy. 

Stefan Zweig embodies another kind of silence that is equally powerful and sad. In 1941, he was close to completing an expansive, semi-autobiography work, The World Before Yesterday. And again like Karski, he wrote parts of the work as a foreigner in the States. Unlike Karski, however, Zweig drew upon his literary skills as a famous European author of remarkable productivity, quality and critical success with translations in over 30 languages. He was at one point the best selling author in Europe—as novelist, biographer, dramatist and essayist.  His family roots were in Galicia, a part of Poland that was taken over by the Hapsburgs in the late 18th Century. Zweig’s family escaped the densely populated and insular Galician Jewish world and migrated to the thriving Austrian capitol. His father prospered as a businessman enabling his son to grow up in secure affluence, to shun the family business for a literary career. Zweig joined the Viennese and European liberal intelligentsia establishing close friendships with great figures such as Sigmund Freud, Paul Valery, Richard Strauss, James Joyce, Arturo Toscanini and many others. As an established writer, he enriched the vibrant, audacious cosmopolitan Viennese society that transformed art, science, music, theatre and literature in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Until the First World War, he felt that he lived at the center of creativity and freedom.

The World Before Yesterday is a powerful evocation of thwarted aspirations for the Europe of his youth—regret for the lost hope of a liberal, harmonious,  democratic Europe—and a furious indictment of dictatorial and mass violence.  The work, imbued with a modesty that Lanzmann could never dream of, describes Zweig’s pre-World War I hopes, as a pacifist, for a united, peaceful, inclusive, humanist European society. They failed: first through the nationalistic destruction of the First World War, then the fall of the Hapsburg Empire and ensuing years of economic chaos after the conflict ended.  When Europe seemed to return to normalcy in the ‘20s, Zweig reignited his dreams for a peaceful future and a united European culture. Hitler shattered any such possibilities starting in the early 1930s. Zweig’s books were burned and then banned in Germany. In 1934, Austria was no longer safe for him. He emigrated to England. Within a few years, his writings were banned in every country that Germany conquered and his broad circles of intellects and democrats were in flight. While he had voluntarily left for England in the mid-30s, with the Anschluss, Zwieg lost his citizenship and became a refugee, stripped of his nationality, culture and home.

In Bath, England on September 1, 1939, he sought to obtain a marriage license to marry for a second time. He went to the registry office to sign papers. “Just then—it must have been about eleven o’clock—the door to the next room flew open. A young official burst in, getting into his coat while walking. ‘The Germans have invaded Poland. This is war,’ he shouted into the quiet room. The word fell like a hammer blow upon my heart,” Zweig wrote.  As an Austrian by birth, he knew he would immediately become an enemy alien in England. “Again I was aware that the past was done for, work achieved was in ruins, Europe, our home, to which we had dedicated ourselves, had suffered a destruction that would extend far beyond our life. Something new, a new world began, but how many hells, how many purgatories had to be crossed before it could be reached.” (2)

Zweig had spent the years since leaving Austria in England, the US and finally Brazil. It was there that he and his wife jointly committed suicide in 1942. In the final passages of The World Before Yesterday, he wrote of shadows: first watching his own, as he walked down a sunny street in London right after England declared war on Germany and then the gloomy shadow of the First World War which he thought might suffuse his autobiography. “But, after all, shadows themselves are born of light. And only he who has experienced dawn and dusk, war and peace, ascent and decline, only he has truly lived.” (3)

I believe that being in Poland today, a country that has gone through too many purgatories and hells, affirms the fervent democratic beliefs of both Karksi and Zweig. Although  pessimism and despair drove Zweig to suicide, the act did not invalidate his hopes for a  peaceful and a humane European existence. Karski built a new life in America and waited for the fall of the Communist regime. There is probably too much history in Poland to digest, as Konstanty Gebert says.  But it is only by bringing that history into the present and searching for knowledge, meaning, and idealistic, humanistic beliefs that we can meet our responsibilities to the present and future. Might I say that in speaking of “we,” I mean to speak principally to those in Humanity in Action. We are obligated individually and collectively to avoid silence. We seek to understand the present through the past. At this conference and through the annual Polish Humanity in Action programs, we seek to gain greater exposure to and understanding of the brilliant intellectual tradition of historical research that belongs to Poland. We seek to encounter great figures from the past, such as Karski and Zweig, who inform us about their lives and times—times that still deeply affect the boundaries of our challenges, needs and hopes in Europe and the United States. We seek to draw wisdom and courage from their courage and values. 

Close to the end of his life, Zweig wrote: “Our greatest debt of gratitude is to those who in these inhuman times confirm the human in us, who encourage us not to abandon our unique and imperishable possession: our innermost self.” (4) 

One who brings us close to that “imperishable possession,” is the great Polish poet Czeslow Milosz. His Polish voice—truly a universal voice which meshes with those of Karksi and Zweig—illuminates our presence in Warsaw today and the painful challenges of past and present that we assume.


Still one more year of preparation.

Tomorrow at the latest I will start working on a great book

In which my country will appear as it really was.

The sun will rise over the wise and wicked.

Springs and autumns will unerringly return,

In a wet thicket a thrush will build his nest lined with clay

And foxes will learn their foxy natures.


And that will be the subject, with addenda. Thus, armies

Running across frozen plains, shouting a curse

In a many-voiced chorus; the cannon of a tank

Growing immense at the corner of a street; the ride at dusk

Into a camp with watchtowers and barbed wire.


No, it won’t happen tomorrow. In five or ten years.

I still think too much about the mothers

And ask what is man born of women.

He curls himself up and protects his head

While he is kicked by heavy boots; on fire and running,

He burns with bright flame; a bulldozer sweeps him into clay pit.

Her child. Embracing a teddy bear. Conceived in ecstasy.

I haven’t learned yet to speak as I should, calmly. (5)


•     •     • 

About the Author

Judith S. Goldstein founded Humanity in Action in 1997 and has served as its Executive Director ever since. Under Judith’s leadership, Humanity in Action has organized educational programs on international affairs, diversity and human rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Poland, the Netherlands and the United States. She received her Ph.D in history from Columbia University and was a Woodrow Wilson Scholar for her MA studies. Judith has written several books and articles about European and American history, art and landscape architecture. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and several boards and advisory groups.


Goldstein, Judith S. "Jan Karski and Stefan Zweig." In Humanity in Action: Collected Essays and Talks, 43-48. New York: Humanity in Action Press, 2014.


1. Wood, E, Thomas and Jankowski, Stanislaw M. Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust. p.152.  

2. Zweig, Stephen, The World Before Yesterday.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Milosz, Czeslaw, Unattainable Earth, p.61.

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