Karski Conference at Loyola Focuses on “Memory & Responsibility”

Senator Dick Durbin

Senator Dick Durbin delivers the keynote address at the Jan Karski conference, Loyola University, September 19.

The first-of-its-kind Jan Karski Conference drew some 150 people from across the country and around the world to Loyola University’s Lakeshore Campus September 19-20 for a celebration of “Jan Karski Days in Chicago.” The program focused on remembering the Holocaust hero Jan Karski and the responsibility of good people everywhere to “speak truth to power.” After infiltrating the Warsaw Ghetto and a transit concentration camp, Karski risked his life to bring word about Nazi atrocities to the Allies during World War II; 2014 is the 100th anniversary of his birth in Łódź, Poland.

U.S. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois delivered an inspiring keynote address at the conference opening September 19, drawing parallels between world affairs in the mid 20th century and the situations in Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine today. A student of Jan Karski at Georgetown University in the 1960s, Durbin remembered him as a modest man who for some 35 years never spoke about his mission as a courier for the resistance during the war.

Observing that President Clinton has admitted that standing by during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 was a mistake in U.S. foreign policy, Durbin noted that we all have a responsibility to see the plight of others and then take personal responsibility for acting on their behalf. Following Karski’s example, he said, we must understand that “the idea that some lives are worth less than others is the root of all that’s wrong with mankind.” Senator Durbin also emphasized, apropos of this conference, that Donald Tusk, former president of Poland, is the new president of the European Union, a fact that would have been unimaginable 25 years ago.

Thirteen panel discussions gave attendees a rich selection of break-out sessions that displayed the depth and breadth of contemporary Polish studies not just at Loyola but around the world. Screenings of two films, Irena Sendler: In the Name of Their Mothers, a documentary by Mary Skinner (who also spoke at the conference) about another Holocaust hero, and Stones for the Rampart, a new Polish film based on a novel by Aleksander Kaminski published by the Polish underground press during World War II.

Speakers and moderators de-emphasized the reading of academic papers in favor of dynamic presentations that invited questions, discussion, and criticism. Among the many outstanding speakers was Ewa Wierzyńska of the Polish History Museum in Warsaw, speaking about “national collective amnesia” and “cold political realism” that made Jan Karski a pariah in Soviet-dominated post-war Poland. Karski’s relevance for today as hero and witness to the Holocaust “cannot be questioned,” she asserted.

Author E. Tom Wood, whose biography Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust was re-released in a new and updated edition this year, speculated that the reason no feature film version of Karski’s life has been produced is that “the concept of a hero is not hip in our age.” Wanda Urbanska, president of the Jan Karski Educational Foundation, said that part of the foundation’s mission is to make Karski’s pivotal book, Story of a Secret State (published during the war and largely forgotten afterwards), as widely read in American schools as Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, but the possibility of a feature film version has eluded her efforts as well.

Robert Kostro, also from the Polish History Museum in Warsaw, moderated a panel of attorneys on 20th century genocide that included examinations of the Holocaust in Europe as well as war crimes in Yugoslavia and the Soviet massacre of Poles at Katyn. Gregory Gordon of the Chinese University of Hong Kong led another panel discussion about the responsibility of nations to protect and intervene. Presenter Gregory Stanton of George Mason University in Virginia observed that the treatment of native populations during the establishment and expansion of the United States of America, Canada, and Australia, among other countries, means that “we too have blood on our hands,” and are capable of the kind of “ethnocentrism that is the cause of genocide.” Pierluigi Condego of the European Law Institute in Brussels spoke on moving “From Responsibility to Protect and Intervene, to Responsibility to Prevent: the European Union’s Perspective.”

Among the many other provocative presentations were: “Haunted By the Past: Poland Remembers Its Vanished Jews” and “Karski’s Testimony on the Holocaust: Story of a Secret State, Shoah, and the Karski Report” both delivered by Neal Pease of the University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee, author Joseph Zuranski speaking on “A Delicate Balance: Polish Portraits in U.S. Film during World War II,” and “Debating the Literary and Filmic Memory of Jan Karski” from Sue Vice of the University of Sheffield in the U.K. Papers delivered during the conference will be available on the Polish Studies Program website.

The conference closed with a concert in the auditorium of Loyola’s historic Mundelein Center for Fine and Performing Arts, featuring sopranos Delia Surratt and Ewa Kowcz-Fair with Diana Schmück and Marek Rachelski on piano. Organized by Bozena Nowicka McLees, head of Loyola’s Polish Studies Program, the conference also received support from the Jan Karski Educational Foundation, the Polish History Museum in Warsaw, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland, the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in Chicago, Polonia Bookstore, the Crain-Maling Foundation, the Book Cellar, and the Polish Film Festival in America.

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