JAN KARSKI – AN ATTEMPT AT
RECREATING A BIOGRAPHY
- Introducing the students to phases of Karski's life and development and to his times;
- Developing the skills of extracting information from primary sources, posing research questions, critiquing sources;
- Developing the skills of arranging events in chronological order;
- Developing the skills of creating a biographical note;
- Developing the skills of constructing a biographical story and relating the life of an individual to the context of European and world history;
- Developing the skills of essay writing.
Note: This type of lesson helps students better understand the hero, his motivations and his experiences; it helps them understand the reasons why the person in question is a role model and an example to follow.
Divide the class into groups. Each group works on a specific part of the package.
- Primary sources from the package;
- Selection of photos of Karski from different moments of his life;
- Historical maps of the world from World War II and the period after the war.
A short introduction of Jan Karski in a historical context (reviewing the most important events of World War II, interwar Poland and the German Occupation of the country)
Division of students into groups:
a) Group I – Childhood and the Pre-War years (Maciej Wierzyński's interview with Jan Karski)
b)Group II – The War Erupts and The German Occupation
c) Group III – The Polish Underground State
d) Group IV – The Mission
e) Group V- Life after the War
With the help of supporting questions, each group should familiarize itself with the documents regarding a part of Jan Karski's life, write up the facts from his life in chronological order and identify the matching photos.
After the preliminary work, every group writes down and presents their findings in front of the entire class, preferably in a timeline.
After creating the timeline, the students, along with the teacher, consider and discuss the continuity of the narration and try to find the missing information in the supplementary materials from the package or in literature or online.
a) Write a biographical note about Jan Karski. An assignment for students from 12 to 15 years old.
b) Write an essay with the following prompt: Can Jan Karski be a positive and relevant role model for young people today and if so, why? An assignment for students from 12 to 18 years old.
c) Write an outline of a biography (or a short biography) of Jan Karski. An assignment for students from 15 to 18 years old as a final interdisciplinary project, preceded by information from the teacher on the requirements of constructing a biography.
A list of sample supporting questions for the groups:
A) Group I: Childhood and the Pre-War Years
- In what city was the hero born and raised?
- What can you say about his family and friends?
- Where did he study and what was his major?
- What can we say about his way of thinking and his views on Poland and the world?
B) Group II – The War Erupts and the German Occupation
-Where and in what division (infantry, cavalry, artillery) did Karski serve in September of 1939? Who did he fight?
- What happened to him when Poland surrendered?
- How did he end up in the territories under German occupation?
- In what conditions did he live and what was he doing at the time?
C) Group III – The Polish Underground State
- Why was Karski using two names?
- What did he do in the Polish Underground State?
- What were the dangers he was facing and how did he avoid them?
D) Group IV – The Mission
- With what task was Karski assigned in the summer of 1942 and from whom did he get it?
- How did he prepare for the mission?
- What was the danger he faced because of the mission?
- Who did he visit in London and Washington, D.C. and why?
- Was his mission successful?
“After my preliminary report, I was asked to see Prime Minister General Sikorski. My admiration and the admiration of our people in Poland for this man grew tremendously. […] I had a long conversation with him about the plans of the men in the Underground for the future organization of Poland, the common desire so deeply rooted in all our fighters to make Poland a genuine, unshakable democracy, one that would assure social justice and freedom to every inhabitant. I told Sikorski that the hopes of the people centered around him, that the desire of the overwhelming majority was that he carry out our aspirations and lead the nation during the difficult years to come. […] When I took leave of Sikorski, he said to me: ‘Young man, you have worked hard in this war. For what you have done you will be decorated with the Virtuti Militari order. The ceremony will take place the day after tomorrow.” J.Karski, Story of a Secret State, London, 2011 pp. 411-412)
E) Group V – Life after the War
- Why didn't Jan Karski return to Poland?
- What was he doing during his stay in Washington D.C. in 1944?
- What did he do after the war?
- Did he have a family?
F) Questions for all the groups:
- Where do we find most of the information about Karski's life and efforts?
- What are the traps and dangers for a researcher?
POLISH ATTITUDES TOWARD JEWS
DURING WORLD WAR II
- To familiarize the students with the German occupier's legislation in the General Government dictating the Jews' situation and regulating their lives;
- For the students to learn the ways in which the Polish Underground State counteracted the annihilation of the Jews;
- For the students to understand the attitudes of Poles toward the Jewish population during the Nazi occupation;
- For the students to identify the range of emotions among the Polish populace and relate it to the students’ own experiences or those of their loved ones;
- To understand the usefulness of psychology in interpreting selected primary sources.
Discussion, group work, elements of drama.
The educational package
The teacher starts by posing a question:
Is it easy to judge historical figures?
The teacher gives an example not necessarily connected to the lesson's topic – such as President Truman's decision to bomb Japan. The teacher presents the problem of moral dilemmas, especially in difficult situations (she/he can utilize psychological knowledge of people's behaviors under long and heavy stress). She/he explains that a valuable and realistic judgment of people's behavior can only be made after analyzing as many facts as possible.
The teacher divides the class into five groups and distributes materials from the educational package:
Definitions of the term "Jew"
Death penalty for leaving the Ghetto
Anonymous denunciation of Jews and the Poles providing them with aid
Bulletin on prevention of blackmail
An account of the Council to Aid Jews, Zegota
Poles rescuing Jews
The students analyze texts and categorize the dangers associated with helping Jews along with the array of Polish attitudes. The teacher introduces the students to a situation in which they are forced to make a decision about their actions under the German occupation of Poland from 1939-45.
The groups draw from the following stories:
You are a multigenerational family consisting of grandparents, parents and four children. A small farm provides for your living. It becomes harder and harder to subsist, because the occupiers have introduced mandatory food delivery for the Third Reich. You are trying to hide at least part of your crop from the German officials. If they found out, you will be sent to a concentration camp. You are well aware that everybody in your village is hiding their crops, and some of them are even taking their illegal produce and slaughter to the city and selling it.
You are a family of Warsaw intelligentsia*: a mother and two sons in their mid-teens. The father, a doctor, is in German captivity and hasn't come back from the POW camp. The Germans evicted you from your city center apartment, because it was where they formed the Jewish ghetto. Now you live in one room in an attic. The mother, who studied German at university, translates various letters and petitions to the occupying authorities, and the younger son works as a waiter. You are all involved in the resistance efforts of the Home Army. The older son, who is serving in the Bureau of Information and Propaganda has a fake “Ausweis,” or worker's card, to avoid being sent to a work camp in the Reich.
You are a multigenerational family from Radom, a smaller city: parents and four children, the youngest two years old, the oldest, eight. The father is working 12 hours a day in an arms plant taken over by the Germans. He gets food ration stamps in return. If it weren't for family in the country, you wouldn't be able to survive. You live in a rented apartment – a small room with a stove.
You are an older married couple from Dębica, a small town. The husband works at the post office, and the wife mends clothes. Your son – an officer, whom you were very proud of - was captured by the Soviets in 1939 and you haven't heard from him in a long time. All of your Jewish neighbors have been deported, along with the owner of the building where you rent your apartment.
You are a multigenerational family from the Polish nobility – grandparents, parents, three children and two unmarried aunts. You have a big estate and farm, where you employ twenty workers. The Germans placed two families who were thrown out of Wielkopolska, a region incorporated into the Third Reich, in your estate. You are in constant cooperation with the Home Army. You often host “cousins” from the city. And while people come to the country sometimes because they need to cure their ailments, these “cousins” often don't need any medical help.
After familiarizing themselves with the stories, the students draw tasks.
In the neighboring house or apartment owned by an elderly couple, you hear a baby crying. You've noticed before that the couple was behaving pretty strangely, coming home with various packages. If you can hear the child, the Volksdeutsch** from the other side of the street can hear it as well. What do you do?
**an ethnically German person living outside the German Reich. They had special rights in Nazi-occupied Poland
It is after police curfew, when a very scraggly, dark-haired and dark-eyed man comes to your door. He asks whether you wouldn't give him some old, warm clothing and a piece of bread, and then he would leave. What do you do?
One of you finds a little girl on the street/road. She is thin and dirty: hunger caused her to emerge from her hiding place. It is getting dark on the otherwise empty street, and you can
hear the footsteps of a German patrol from a distance. What do you do?
A boy comes to your place; he has no place to go. His father was your friend before the war. He's a Jew, but you can't tell by his looks. You might run into problems when Germans start checking his documents. What do you do?
An hour after hearing shots not far away, suddenly a young man knocks on your door. He is pale and he is oddly holding his side with his hand. He asks you to let him in. What do you do?
The teacher asks the students to look at the tasks and then fill out the table. It shouldn't take them much time – a maximum of five minutes.
|Identify the emotions felt by the family in the situation described|
|Justifying the decision|
Based on their presentations, the students expand their previous categorization of attitudes and dangers.
Write an essay: based on the attitudes described during the lesson, describe and evaluate Jan Karski's actions.
“WHAT IS GOING ON IN MĘTÓW?"
- Developing the skills of critical reading, posing research questions, finding and interpreting information.
- Developing the skills of drawing conclusions and formulating historical judgments.
Working with a specific primary source
An historical introduction about the situation of the Polish and Jewish populations during the German occupation.
The teacher distributes the following text.
A letter to the German authorities:
(Note: the original is written in simple language with numerous grammatical and spelling mistakes. There is almost no punctuation. The translation reflects the original).
"Sirs, you do not even know what is going on in Mętów. Stanisław Grzesiak is hiding Wicinski, the one who lives in Głuszczyzna, the one that you want to catch, the one who sold some Jews a rifle. Jan Lawędorski is selling food to some Jews. At Michał Czernic's a Jewish bunch was drinking at Christmas and they remain there now. Elżbieta Kowalczyk is keeping a Mętów Jew in that cabin up north. Please conduct a careful search. The entrance to the cellar is probably next to the stove. Jan Dziachan sold some Jews a rifle, they were there at his place and they beat him up and asked him for the gun and he went with them into the field and gave it to them. Now he is getting these secret publications. The vodka smuggler Władysław Jelemiski is selling Jews food. And his mother-in-law was bragging at her neighbors' about the Mętów Jewess who came to her with 40 kg of scrap meat to hide her, and that is what they are doing now. Teofil Malec is smuggling scrap meat, flour, groats and kielbasa and he takes it to the woods to the groups of Jews. Antoni Stachura took those Jews that were in the fields of Mętów and brought them to the woods in Chmielów and they paid him well for that."
This letter was written by a person from the village of Mętów, Zemborzyce County.
An example of source analysis:
In their answers, the students should only use information from the source, except for question number 5, which should be used as an opportunity to use the knowledge of interpersonal relations stemming from the student's wider, outside experience.
1. What kind of source is this?
2. Who is the author of the letter? Based on the text, give as many details as possible.
3. What is the relationship between the author of the letter and the people he is denouncing (the Poles and the Jews)? List these people. What can we say about them based on the text?
4. List the actions of the people being denounced described in the letter (the Poles and the Jews).
5. What is the motivation of the letter's author? (This question is speculative and does not have a direct answer in the sources.)
6. Describe life in the country during the German occupation.
7. Why did some of the Poles help the Jews? What were their motivations?
The questions above are examples that can be related to the text.
Conclusion: Look for documents in the educational package that show the position of the Polish Underground State regarding the attitudes described in the text.
- Introducing students to information about how the Poles helped the Jews during World War II;
- Introducing different ways of helping the Jews;
- Developing the skills of working with primary sources: critical reading and text analysis
Group work, brainstorming, working with primary sources
Introduction: explain the situation of Poles and Jews in occupied Poland during World War II.
Lead group reflection on the ways that Poles could help. What could they do? Did they help? Brainstorming.
Distribute texts showing different ways that Poles helped Jews. The texts will serve as “confrontation” with the conclusions from the previous discussion.
Draw a diagram together: How did the Poles help the Jews?
An account from Alicja Resich-Modlińska about her grandmother, Franciszka Budziaszek-Resich. Source: Życie za Życie [Life for Life]
, a film by A. Gołębiewski, 2007
My Grandmother was a well-known person in Krakow. She had a great beauty parlor by Grodzka Street. She was once walking down Floriańska Street – and as the legend goes - she turned everybody's heads. She had gorgeous hair, and she was apparently very beautiful. It is important to remember this hair, it was long, blond, platinum blond. When she let it down it came to her feet. She had a big heart. Crowds of poor people would come to her and she would give them money or clothes. When the war came, grandmother turned her heart to the Jews, and she started dying their hair blond, straightening it, dying their eyebrows and eyelashes and whitening their skin. She saved countless people. Unfortunately, as the story goes, because there is no proof, somebody denounced her. She was taken to Ravensbrück, and that is where she died, unfortunately. And what I can also say is that there, in Ravensbrück, they made three beautiful wigs from her hair.
Irena Sendler's account from Ten jest z ojczyzny mojej
[This One Is From My Homeland
] by Bartoszewski and Lewinowna, Warsaw, 2010, p.99
[…] It was in the days when the Nazi torturers were constantly herding the inhabitants of the ghetto on the so-called Umschlagplatz (where the Jews awaited deportation). […] It was then when it became necessary to help bring the biggest number of people to the Aryan side. When it came to the adults, we took advantage of the fact that Jews were escorted to various work sites outside the ghetto.
We would bribe the guards who counted the groups when they passed the gates. Getting the children out was worse [...]. Children were usually brought out through the underground tunnels of the courthouses or the tram junction building in the nearby Muranów district. The children were placed in apartments set up just for this purpose, emergency care and distribution centers where they were given first aid and prepared for life in new, different conditions. ”
An account by Jadwiga Piotrowska from: Ten jest z ojczyzny mojej
[This One Is From My Homeland
] by Bartoszewski and Lewinowna, Warsaw, 2010, pp. 109-109
“I was in Warsaw during the occupation […]. I had an emergency care center in my house. Children rescued from the ghetto would stay in my house for a few days before they were placed somewhere for longer. I remember a little girl who was thrown over the ghetto wall wrapped in a blanket; another one was brought to me in a basket. They sent children pulled out from the sewage tunnels. You had to wash them, dress them and prepare them for life in a new environment. […] Every child that we found out about was, if necessary, placed in an orphanage or with a family. The orphanages, run mostly by convents, would take in any Jewish child without reservations, knowing about all the dangers involved. It could've been a death sentence for an entire convent. And to put up a Jewish child in an orphanage, you had to prepare a fictional community interview, get a fake birth certificate. On this basis you would get a reference necessary to place the child in an institution. The interviews were written by trusted social workers. The fake birth certificates were issued by many Catholic parishes.
Ludwik Rostowski and Tadeusz Stępniewski's account, compiled by Helena Kozłowska from “Ten jest z ojczyzny mojej” [This One Is from My Homeland]
by Bartoszewski and Lewinowna, Warsaw, 2010, pp. 111-112
“Dr. Rostkowski would find out about people of Jewish descent who needed medical help. […] He would get the addresses of the sick people, whom he had to visit with a tentative diagnosis. With the help of his son he would recruit the relevant specialists or nurses necessary to perform the procedures. They went to the patient not only with the standard medical or first aid equipment – stethoscope, syringe and bandages, but also with medication, often some clothing, food and money. There were many house calls. The number would vary from merely a few to tens of visits per month per doctor.”
Hanna Krall, “The Game For My Life”. Hanna Krall's account from Ten jest z ojczyzny mojej
[This One Is From My Homeland
] by Bartoszewski and Lewinowna, Warsaw 2010, pp. 111-112
“They drove us out of our house. I remember that we were standing among helpless and terrified people – my mother was holding my hand and repeating that we couldn’t go where everybody else was going, that it surely wouldn't be good if we went there – but we were still standing among this terrified crowd and screaming Germans, because we didn't know what to do with ourselves. The person who came up to us was Zygmunt Wojtecki. Mr. Zygmunt ran up to us, put us on his horse cart – the horse cart was waiting – and took us to the country. That's how it began. Then there were countless people, apartments, places. There was the Krasnogliny village, a couple with a child, a Christmas tree, a Christmas Eve table – I sat where [according to Polish tradition] you usually leave an empty place for a wandering traveller. There was this apartment where people from the resistance would meet. Actually they shouldn't have kept me there, because they were putting the people who met there in additional danger. Then there was the small, modest apartment of Mrs. Podhorska and her sick daughter. Then there was the short-term hiding place at Mr. Nowak's. I couldn't be there longer because they were hiding someone else. Then there was the luxurious apartment of the Lysakowskis with a front entrance [and a back one] and servant quarters. Then there were the Czapskis. They got my mother a job in their store in Ryki. In Ryki there was Mrs. Lejwoda, a teacher who taught Underground classes. And Mrs. Makowa, who had a dairy and would give us and the nuns from Zyczyn milk and butter. Then she put me in this convent, with the Albertine nuns.
Thanks to the nuns I learned the catechism* and all the prayers by heart. It came in handy when they stopped my mother and me on the street. We spent the night in a jail cell. In the morning the policeman said: “If you don't reference someone who has an unquestionable [non-Jewish] background who can vouch for you, you will immediately go to Szucha Street [the Gestapo headquarters and prison]. My mother, in desperation, without hope, uttered the last name of one of her pre-war neighbors. After half an hour we heard that she came. She was screaming: “What?! My sister a Jew? What insolence! I'll show you! Jadzia! Where are you! I'll show them, to call you a Jew?! I brought your documents. And there they were - her sister's papers. Maria Ostrowska-Ruszczyńska, who lent us her last name and her sister's documents up until the end of the occupation, works currently in the sewing department of the State Clinic on Oczki Street. Then there were other apartments and other people – a long chain of risk, people and places. By rescuing me, they were all risking their lives and the lives of their families. In the game for my life - the stakes were the lives of 45 people.”
Assignment: Research and write down what is the “Righteous Among the Nations” distinction. Who bestows it and what is it for? Find and describe a story of Poles rescuing Jews.