The Holocaust Messenger Who Confronted FDR

Jan Karski, a Catholic, brought President Roosevelt face to face with the Holocaust with his first-person accounts. (Courtesy of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.)

Jan Karski, a Catholic, brought President Roosevelt face to face with the Holocaust with his first-person accounts.
(Courtesy of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.)

Seventy years ago on July 28, an eyewitness to the Nazi atrocities against Europe’s Jews brought the horrifying news directly to the most powerful man on earth. It was the moment that President Franklin D. Roosevelt came face to face with the Holocaust.

By the time he was 26, Polish underground member Jan Karski had been imprisoned by the Soviets, had been tortured by the Gestapo and had nearly drown while escaping from a hospital in German-occupied Slovakia. After all he suffered, it would have been understandable if Karski had ended his service at that point.

Instead, he chose to risk his life again in order to alert the Free World about Hitler’s mass murder of European Jewry.

Karski, who was Catholic, was smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942, as the Nazis were deporting hundreds of thousands of Warsaw’s Jews to the gas chambers of Treblinka. Walking through the ghetto, he saw corpses piled in the gutter, emaciated children clothed in rags, and dazed men and women slumped against decrepit buildings.

When gunfire suddenly erupted, Karski’s comrades hurried him into a nearby apartment. He watched as two uniformed teenagers with pistols came down the street. “They are here for the ‘Jew hunt,’” Karski was told. Hitler Youth members would amuse themselves by venturing into the Jewish part of the city and by shooting people at random.

Days later, Karski and a compatriot, disguised as Ukrainian militiamen, took a six-hour train ride to a site in southeastern Poland called Izbica. It was a “sorting station.” When Jews were shipped to a death camp, Karski learned, the Germans would first take them to Izbica, rob them of their last belongings and then send them off to the gas chambers.

Determined to tell the world what he had seen, Karski made his way across occupied Belgium, Germany and France, his life in danger every step of the way. Thanks to an injection from a sympathetic dentist that swelled his jaw, Karski was able to avoid conversations that might have revealed his Polish identity. From France, he hiked across the Pyrenees into Spain and then traveled to London.

British officials were chilly. Foreign Minister Anthony Eden showed little interest in Karski’s account of the slaughter of the Jews, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent word that he was too busy to meet the Polish courier at all. Karski headed for Washington. On July 28, 1943, he met with President Roosevelt in the Oval Office for more than an hour.

Karski began by describing the activities of the Polish underground. The president listened with fascination, asked questions and offered unsolicited advice, some of it a bit eccentric—such as his idea of putting skis on small airplanes to fly underground messengers between England and Poland during the winter.

Then Karski turned to the plight of the Jews.

This was not the first time FDR heard about the mass murder of Eur-ope’s Jews. For nearly a year, detailed reports about the killings had been reaching the White House. In fact, when American Jewish leaders had their very first meeting with the president on this subject, in December 1942, FDR told them he was already “well acquainted” with the massacres they described. But the meeting with Karski was the first time President Roosevelt encountered an actual eyewitness to the killings.

Despite Karski’s harrowing first-person account of the atrocities, the president was not moved. FDR was, as Karski politely described it, “rather noncommittal.”

Roosevelt viewed the suffering of the Jews as just another unfortunate aspect of what civilians suffer in every war. He did not believe it was justified for the U.S. to use any resources to rescue Jews from the Nazis. Nor did he want to have to deal with large numbers of rescued Jewish refugees, clamoring to be admitted to the United States.

Ironically, though, just six weeks earlier, the Roosevelt administration had established a U.S. government commission “for the protection and salvage of artistic and historic monuments in Europe.”

As he rose to leave the Oval Office, Karski asked the president if there was any message he wanted to send to those suffering under the Nazi jackboot. The president leaned back, his trademark cigarette holder balanced in one hand, and said, “Tell them we shall win this war!”

Despite President Roosevelt’s lack of interest in the fate of the Jews, Karski did not lose heart. In the months to follow, he authored a harrowing book-length account of the situation in Hitler’s Europe, called “Story of a Secret State,” and delivered hundreds of lectures throughout the United States about his experiences.

The story of Karski’s efforts to alert the world about the Holocaust has begun to gain public attention, especially in schools. It was included in a recent series of animated shorts about America’s response to the Holocaust (www.They SpokeOut.com), created by The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and Disney Educational Productions. And at a White House ceremony earlier this year, Karski was posthumously awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom. It was a fitting tribute to a man whose life symbolized the need to speak out when — as President Barack Obama recently put it —”so many others stood silent.”

See accompanying article, Rethinking Roosevelt

Rafael Medoff, Ph.D., is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington, D.C. His latest book is “FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith.”

Merci, Dr. Berci

The work of Dr. George Berci (center) resulted in the high level of technology that is now available for the performance of a variety of  endoscopic and laparoscopic surgical procedures. (Provided)

The work of Dr. George Berci (center) resulted in the high level of technology that is now available for the performance of a variety of endoscopic and laparoscopic surgical procedures. (Provided)

When he was asked to write and direct a documentary about the accomplishments of Dr. George Berci, L. Michael Brunt, a professor of surgery at Washington University in St. Louis, knew Dr. Berci was a remarkable man. But it was only once he began to delve into the then-90-year-old surgeon’s life and the details of his medical career that he realized just how remarkable.

“I have known George for 20 years, but until I began working on the film, I really didn’t know about his history, and I didn’t fully appreciate the extent of his contributions,” said Brunt. “We wouldn’t be where we are today without his contributions.”

“George Berci: Trials, Triumphs, Innovations” was commissioned by SAGES (Society of American Gastrointestinal Endoscopic Surgeons) and the SAGES Foundation in 2012, shortly after Dr. Berci received the prestigious 2011 Jacobson Innovation Award “in recognition of his pioneering contributions to the art and science of endoscopy and laparoscopy for more than 50 years.” The film features archival footage, interviews with Dr. Berci and his wife, Barbara, and many surgeons whose work has been impacted by the doctor’s innovations.

According to the American College of Surgeons, Dr. Berci’s work has included the development — or promoted the development — of advances in optics, illumination, television application, instrumentation, operative radiology and anesthesiology, resulting in the high level of technology that is available for the performance of a variety of endoscopic and laparoscopic surgical procedures.

In other words, the technological innovations Dr. Berci brought to the surgical community, enabled patients to have knee, abdominal, gynecological, urological and respiratory procedures without “going under the knife,” resulting in less pain, less blood loss and shorter hospital stays and recovery times.

As Brunt’s film illustrates, Dr. Berci’s accomplishments aren’t limited to his distinguished medical achievements. In conversations with Dr. Berci and his wife, the screenwriter/director learned about Dr. Berci’s early life and the challenges and hardships he faced at the hands of the Nazis.

Different And Isolated
Dr. Berci was born in Szeged, Hungary in 1921. At 2, his family moved to Vienna, where his father was hired as assistant conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic Symphony. Dr. Berci began studying the violin by age 3 or 4, and he quickly showed signs of giftedness. Music, said Dr. Berci, was his first love.

“When I started high school in Vienna, I had a little group of friends; I played soccer,” Dr. Berci recalled. “But I knew what was going on from the newspapers. Suddenly, I had to sit in the back of the bus. From one day to the next, I lost my friends. I was 13 years old, and I had this problem. We were different and isolated.”
By 1936, growing anti-Semitism in Austria drew the family back to Hungary. Yet, when they returned, the Bercis found that anti-Semitism was also increasing in Hungary. Unable to enroll in a public high school because of his religion, Dr. Berci managed to gain acceptance to a private Jewish high school. He washed cars to pay tuition.
“I came from a poor family, and that made an impact on my mentality,” Dr. Berci said. “We were poor because of the political situation. Fortunately, the younger generation today doesn’t know what it is to be hungry. These are the aspects that have formed my personality.”

Dr. Berci graduated from high school in 1939. He wanted to go to medical school but was not admitted due to the university’s restrictions on Jews. Instead, Dr. Berci obtained a position as an apprentice in an electrical shop. After a year, he began working as a mechanical engineer. The skills he acquired during those years would serve him well in his medical career.

In 1940, Dr. Berci’s uncle was conscripted to a labor camp in Eastern Europe. The doctor believes he was killed there and buried in a mass grave near Kiev. In 1942, Dr. Berci himself was sent to a labor camp. Conditions were bitterly cold, and food and medical services were scarce. The doctor watched many of his fellow unit members die from illness or by murder. Two years later, Dr. Berci and the remaining members of his unit were sent to Poland, where they were forced to unload explosives for the Germans.

In 1944, with Russian soldiers closing in and the war near its end, the Germans determined the Jewish laborers’ services were no longer needed. Dr. Berci and the other Jewish workers were transported back to Budapest and put on trains headed for Auschwitz and Birkenau.

As it turned out, a mechanical failure forced the Germans to leave Dr. Berci’s train car behind. In June, 1944, during an American air raid over Budapest, the guards for the doctor’s unit disappeared. He and the other passengers in his car escaped.
“The first thing I did was remove my yellow armband,” Dr. Berci recalled.
Soon after, Dr. Berci was unexpectedly reunited with his mother. During that period, he also joined the Hungarian Underground.

“At that time, life wasn’t worth a penny. We had seen so many friends killed, we became very fatalistic,” he said.

In January 1945, the Russians liberated Budapest.

In the years following the end of the war, Dr. Berci and others in Eastern Europe were disappointed to find that not much was changing. Although they were free from the Nazis, the Russians, they soon discovered, were also dictators. In Budapest, and throughout Europe, people were starving.

Despite the grim political situation, Dr. Berci had hopes of studying music at the academy in Budapest.

“I wanted to become a conductor, but I had a Jewish mother; she decided I would be a doctor,” said Dr. Berci with a laugh.

Dr. Berci attended medical school at the University of Szeged, receiving his degree in 1950. He began his surgical residency, but his tenure was cut short when he was falsely accused of communist activities. When it was proven that the charges were untrue, Dr. Berci was hired for another position through which he helped to establish an experimental surgery division at the Department of Surgery, Postgraduate Medical School in Budapest. He was there when the Hungarian Revolution began, and he and fellow physicians treated hundreds of severely wounded protesters.

“It is a terrible memory. It was clear — I had to leave Hungary,” he said.

As the revolution raged, Dr. Berci escaped Hungary and traveled to Vienna, where he was awarded a postdoctoral Rockefeller Foundation fellowship.

In 1957, Dr. Berci immigrated to Australia. He spoke no English, had no job and was armed only with an award letter from the Rockefeller Foundation.  Purely by chance, Dr. Berci met a fellow Hungarian who brought him to the University of Melbourne, where professor Maurice Ewing hired him as a lab technician.

“In Australia, they were nice, but I was a foreigner; they call us ‘bloody foreigners.’ It was a British colony at the time, and they had a white-race policy,” Dr. Berci said. “It was a difficult couple of years. I had the fellowship, and they gave me six months to get established.”

Although he didn’t feel quite at home in Melbourne, Dr. Berci’s career took off. His studies at the University of Melbourne marked the beginning of his pioneering work in endoscopy. While on staff at the University of Melbourne, Dr. Berci traveled to London, where he met professor Harold Hopkins, a well-known physicist and professor of applied optics. Dr. Berci helped to launch the Hopkins rod-lens system for the transmission of images to improve the quality of endoscopic imaging.

In 1967, Dr. Berci was invited to be a visiting scientist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. In 1969, he and his research group at Cedars-Sinai introduced modern surgical endoscopy for use in various disciplines and established a new methodology for improved patient care. Dr. Berci joined the surgical staff at Cedars-Sinai in 1970.

Although retired from surgical practice, Dr. Berci, the hospital’s senior
director of the Endoscopic Research Laboratory, continues to teach, write and research. A renowned lecturer, he has led hundreds of seminars, courses, training sessions, conferences, teleconferences and meetings.  He has written 12 books, more than 200 scientific papers, 76 book chapters and has produced nearly 42 teaching films.

Dr. Berci was a founding member of the International Biliary Association and is a past president of SAGES. Additionally, his professional accomplishments inspired the creation of the SAGES George Berci Lifetime Achievement Award in Endoscopic Surgery.

“Dr. Berci’s resourcefulness in overcoming the many trials in his life is truly unique,” said Brunt. “And it would have been easy enough just to be a surgeon, but he’s also incredibly warm; he has a wonderful sense of humor. He’s still involved. He goes to work every day. This film will ensure the story and legacy will be there for future generations and for the surgical community.”

As for Dr. Berci, 92, he believes he has spent the last 50 years just doing his duty.
“If you are a doctor and you have something that can help, you must share it,” he said. “I was not into making money; I was above water, bringing up my kids and teaching. I was the guy who discharged a patient and then called him at home. Caring about patients is No. 1.”

Despite his harrowing war experiences, Dr. Berci said he hasn’t lost faith.
“I understand the other side [why others may have lost faith] though,” he admitted. “When you see your friends shot …”

Dr. Berci and his wife are active in their synagogue and in the Jewish community. He cautions others not to forget what Holocaust victims experienced.

“Try to explain to future generations those catastrophic events. Try to create a mentality so this can be avoided in the future,” he said.

Simone Ellin is JT senior features reporter sellin@jewishtimes.com

What If The Nazis Had Tweeted?

062113_Nazis_TweetedWhat could Goebbels have done with 140 characters?

The question, disturbing as it might sound, can no longer be approached only as theoretical.

As the archpropagandist of Nazism, Joseph Goebbels spread the demonic messages of his Fuehrer via the written word, mass demonstrations, radio and film. He used those avenues to near perfection, promoting what perhaps was the most evil publicity campaign in the history of humankind.

Some eight decades later, the tools are different, but the motivations are the same. In the place of vitriol-filled radio broadcasts and Berlin stadia filled to capacity with saluting Nazis, the resources employed today by bigots are increasingly the Internet and social media. Undoubtedly the #HeilHitler hashtag, if launched in 1933, would have had followers in the many millions, likely surpassing even the numbers of the most revered celebrities who employ resources such as Twitter.

With all the tremendous good it does, and the hundreds of millions of people it entertains, inspires and educates daily, at its core the Internet is the most capable propaganda tool ever invented.

The online community is both largely uncensored and without any natural borders or limits — a combination that makes it so effective and so dangerous. With the same speed it takes to reach millions with videos of laughing babies or talented Korean dancers, hate-filled messages pour into the world’s social media feeds and email inboxes.

The reality in the online war against hate is that our enemies are smarter than any anti-Semitic forces we have ever seen. They understand the power of the Internet and embrace the protections under law it offers.

Today’s most effective anti-Semites are not the flag-waving, storm-trooping skinheads of yesteryear. While those forces still exist, their reach pales in comparison to the computer users who are able to spill their messages of hate to millions of people around the globe in a matter of minutes.

The peace-loving forces within the international community are therefore faced with a daunting challenge — yet it is not insurmountable.

First, we need to recognize the scope of the problem. Online hate is difficult to impossible to quantify. While perhaps we can try to count the number of problematic websites, there is no real way to know how many people those sites reach. All the more so with social media, where the trail of content can split into literally thousands of directions in minutes. The scope of the problem is unprecedented and enormous and thus deserving of massive resources and international cooperation.

Second, and perhaps more fundamental, the world must change its mindset for what deserves protection within the online community.

Most often, when people speak about the Internet and the world of social media, terms bandied about are “marketplace of ideas” or “common ground for expression” or similar terminology professing that users should be allowed to disseminate whatever ideas come into their minds at a given time. This position is defended by those who advocate that freedom of expression should be interpreted literally to allow people to express whatever they feel, regardless of how inflammatory or incendiary it might be. This must be rethought.

Freedom of expression indeed means that people’s right to free speech must be protected. But the protection should never be extended to expressions that come at the physical expense of the other.

Without entering into legal discourse that is far too complex for this forum, there is no disputing that hate speech on the Internet and in social media has the very real potential to inspire acts of violence. This has been proven countless times since the advent of the Internet and is realized every day through the examples of young and impressionable people who turn to the Web for inspiration for all sorts of devious ideologies and beliefs.

In order for the Internet to sustain its openness, all responsible parties must commit to guarding against the use of online hate mongering.

This new medium is so different from anything faced previously by the civilized world that it requires re-evaluated understandings of what is and is not acceptable. It will be a challenging process and requires an underlying commitment to protect the interests of all viewpoints while rooting out those messages that cross the fine line between valid speech and dangerous incitement.

The success of this effort will require the participation and involvement of the relevant commercial players who allow the Internet to flourish, along with national governments and international law enforcement. It will not be achieved overnight.
If the past has taught us anything, however, it is that the stakes are far too high to do nothing. This time the world must be sure to respond.

Gideon Behar is the director of the Department for Combatting Anti-Semitism of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs and chaired the Global Forum for Combatting Anti-Semitism (May 28-30 in Jerusalem). This column was originally written for the JTA Wire Service.

‘Jews Are Still At Risk’

Federal officials and  representatives from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial  Museum in Washington,  D.C., have announced  the seizure of a long-lost diary kept by a close  confidant of Adolph Hitler, Alfred Rosenberg. (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

Federal officials and representatives from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., have announced the seizure of a long-lost diary kept by a close confidant of Adolph Hitler, Alfred Rosenberg. (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

Late last week, federal officials, along with representatives of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington formally announced at a news conference the seizure of the long-lost “Rosenberg Diary.” The book, which had gone missing following the Nuremberg Trials in the late 1940s, is a loose collection of the recollections — from spring 1936 to winter 1944 — of Alfred Rosenberg, one of the most influential and important members of the Third Reich and the Nazi Party.

According to a release by the Department of Homeland Security, Rosenberg was privy to much of the planning for the Nazi racial state, the mass murder of the Jewish people, the planning and conduct of World War II and the occupation of Soviet Territory. Rosenberg was one of a dozen senior Nazi officials executed in October 1946.

“We can already see that the Rosenberg diary is no ordinary diary. It is a varnished account of a Nazi leader — his thoughts … interactions with other Nazi leaders,” said John Morton, director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in a video statement. “Reading Rosenberg’s diary is to stare into the mind of a dark soul, a man untroubled by the isolation and violent extermination of Jews and others he considered undesirable, a man consumed with racial and ethnic superiority.”

Preliminary reports by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum indicate that the diary could offer new insight into meetings Rosenberg had with Hitler, and his top leaders such as Heinrich Himmler and Herman Goering. In addition to conducting the Nazi Party’s foreign affairs department and editing the Nazi newspaper, Rosenberg directed the systematic Nazi looting of Jewish art, cultural and religious property.

062113_jews_at_risk2Holocaust survivor Edith Cord, 85, who currently resides in Columbia, just learned about the rediscovery of the diary. She told the JT she was only vaguely familiar with this piece of news, but anytime another artifact or event surrounding or reminiscent of the Holocaust surfaces, “it brings it all back and that is very painful.”

However, she said Jews — and the rest of the world — should take this time to focus on the lessons of the Holocaust. She said, “The world has not learned anything, and the Jews are still at risk.”

Cord came down on the American government in particular, describing the current administration as acting weak in the face of transgressions and wrongdoings.

“When you are the biggest and most powerful country in the world, you need to speak out and support forces of freedom and our president has not done that,” Cord stressed. “Americans — even American Jews — don’t seem to recognize that.”
Cord equated current administration policies with Iran and Syria to children in the playground. She said America “needs to stand up to the bullies in the playground. You have to stand up to them. Otherwise, today it is your dessert, tomorrow your lunch, then your lunch money, then your school bag. It is so painful to see our government not stand up to bullies.”

Cord called on the younger generation to wake up. As more of Rosenberg’s story comes to light, she said she hopes it will make people more “alert and awake.”

“People need to understand what our obligation is: As free people, we have to protect freedom,” Cord said.

Morton said that as survivors like Cord age and pass on, there will be fewer first-hand testimonies of the atrocities of the Shoah. He said that is what makes the Rosenberg diary so significant.

“Sixty-eight years have passed since the fall of Berlin and soon there will be no more human testimony of what happened during the Holocaust — and just as importantly, of how it happened,” Morton said. “So it is important to preserve all written records from this time period.”

The 400 pages of the diary were discovered by the Holocaust Museum and an agent from Homeland Security Investigations in the home of academic Herbert Richardson, who was living near Buffalo, N.Y. The Holocaust Museum has conducted only a preliminary analysis of the piece, and more information will become available in the coming weeks.
“The Third Reich and the Holocaust were a shameful chapter in our human experience,” said Morton. “We must do our part to remember that suffering and to learn from it so our children’s future charts a better course.”

Maayan Jaffe is JT managing editor mjaffe@jewishtimes.com

Long-lost Nazi Diary Recovered In Upstate N.Y. Home

A lost journal of Nazi official Alfred Rosenberg was recovered in a home in upstate New York.

The journal, with more than 400 pages of details on the Third Reich’s policy from 1936 to 1944, includes accounts of meetings with Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler and Herman Goering, Reuters reported.

Lost after the Nuremberg war crime trials, it turned up in the papers of a former secretary to a Nuremberg prosecutor who was living near Buffalo.
[Read more…]