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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Unknown Heroes: Jan Karski and Robert Carter

Last year I wrote about Frank Kameny — a hero of the Civil Rights struggle who does not get the same play in textbooks and classrooms as the familiar pantheon of Montgomery to Memphis stars. I am thinking of making that an irregular feature in this blog — heroes that students and teachers ought to know about, but probably do not. All too often biography for young readers seems to be the province of people who already appear on stamps or coins — the familiar or very familiar. And yet there are so many unknown heroes awaiting discovery.

Judge Carter passed away on Tuesday, ending a long, powerful life of fighting for justice. He was the young lawyer who created the legal argument that won the day in Brown v. Board of Ed. We all know Thurgood Marshall (one of those heroes who has a stamp), but it was Carter — the radical of the NAACP team — who actually deveveloped the case, brought in Dr. Kenneth Clark to demonstrat the results of the dolls test, and eventually won the case. He went on to be a judge and fierce advocate for justice in New York. I grew up with his sons, visiting their apartment to help decorate their Christmas tree, have dinner, go out and play handball against the walls. Mr. Carter (he was not yet a judge) was a presence in the background — sharp, smart, witty, alert. Some high school student interested in law should focus on him, on how he built the case that changed the court, and our history.

A new biography of Jan Karski has been published in Poland, and the review of it in the 11/25 TLS begins this way, “We would all like to imagine that we would have tried to stop the Holocaust. We would have crept into the ghettos to learn the truth, found our way to the Allied cpaitals, and made the case for action….Of the 2 billion or so adults alive during the Second World War, only one achieved all this: the Polish courier Jan Karski.” Many of us know that word of the camps did reach FDR and other Allied leaders. But I, for one, never knew how. Karski was Polish, Catholic, a Socialist in politics and devoted to his country. He was surrounded at every turn, even in his bravest mentors and allies, by anti-Semitism. He was a courier bringing information out from a Poland crushed by both Nazis and Soviets. In one trip he was captured, tortured by the Nazis, and tried to kill himself so that he would not crack. But when he learned of the camps, he made it his personal mission to tell the world. He motivation was a beautiful form of Polish patriotism — he felt a Poland that allowed, or profited from, the murder of the Jews would be ruined, would be grounded in sin. He was fighting for the Jews to save the soul of his nation. He was able to bring concrete word of the camps to world leaders; he was not able to get them to act. Karski survived the war and lived until recently — 2000. For more,

Two heroes — an African American lawyer who changed our nation, a Polish Catholic who did all that was humanly possible, and then some, to try to save the Jews. Certainly there are reports a plenty for our students to write in the life stories of these two men.