The 100th anniversary of Jan Karski’s birth is celebrated with a conference focusing on two main themes: Memory and Responsibility.
The experience of memory is not identical for everyone. What is more, the very concept of memory has many facets. There is individual memory, communal memory, national memory, and even international memory. Sometimes they complement, sometimes contradict each other. Each person, each family, each nation and state cherish their own values and their own memories of the past. The collective memories of simple associations, political factions or parties, as well as of entire nations form a foundation on which common views, ideologies and policies are established.
This collective memory also serves as a necessary instrument in creating social cohesion and inspiring and mobilizing joint action. In democratic countries, collective memory helps to stabilize the nation's legal system, institutions and even its customs. Yet collective memory cannot prevent hostility or even violence towards different ethnic or religious groups. Memory – a particularly delicate part of human experience – can be abused and become a mere instrument or weapon used against "the Other" and history provides many examples of its instrumental use.
Jan Karski was a witness of the extermination of the Jews perpetrated on Polish soil by the German occupiers. But he was more than a witness; all his life he bore the memory of this horrific crime. This young soldier of the Polish Underground was entrusted with the mission of informing the Allied Powers about the realities of the German and Soviet occupation of Poland and the fate of the Jews. He tried to convince the Allies to intervene on behalf of the victims. That defence did not materialize and until the end of his life, Karski carried in his heart the feeling that he had failed. He felt responsible for what had happened or rather had not happened. This is the very core of Karski’s mission and his moral legacy.