Reading 29

The Difference between Knowing and Believing

Jan Karski was one of the first people to share eyewitness accounts of ghettos and camps with Allied leaders outside Europe. Karski, a Catholic Pole who had worked for the Polish diplomatic service before the war, was a courier for the Polish resistance. In fall 1942, he was ordered to travel to London and give a report on the situation in occupied Poland to Polish government-in-exile leaders and other high-level officials, including the British foreign minister. Afterward, Karski traveled to the United States, where he met with President Franklin Roosevelt. To prepare his report, Karski met secretly with representatives of two large Jewish organizations. He recalled:

Both men were in despair. They were fully aware that the deportations from the Warsaw ghetto as well as from other ghettos in Poland would lead to the extermination of the Jewish people. . . . They both stressed that unless dramatic, extraordinary measures were immediately put into effect, the entire Jewish people would perish. . . .1

The two men also insisted that Karski should see for himself what was happening to Jews because his own eyewitness acount would make his report more convincing.

As a result, before Karski traveled to London and the United States, he was smuggled into and out of the Warsaw ghetto and the Izbica transit camp. But even his firsthand accounts of what he witnessed there were not able to persuade many of the officials he later met:

It is not true, as sometimes has been written, that I was the first one to present to the West the whole truth of the fate of the Jews in occupied Poland. There were others. . . . The tragedy was that these testimonies were not believed. Not because of ill will, but simply because the facts were beyond the human imagination.

I experienced this myself. When I was in the United States and told [Supreme Court] Justice Felix Frankfurter the story of the Polish Jews, he said, at the end of our conversation, “I cannot believe you.” We were with the Polish ambassador to the U.S., Jan Ciechanowski. Hearing the justice’s comments, he was indignant. “Lieutenant Karski is on an official mission. My government’s authority stands behind him. You cannot say to his face that he is lying.” Frankfurter’s answer was, “I am not saying that he is lying. I only said that I cannot believe him, and there is a difference.”2

Among those who dismissed the reports of German atrocities as war propaganda was W. A. Visser ’t Hooft, a Dutch theologian and the first secretary of the World Council of Churches. He changed his mind only after hearing an eyewitness account.

From that moment onward I had no longer any excuse for shutting my mind to information which could find no place in my view of the world and humanity. And this meant I had to do something about it.

 A considerable number of people in Germany, in occupied countries, in the allied and neutral countries heard stories about mass killings. But the information was ineffective because it seemed too improbable. 3

Visser ’t Hooft believed that “people could find no place in their consciousness for such an unimaginable horror and that they did not have the imagination, together with the courage, to face it. It is possible to live in a twilight between knowing and not knowing. It is possible to refuse full realization of facts because one feels unable to face the implications of these facts.”4


  • 1 : Quoted in Maciej Kozlowski, “The Mission that Failed: A Polish Courier Who Tried to Help the Jews,” in My Brother’s Keeper: Recent Polish Debates on the Holocaust, ed. Antony Polonsky (London: Routledge, 1990), 83.
  • 2 : Quoted in Maciej Kozlowski, “The Mission that Failed: A Polish Courier Who Tried to Help the Jews,” in My Brother’s Keeper: Recent Polish Debates on the Holocaust, ed. Antony Polonsky (London: Routledge, 1990), 87-88.
  • 3 : W. A. Visser ’t Hooft, Memoirs, 2nd ed. (London: World Council of Churches, 1987), 166.
  • 4 : W. A. Visser ’t Hooft, Memoirs, 2nd ed. (London: World Council of Churches, 1987), 165.
  • 5 : “Evil, the Self, and Survival: Conversation with Robert Jay Lifton, M.D., Psychiatrist and Author,” Institute of International Studies, University of California, Berkeley, November 2, 1999, accessed June 19, 2016.

Connection Questions

  1. What does this reading reveal about how leaders reacted to reports of mass killings by the Nazis? How did Frankfurter and Visser ’t Hooft describe their ability to comprehend what was happening? 
  2. What does this reading suggest about some of the barriers to taking action when leaders heard reports of mass killings and death camps? What phrases or sentences from the reading highlight these barriers?
  3. Jan Karski said, “The tragedy was that these testimonies were not believed. Not because of ill will, but simply because the facts were beyond the human imagination.” What is “imagination”? How is the term used in this reading? What is the role of imagination in responding to atrocities like the Holocaust? What is the role of imagination in shaping an individual’s universe of obligation?
  4. Psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton coined the term “psychic numbing” to refer to “a general category of diminished capacity or inclination to feel.” Writing about the “numbing of everyday life,” he explains, “We are bombarded by all kinds of images and influences and we have to fend some of them off if we’re to take in any of them, or to carry through just our ordinary day’s work. . . .”5 What is psychic numbing? Do you find the term useful in connection with this reading? When can it be harmful? 
  5. Think about a time when you may have experienced psychic numbing—when you may have felt numb to disturbing information and images. Why do you think you felt numb to this information? What could have been done, if anything, to get you to pay thoughtful attention to this information? 

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