By Francesca Hagadus
When I left the exhibit “One Man Who Tried to Stop the Holocaust” describing the courage of Jan Karski, I couldn’t help but be struck by how much of my life I owed to him.
The exhibit, sponsored by the Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center, ran in November and early December at the Iona College Art Center. It illustrates the life of Jan Karski with period photos, and is supported by exhibits of haunting art by Sheila Kimmelman and political cartoons lampooning Roosevelt for ignoring Karski’s warning and pleas for help to stop the Nazi genocide plan.
Karski was born in Lodz (pronounced WOULDGE), Poland in 1914. My mother, Maria Rozenberg (Hagadus) was born 13 years later, also in Lodz, a multi-cultural city with a population of one-third Polish Catholic, one third Jewish and the last third German and Russian citizens. My mother attended the Ursuline Academy, run by the Ursuline order of nuns, along with other Jewish girls. When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, he overtook Lodz a few weeks later on Sept. 14.
My mother, at 12 years of age was no longer allowed to attend school. My grandfather owned and operated a textile factory, one of the main industries in Lodz. Sometime after the occupation, my grandparents were “taken away,” as my mother put it. She never elaborated. However, she had Catholic identity papers issued by the Polish Underground State of which Jan Karski was a key figure. He had infiltrated ghettos and concentration camps at great personal risk. He pleadingly reported to Franklin D. Roosevelt the dire situation of the Jews in Poland. He was ignored.
My mother, by then 15 years old, used her identity papers to hide in plain sight. She made her way to Germany as a displaced person, to France, and finally to the United States. She married my American father, Ronald Hagadus, in 1950 and lived in Westchester County until her death in 2014. As a fellow citizen of Lodz, my mother went with my father to New York to meet Jan Karski at the hotel where he lived and had written his memoirs, Story of a Secret State, published in 1944.
My mother considered herself both a Pole and an American. She and my father became trustees of the Kosciuszko Foundation in New York City. An artist in her own right, she exhibited her work worldwide, and promoted young Polish artists.
The profits from her exhibits were used to organize food and medicine to be sent to Poland during the Solidarity movement. She very much reflected the multi-cultural city into which she and Jan Karski had been born.
Jan Karski received his Ph.D. from Georgetown University in 1952, where he taught Eastern European Studies in the School of Foreign Service until his retirement in 1992. I began my university studies at Georgetown in 1971, receiving my B.S. and M.A. in Foreign Languages and Russian Studies, in 1975 and 1977. Students fought to register for Karski’s classes.
Upon his death in 2012, Georgetown University Press reissued Story of a Secret State. A bench with a lifelike seated figure of Jan Karski was erected on the Georgetown campus so that students could continue to be seated with Professor Karski.
Jan Karski was not able to stop the Holocaust. Nevertheless, his tireless, often terrifying effort with the Polish Underground State allowed my mother to survive, flourish and raise her children to embrace education, freedom, service and tolerance.
Francesca Hagadus recently retired after 32 years of teaching French and Spanish at the Robert E. Bell School and at Horace Greeley High School. In her early years of teaching, she led numerous tours to France and Spain with her 8th grade students. She continues to travel as much as possible. She currently hosts international students studying English at EF Language School in Tarrytown, and teaches English online to EF students. She has numerous free-lance jobs involving both French and Spanish. She is an avid skier with the Swiss Ski Club of New York, and a frequent visitor to MOMA. She lives in Pleasantville with her two sons, Timothy and Thomas.