Thank you, Ambassador Grudzinski [Polish Ambassador to the United States]. It is an honor for me to be here.
Just four months ago, I was fortunate to visit Warsaw—my own father’s birthplace. It was a beautiful fall day, and a vivid sun shone on Poland—at peace, whole and free.
I was fortunate on that occasion to be able to visit Jan Nowak in his apartment in Warsaw, close to the place where he’d lived as a young man. The room’s large windows seemed to invite in the brilliance of the early morning sun. The sunlight filled every corner and brought out the colors of the fresh-cut roses that were spread in vases and vases all around the room. Jan Nowak’s apartment was elegantly simple—almost spare—yet it seemed to overflow with life and optimism and joy. It called to mind the passage with which Jan Nowak closed his account of his World War II experiences. In 1982, with Poland still under the Soviet yoke, Jan Nowak wrote that, “One day, the sun will shine on crowds of singing and dancing people drunk with joy in the streets of Warsaw. The free soul of Poland will survive until that day.”
Despite his age and physical frailty, a powerful vitality seemed to radiate from the man who smiled so kindly and welcomed us so warmly. Jan Nowak’s humility was also evident. It was an honor for us to be able to meet with this heroic Polish patriot who had accomplished so much for Poland and for America, but he acted as though the honor were his.
I told him of laying wreaths at the memorials to the Warsaw uprising of 1944 and to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943. His agile mind crossed the vista of years and recalled painful memories: of the ghetto being walled off from the rest of the city … how every day he would pass by on the streetcar and see bodies of victims of disease or starvation lying on the ground, covered only with newspapers, because there was nothing else to cover them.
An average of 3,000 Poles were killed each day during the 1944 uprising. For Warsaw, it was like the devastation at the World Trade Center each day for 63 days, ultimately claiming the lives of some 200,000 Poles who had been led to believe that the Soviet Army would come and help them. Jan Nowak had been through all of that. And yet he told us how much luckier he had been compared to Polish Jews who had no chance of surviving at all … for whom resistance was utterly hopeless … and who resisted nevertheless.
Jan Nowak also spoke about his trips to the West, his secret meetings with Britain’s top leaders, including Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, to whom he reported in detail about the ongoing extermination of Poland’s Jews. Yet after the war, when he was able to examine the minutes of those meetings, he found no mention of the Jews. I asked him why, and he said, “Wartime convenience.”
We spoke of the similar reactions to Bosnia and Rwanda and Kovoso and Iraq … how inconvenient it has been in more recent times for some governments to recognize genocide and crimes against humanity … despite the evidence and testimony in front of them.
We also spoke about how much the world had changed for the better in his lifetime. How Jan Nowak had lived to see a free Poland, a country that stood for freedom, whose brave soldiers at that very hour were once again working and fighting side by side with American allies to bring freedom to Afghanistan and Iraq, nations whose people had been denied freedom for so long.
Jan Nowak’s tireless devotion to Poland’s security didn’t end when Poland was finally free. What would have been the triumph of a lifetime for others, not surprisingly, wasn’t enough for Jan Nowak. In his eighties, he championed what he called his “last objective and mission”—to see Poland join the ranks of NATO.
There were some who said it would be dangerous and destabilizing to welcome the newly-free countries of Central Europe into NATO. But Jan Nowak understood that doing so would remove, as he once put it, the danger that they could ever be subjugated again. Nowak said, “I would like to end my life with the feeling that [such subjugation] will never happen again.”
Yet, even then, the Courier from Warsaw proved indefatigable and showed that his mission would never really end. When Poland became a member of NATO, Jan Nowak began to campaign for its admission to the EU. And he also continued to write and speak out for many others who were oppressed by tyranny. In 1999, he urged “ordinary people” to provide assistance to the suffering souls in Kosovo. “I remember that Jewish victims were acutely aware of the world’s indifference to their tragic fate,” he wrote. “Their feeling of abandonment in the moral sense made their suffering even worse.”
In a much larger sense, Jan Nowak was a voice for the oppressed wherever they were. He was a champion for democracy and freedom wherever it could grow.
Jan Nowak knew the joy of people who were able to taste freedom after long struggle.
Last week, I was privileged to represent the United States at the UN for a commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps. In my remarks to the General Assembly, I mentioned the passing of Jan Nowak, a man who was not Jewish, but who risked his life to bring to the West proof of the Holocaust—only to be met with indifference.
I told the Assembly about his theory of “wartime convenience.” Despite our fervent promises never to forget, I said, we know there have been far too many occasions in the six decades since the liberation of the death camps when the world ignored inconvenient truths so that it would not have to act, or acted too late.
Jan Nowak was a courier of truth. When we met him in Warsaw, we knew we were in the presence of a man who radiated optimism and peace. Perhaps this stemmed from his life’s experience: after living through so much tragedy, he’d lived to see the triumph of miraculous change—change he’d fought so hard to bring about. His joy seemed a reflection of a life well lived and a powerful sign to us all that we were in the presence of a truly extraordinary human being.
As he remembered the day in late 1944 when he and his wife Greta were leaving Warsaw on their last mission to the west, Jan Nowak wrote these words: “We had started on a difficult and very long road, uncertain whether we would ever see Warsaw again, but wherever fate should cast our bodies, our hearts would always remain in this city.”
Jan Nowak’s journey is complete at last. But his example and his witness remain as a legacy for millions the world over who seek the light of liberty.
We may ask God, to whom this humble courier appealed so often during difficult and dangerous times, and who blessed Jan Nowak with so many safe passages: “Give him eternal rest, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine on him.”