Jan Karski came to the United States in 1943 with tales of horrific acts committed in Poland by the Nazis. At the time, no one believed him. Sixty years later, Karski’s credibility is restored and last month, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Frances Staniszewski of Moorestown knows what it took to restore Karski’s credibility. Following the presentation of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the 85-year-old women was honored for her own work translating Polish documents into English that were written by and about Karski. Her work has helped to make sure Karski’s words, though once ignored, will never be forgotten.
A second generation Polish immigrant, Staniszewski is fluent in Polish. She learned the language in Catholic school from nuns who taught their lessons in Polish. Though her parents both knew Polish, they only spoke it at home when Staniszewski’s grandmother came to visit from Poland.
She started translating for the Jan Karski U.S. Centennial Campaign after her daughter volunteered her for the position. It was during the winter and Staniszewski’s husband had just died when her daughter, Fran Herr, thought it would be a good opportunity for her mom.
The Jan Karski U.S. Centennial Campaign needed documents translated for use on websites and in grant proposals and educational curriculum, campaign director Wanda Urbanska said.
Since she had not spoken Polish regularly in some time, Staniszewski said she found some of it “a bit challenging.” But anytime she encountered difficulty, she “picked up a dictionary.”
Her main responsibility has been translating an eight-page brochure about Karski that she expects will be distributed to Polish churches in the U.S.
He was a hard worker, she explained, attending Georgetown University and eventually becoming a professor there, but he was also “a very modest person.”
Urbanska describes Karski as a “hero for humanity,” representing “the best in a human being.” He lived with the “highest integrity” and was well known for his modesty and kindness and would answer every letter he received.
As a member of the Polish Underground, Karski snuck into the Warsaw Ghetto and saw German soldiers hunt Jewish children for sport. “Every moment, his life was on the line,” she explained. He was one of the first people to tell the Western world about the terrible violence in his home country.
Long before beginning her translation work, Stanszewski visited Auschwitz herself during a trip to Poland.
“When I saw the ovens that those people were put into, I cried. It was very sad,” she said.
Stanszewski says her work as a translator enlightened her and she now wonders what other projects she can pursue.
Her daughter says she isn’t surprised by her mother’s will to do something interesting to benefit the greater good at her age.
Her father always knew the arts and pop culture and her mother “kept the youth,” so this is “nothing different than usual” she said.
Staniszewski is “a great example of an older person still trying to make a difference in the world, in the spirit of Jan Karski,” Urbanska said.
Below, you can watch video of the entire Presidential Medal of Freedom Ceremony. Karski is recognized 25 minutes into the ceremony.