Tar Heel of the Week

Tar Heel of the Week: Wanda Urbanska keeps Polish war hero’s story alive

CorrespondentMay 24, 2014 

TARHEEL-NE-052214-TEL

Wanda Urbanska leads the Jan Karski Educational Foundation.

TRAVIS LONG — tlong@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • Wanda Urbanska

    Born: January 1956, South Bend, Ind.

    Residence: Raleigh

    Career: President, Jan Karski Educational Foundation

    Education: B.A., English and American literature, Harvard University

    Family: Son, Henry

    Hobbies: Swimming, gardening

    Fun Fact: While Urbanska’s father was a Polish exile in Mexico when her parents met, Urbanska also has Tar Heel ancestry. Her mother’s family is from Granville County, and her great-grandfather, W.Z. Mitchell, was the mayor of Oxford in the early 20th century.

— Wanda Urbanska might be best-known for hosting a public television show that espoused sustainable living a decade ago, when it was just coming into vogue.

The Raleigh author is still a proponent of gardening, recycling and eschewing waste. But for the past few years, she has turned her considerable zeal toward a different goal – raising the profile of a Polish man’s heroism during World War II.

She started lobbying in 2011 to land a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom for Jan Karski, whose accounts of atrocities in Nazi-occupied Poland played an important historical role and became a best-selling book.

The presidential medal was awarded two years ago. The U.S. Congress voted unanimously to honor Karski in April, on the centennial of his birth.

Now president of the Jan Karski Educational Foundation, Urbanska continues to promote his legacy in other ways: arranging conferences, exhibits and speaking engagements, and leading an effort to share his story with schoolchildren as they study World War II.

Urbanska spoke about Karski at the N.C. Holocaust Commemoration in Raleigh earlier this month.

She hopes his powerful personal story, including disguises and dramatic escapes, will help more people value him and Poland’s little-appreciated role during World War II.

Urbanska’s work has been a boon to Karski’s legacy, says Allen Paul, a local author who has written a book on Polish history. Paul says Urbanska has had “remarkable success” in creating a foundation from scratch.

“Karski is a good model for the whole concept of courage and willingness to help others, which he did at great peril to his own life,” says Paul.

“She’s created this platform to spread the word about what Karski’s life represented and why he’s a model worth studying.”

Karski died in 2000. Ubanska had been drawn to his story decades ago when she first read his book, “Story of a Secret State.”

Polish patriots

Her own father, a few years older than Karski, was also a Catholic who escaped from Nazi-occupied Poland.

Both men were born in a time where Poland did not exist as a country, and they were part of the generation that experienced the country’s reunification after World War I.

“There was this great sense of patriotism as we were getting our nation back,” Urbanska says. “Both of them were shaped by that impulse, and both were separated from Poland because of the war.”

Her father was editor of a shipping magazine who left Poland after being targeted by the Nazis. He landed in Mexico, where he earned his doctorate. He spoke eight languages and went on to teach Spanish at several universities, including the University of Notre Dame.

He also published several books, and Urbanska would follow in his footsteps to become an author. She majored in English at Harvard and went on to work for the Paris Review.

Urbanska was a newspaper reporter in Los Angeles and then started freelancing for magazines. She moved to Raleigh with her husband and stayed here after they divorced.

She has written and co-written eight books on sustainable living, which led to the PBS show “Simple Living with Wanda Urbanska,” which aired nationwide on PBS stations starting in 2004.

The show is considered the nation’s first to focus on sustainable living, now a fairly common theme of enjoying a less cluttered, and more fulfilling life.

Urbanksa says her books came from a lifelong interest in avoiding waste. She was an early adopter of recycling, and she buys used clothes and drives an older car.

“I’ve always had a passion for sustainable living,” Urbanska says. “As a kid, I used to wonder where all the garbage went.”

An instant best-seller

When she was done with the show, she considered writing a book on her own father’s escape from Poland. She thought she might start by exploring her Polish roots and learning the language.

So she moved to Warsaw for six months, where she instead became involved in efforts to promote figures in Polish history, including Karski.

Karski was part of an elaborate underground movement in Nazi-occupied Poland that included its own courts, schools and document-forgery operations. A former diplomat with a near-photographic memory, he gathered firsthand accounts of Nazi atrocities and brought them to the exiled Polish government and the Allies.

He was captured and tortured by the Nazis but escaped from a Polish hospital with the help of his doctor.

Karski took testimony from Jewish Poles living in horrendous conditions, suffering brutal treatment by the Nazis, and being packed into trains on their way to the death camps.

He did his work disguised as a French contract worker. Sympathetic dentists puffed his jaws up with injections so that his Polish accent wouldn’t be detected when he spoke French.

When he finally gave his report to Polish officials in London, they sent him to the United States in 1942 to spread the word.

They hoped to have a movie made, but instead Karski wrote a detailed account of his risky work and the atrocities he encountered. It became an instant best-seller when it was published in 1944.

He went on a speaking tour and was well-received. But he did not support the Soviet-backed government that took over Poland after the war, putting him at odds with American officials and making his return to his homeland dangerous.

So Karski stayed in the United States, where he earned a doctoral degree at Georgetown and became a beloved professor of political science.

His former students, including prominent politicians, helped push for the presidential recognition, Urbanska says.

Urbanksa was hired initially to focus on earning presidential recognition for Karski, an effort that surprisingly took only a year and afforded her two brief meetings with President Barack Obama.

Since then, she has become president of the Karski foundation, which also has offices in Poland. She has worked to have his two books reissued, and to create an exhibition that is traveling the world and will debut in the United States later this year.

A play based on Karski’s life opened last month at Georgetown, and plans are in the works to bring it to other cities here and in Europe.

She’s also working to get Karski’s best-seller into classrooms, offering lectures for teachers and passing out free copies of the book, which is now on the recommended reading list for Chicago’s public schools.

The foundation recently commissioned a comic book version of Karski’s book and helped create lesson plans based on the book. The lessons focus on the way Karski risked his life to speak out for Jewish Poles, even though he was Catholic.

“Time and again he would speak out on behalf of those people who didn’t have their own voices,” says Urbanksa.

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