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Jan Karski

(1914 - 2000)


Jan Karski was a Polish World War II resistance movement fighter and later a university professor.

He was born on April 24, 1914, in Lodz, Poland, the youngest of eight children in a Roman Catholic family. He received a master’s degree in Law and Diplomatic Science at the University of Lwow in 1935 and then served in various diplomatic posts in Germany, Switzerland, and Great Britain between 1936 and 1938.

At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, he became a POW of the Red Army. Two months later he escaped and returned to occupied Poland, joining the Underground Polish Army. As a member of the Polish underground resistance movement in World War II, Karski repeatedly crossed enemy lines to act as a courier between his occupied nation and the West. During a mission in July 1940, he was arrested by the Gestapo in the Tatra Mountains in Slovakia. He attempted suicide after being tortured and was transported to a hospital in Nowy S?cz. He was smuggled out of the infirmary and returned to his mission of smuggling information out of Poland to the Polish Government in Exile, first in France and later in England.

Karski was smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto twice in 1942 by the Jewish underground to witness the horrendous conditions and report to the outside world. He recounted in the documentary Shoah:

My job was just to walk. And observe. And remember. The odor. The children. Dirty. Lying. I saw a man standing with blank eyes. I asked the guide: what is he doing? The guide whispered: “He’s just dying.” I remember degradation, starvation and dead bodies lying on the street. We were walking the streets and my guide kept repeating: “Look at it, remember, remember.” And I did remember. The dirty streets. The stench. Everywhere. Suffocating. Nervousness. Tention. Then something horrible happened. Two boys from Hitlerjugend were walking around, laughing joyfully. One of them took the gun from his pocket and started shooting. Window glass broken. A voice: “Aaa!.” It was not part of this world. It was not part of humanity. I was not a part of it. I was told that these are human beings. They didn’t look like human beings. Then my guide said: “We might be able to arrange your visit to a death camp.

Karski also went to Izbica, a  transit ghetto for Jews being sent to the Belzec. Disguised as a guard, he saw thousands of Jews being crammed into cattle cars.

Starting in 1940, Karski reported to the Polish, British, and U.S. governments on the situation in Poland, especially on the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Nazi extermination of Polish Jews. He smuggled out of Poland microfilm with further information from the underground movement on the extermination of European Jews in German-occupied Poland. 

In November 1942, he delivered an impassioned plea on behalf of Poland’s Jews to top Allied officials in London, including British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden who would not allow him to meet with Prime Minister Winston Churchill. On July 28, 1943, in a lengthy White House meeting, he told President Franklin D. Roosevelt about the extermination of the Jews of Europe. He also met Suprem Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. Later, he described the interaction:

After 20 minutes I told him all I saw. He was interested only in what happened to Jews. After 20-25 minutes, a moment of silence, I remember every word — “Mr. Karski, a man like me talking to a man like you, I want to be totally frank — I am unable to believe you.” My ambassador said, “Felix, you don’t mean it. You cannot say such a thing. You cannot call him a liar.” “I did not say he is lying. I am just unable to believe what he told me.”

Jan Karski — a young, Roman Catholic Pole — tried to stop the Holocaust.

His mission failed.

After World War II, he came to the United States and, in 1952, he received his Ph.D. from Georgetown University. Two years later, he became a U.S. citizen. After receiving his doctorate, Karski taught at Georgetown for 40 years, focusing on East European affairs, comparative government, and international affairs. He also went on numerous international lecture tours, sponsored by the State Department, and testified before Congress on numerous occasions about Eastern Europe. He received honorary doctorates from Georgetown University, Oregon State University, Baltimore Hebrew College, Hebrew College of America, Warsaw University, Marie Curie-Sklodowska University, and Lodz University. In 2002, a monument of Karski was unveiled at Georgetown University.

Karski did not speak publicly about his wartime mission until 1981, when he was invited by Elie Wiesel to serve as keynote speaker at the International Liberators Conference in Washington, D.C. Shoah was released in 1985 with 40 minutes of testimony by Karski.

In an interview with  Hannah Rosen in 1995, Karski said:

It was easy for the Nazis to kill Jews because they did it. The allies considered it impossible and too costly to rescue the Jews because they didn’t do it. The Jews were abandoned by all governments, church hierarchies, and societies, but thousands of Jews survived because thousands of individuals in Poland, France, Belgium, Denmark, Holland helped to save Jews. Now, every government and church says, “We tried to help the Jews,” because they are ashamed, they want to keep their reputations. They didn’t help, because six million Jews perished, but those in the government, in the churches they survived. No one did enough.

Karski was made an honorary citizen of Israel in 1994. He said, “This is the proudest and the most meaningful day in my life. Through the honorary citizenship of the State of Israel, I have reached the spiritual source of my Christian faith. In a way, I also became a part of the Jewish community… And now I, Jan Karski, by birth Jan Kozielewski – a Pole, an American, a Catholic – have also become an Israeli.”

In 1982, Yad Vashem recognized Karski as one of the Righteous Among the Nations even though he did not save any Jews. He was honored “because he had risked his life in order to alert the world to the murder” and “incurred enormous risk in penetrating into the Warsaw ghetto and a camp.” His contribution was recognized as exceptional. “While other rescuers had taken the difficult decision to leave the side of the bystanders, not to remain silent and to stand up and act, Karski, after he reached the West, brought this dilemma to the doorstep of the free world’s leaders.” A tree was planted bearing his name in Yad Vashem’s Valley of the Righteous Among the Nations.

Karski died on July 13, 2000.

In 2012, the Polish Senate posthumously honored Karski as a World War II hero for working to reveal details of the Nazi genocide in Poland. U.S. President Barack Obama posthumously honored Karski with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made especially laudable contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.

Karski wrote the book, Story of a Secret State, in 1944. Later, he wrote, Shoah, a Biased Vision of the Holocaust (1987) and The Great Powers and Poland, 1919-1945: From Versailles to Yalta.

A one-person play based on Karski’s life, Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski, has been performed around the country by acclaimed actor David Strathairn. The play was filmed for release in 2022.

In 1965, Karski married Pola Nirenska, a Polish Jewish dancer whom he had first seen perform in London in 1938. She committed suicide in 1992.

Sources: The Life of Jan Karski
Portions excerpted from an article that originally appeared in The Tennessean by E. Thomas Wood. See the book, Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust, by Wood and Stanislaw M. Jankowski.
Jan Karski: A Hero of the Holocaust.
Jan Karski honored in Poland for WWII resistance work, JTA, (February 16, 2012).
President Obama Announces Jan Karski as a Recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, The White House, (April 23, 2012).
Jan Karski Educational Foundation.
“Jan Karski?: witness to the Holocaust,” Europeana, (January 24, 2019).
“Interview with Jan Karski,” Hannah Rosen Diary Interviews, (February 9, 1995).
“Jan Karski?,” Wikipedia.
“Jan Karski?,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum accessed on May 25, 2022.
“Jan Karski?,” Yad Vashem accessed on May 25, 2022.