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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 April 24, 1914, in Lodz, Poland. He received a masters 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. Prior to his last departure from Poland, he was smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto by the Jewish underground in order to witness the horrendous conditions and report to the outside world.

After touring the Warsaw Ghetto, he donned a disguise to enter a Nazi concentration camp in Eastern Poland. There he witnessed mass murder.

In November 1942, he delivered an impassioned plea on behalf of Poland’s Jews to top Allied officials in London. On July 28, 1943, in a lengthy White House meeting, he told President Franklin D. Roosevelt about the extermination of the Jews of Europe.

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 was made an honorary citzen of the State of Israel and a tree was planted bearing his name at Yad Vashem’s Valley of the Righteous Among the Nations. 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 will posthumously honor 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 to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.



Sources: The Life of Jan Karski, Portions excerpted from an article that originally appeared in The Tennessean by E. Thomas Wood. Jan Karski: A Hero of the Holocaust. See the book, Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust, by Wood and Stanislaw M. Jankowski. JTA, "Jan Karski honored in Poland for WWII resistance work," February 16, 2012. The White House.