The horrifying story of Dr. Jan Karski ( 1914 – 2000) is a historical milestone. He was a soldier in the Polish Resistance who was sent to Poland’s western allies to tell about the horrors of the Holocaust.
And the world kept silent.
Karski was born in Lodz as Jan Kozielski. Karski was the nom de guerre he was given in the Resistance and it became his formal family name after the war. He studied law and diplomacy in Poland, Germany, Switzerland and Great Britain and joined the Polish Foreign Service. Following the outbreak of World War II he was drafted into the Polish Army and was taken prisoner by the Red Army. He managed to escape and joined the underground Home Army which was taking orders from the Polish government-in-exile in London. His language proficiency enabled him to pass on messages between the Polish government-in-exile and Polish underground figures in Poland and he was sent on a number of missions to France, Great Britain, Holland and Poland.
In 1940, Karski was captured by the Gestapo, tortured in the Nowy Sacz prison and sprung free in a dare-devil rescue operation by the Polish underground.
When the Germans started deporting the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto and intended to liquidate it completely at the end of 1942, Karski was smuggled into the ghetto twice where he got in touch with the leader of the Jewish community. His mission was to experience life in the ghetto and to find out what was going on there and to reveal to the world what Polish Jews were going through.
In November 1942 Karski escaped to the West and started exposing the horrors of the Holocaust to the world at large. As the envoy of the Polish Underground his mission was to report about the situation in Poland and to pass on the appeal for help by the Jewish community. He set up a meeting with the British Foreign SecretaryAnthony Eden (his request for a meeting with Churchill was turned down) and in July 1943 he met President Roosevelt in addition to meetings with various leaders in the US. His main message was: “the Jewish people is facing annihilation”.
However, all his efforts came to nought. Many of those he had met did not believe what he told them or thought that he was exaggerating or that it was a hoax.
After the war he decided not to return to Poland because the Communist authorities were persecuting members of the wartime Underground Home Army and became a US citizen. He studied in the States and, in 1952, received a doctorate. For a few decades afterwards he was teaching subjects related to Eastern Europe and became of the most prominent lecturers at Georgetown University in Washington. He married Paula Nirenski, a Holocaust survivor.
In 1977 he participated in Claude Landsmann’s movie “Shoah”. In 1944 Karski told his story in a book called “the Story of a Secret State”. His biography written by researchers Thomas Wood and Stanislaw Janowski was published in 1994. The book was called “How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust”.
In many respects, Karski’s case is unique. Whereas other rescuers made the difficult decision not to stand aside, to break the silence and to act, Karski confronted the leaders of the free world with this dilemma. Although he did not succeed in saving the life of any Jew his indefatigable efforts that imperiled his own life to provide information about the situation of the Jews and later, to call on the Allies to take steps to save millions of European Jews, caused Yad Vashem to award him the title of Righteous Among the Nation in 1982 and, a few years later, Karski was made “an honorary ciziten” of Israel.
After the fall of Communism in Poland in 1989, Karski was “politically rehabilitated” in his fatherland and awarded civilian and military medals. In 1912, the President of the United States, Barack Obama, awarded Karski the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian distinction in the US.
Jan Karski died in Washington in 2000.
In Karski’s honor, a number of statues and monuments were erected in Poland, in various cities in Israel and all over the world, at the Tel Aviv University and at Georgetown University in Washington in the US