Jan Karski “Jan Kozielewski” was born on June 24th, 1914 in Łódź. Raised in a Catholic family, he grew up in a multi-cultural neighborhood, the majority of the population was Jewish. After intensive military training in the school for mounted artillery officers in Włodzimierz Wołyński, he graduated in 1936 and ordered to the 5th Regiment of Mounted Artillery. He continued his education in diplomacy in several countries between 1935 and 1938 in several countries, Romania, Germany, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, and went on to join the Diplomatic Service. On 1 January 1939, after being graduated, he started work in the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
During the WWII, he first served during the Polish Campaign of September against the Red Army between Zabkowice and Częstochowa, he was captured and imprisoned in a camp in Ukraine, exchanges his closed and managed to escape and thanks to that was one of the few to survive the Katyn Massacre. He was transferred to the nazis but finally escaped and arrived in Warsaw in 1939 where he joined the first resistance groups the SZP (Służba Zwycięstwu Polski – Polish Victory service) predecessor of the ZWZ (Związek Walki Zbrojnej – Union of Armed Struggle), and latter the AK (Arma Krajowa – National Army). Jan Karski, which later became his legal name also used the names of Piasecki, Kwaśniewski, Znamierowski, Kruszewski, Kucharski, and Witold as war names. Between 1939 and 1940 he published several reports about the situation of the Jews in USSR and Poland.
In January 1940, he began to organize courier missions with documents from the Polish underground to the Polish Government in Exile, first in Paris in France, Angers (West-France) and finally in London after the armistice in France in June 1940.
In June 1940, he was captured by the Gestapo in Slovakia, tortured and imprisoned he attempted to suicide himself but thanks to the resistance he escaped the hospital of Nowy Sącz. He hides for 6 months and wrote many propaganda leaflets sent everywhere in Germany to demoralize the real Germans.
During summer 1942, he was sent in London to perform a secret mission, Karski was to contact Władysław Sikorski and other Polish politicians to inform them about Nazi atrocities in occupied Poland. To collect evidence, Karski met Bund activist Leon Feiner and was twice smuggled by Jewish underground leaders into the Warsaw Ghetto to observe what was happening inside. These two moments will change his life forever. In an interview recorded in 1978 by the French moviemakers, Claude Lanzmann for the 9h film “SHOAH” released in 1985:
The odour. 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.
Later he went to the Durchgangslager (transit camp) for Bełżec camp. Disguised as an Estonian camp guard he visited what he thought was Bełżec death camp and witnessed the horror. One of the most horrible visions was the people beaten and forced to enter the train wagons and then, people suffocating, crushed by the other, and literally burning the skin because of the lime on the floor of the wagons.
On 28 July 1943, Karski personally met the US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Oval Office, telling him about the situation in Poland and becoming the first eyewitness to tell him about the Jewish Holocaust. According to Karski, Roosevelt didn’t ask him anything about the situation of the Jews. He met many other governments and civic leaders in the United States. In 1944, Karski published Courier from Poland: The Story of a Secret State in which he related his experiences in wartime Poland. 400,000 copies were sold up to the end of World War II.
After the war ended, Karski remained in the United States and began his studies at Georgetown University, receiving a PhD from the institution in 1952 and became a US citizen 2 years later. For 40 years he taught at Georgetown University in the areas of East European affairs, comparative government, and international affairs. Among his students was the future US President Bill Clinton.
- On 2 June 1982, Yad Vashem recognized Jan Karski as Righteous Among the Nations.
- In 1991, Karski was awarded the Wallenberg Medal of the University of Michigan. Statues honoring Karski have been placed in New York City at the corner of 37th Street and Madison Avenue (renamed as Jan Karski Corner) and on the grounds of Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C. Additional benches, which were made by the Kraków-based sculptor Karol Badyna, are located in Kielce, Łódź and Warsaw next to the POLIN MUZEUM in Poland, and on-campus of the Tel Aviv University in Israel.
- In 1994, Karski was made an honorary citizen of Israel.
- On 29 May 2012, President Obama posthumously awarded Karski of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Karski’s legacy in Warsaw
Many places referred to Jan Karski in Warsaw
You can find a bench with his statue next to the POLIN MUZEUM in Muranów
The left bank of the Vistula is called Bulwar Karskiego
In Czerwonego Krzyża 2/8 a plate is mentioning the place Information and Propaganda office where Jan Karski went many times between 1941 and 1942.
The Technical Secondary School No. 8 of Warsaw is called “Jan Karski”
VIDEOS TO WATCH
BOOKS TO READ
- Jan Karski. Story of a Secret State. ISBN 1-931541-39-6.
- Yannick Haenel. The Messenger: A Novel (English Edition) – B005652AQ6
Photo: Międzynarodowy Instytut Dialogu i Tolerancji im. Jana Karskiego.