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1914 - 2000

Jan Karski. Humanity's Hero

Polish History Museum

"I was an insignificant little man. My mission was important.”
Jan Karski in  his interview with Claude Lanzmann / 1978

In July 1942, the German Nazis began mass deportations of Jews from occupied Warsaw to the Treblinka death camp. Jan Karski, a young diplomat-turned-courier for the Polish Underground took on a mission of mind-boggling significance. He volunteered to carry to the Free World an eyewitness report of the destruction of the Jewish people of Poland. Twice he penetrated the Warsaw Ghetto and later the Izbica Lubelska transit camp. 

Against overwhelming odds, using multiple false identities, Karski reached London by the end of November. There he prepared detailed written reports for the London-based Polish Government-in-Exile and briefed British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. He was then sent to Washington where he met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt for an hour in the Oval Office.

At the time Karski was sounding the alarm, most of Poland’s Jewish citizens had already been killed. But there was still time to save the few who survived. 

Karski, who lived to age 86, considered the inaction of the Free World to be mankind’s “second Original Sin.” His recorded testimony remains one of the most eloquent statements against war and calls for action when confronted with acts of discrimination and degradation, injustice and brutality –  preconditions for political murder and genocide.

The industrial multicultural city of Lodz was the birthplace of Jan Karski (name given at birth: Kozielewski).

Growing up in the booming textile capital – a turn-of-the-century “promised land” for people of diverse nationalities and religions – Karski learned the lessons of tolerance and cooperation while young.

The Kozielewski family photographed in a Łódź studio in 1918 – the year Poland regained its independence after 130 years of partitions and foreign governance.
Jan Karski with his elder brother Edmund, 1922.

Karski's Roman Catholic family shared a tenement house with Jewish families; Karski’s pious mother often reminded him to look out for the younger Jewish children. 

Karski’s eldest brother, Marian Kozielewski joined Marshall Piłsudski’s Legions and had a hand in Piłsudski’s successful campaign for national independence in 1918. In the photo Karski’s siblings: from left Cyprian, Laura and Marian.

Karski’s origins were humble. His father, Stefan Kozielewski, was a leatherworker and craftsman who died when the boy was 6. It was Marian, Karski’s eldest brother, who became a father to the young Karski. Both Karski’s mother Walentyna, and his brother, Marian, instilled in him an idealism prevalent for that generation, where God, Honor and Homeland were perceived as the three pillars on which the Second Republic stood. 

Family heritage, innate talent, and the favorable position of his brother Marian in interwar Poland, defined Karski’s youth. He graduated from the University with flying colors, his dream of being a diplomat closer to realization. 
Karski earned his Master of Arts, in Legal and Diplomatic Studies from Jan Kazimierz University in Lwów, 1935.

Years later, Karski admitted that his ambition was one of the reasons that he failed to stand up for the persecuted Jewish students at the University. Karski was afraid of having his face scarred.

Anti-Jewish sentiments run rampant among nationalists all over Europe, including Poland, and various forms of persecution of the Jews were employed.

Jan Karski and his date on New Year's Eve 1938-‘39, Warsaw.

In 1936, Karski began working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The job opened the doors to Warsaw’s high society. Subsequently, he spent more than a year abroad, interning at diplomatic posts in Geneva and London.

On the night of August 23, 1939, Karski received a secret mobilization order which put an end to his youthful dreams.  

Karski recalls the atmosphere after mobilization and the outbreak of the war in an interview with E. Thomas Wood. 
On September 1, 1939, war broke out.  At 5 a.m. German planes bombed the barracks at Oświęcim where Karski’s unit was stationed. A few hours later, the second lieutenant and his battalion were retreating to the East. 
German soldier marking a border post on the German-Soviet demarcation line.

On August 23, 1939, the secret German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact was signed in Moscow, dividing Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence. A secret protocol set the rules of partition for territories including Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland and Romania. This pact set the stage for the Soviet invasion of Poland from the East while the country was waging a losing war with Hitler’s army.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (the Nazi-Soviet Pact) set the stage for the Soviet invasion of Poland from the East while the Poles were waging a war with Hitler’s army.

"[We were overwhelmed by feelings of] shame and disgrace. It all happened so quickly. The whole nation wasn’t prepared.”

Jan Karski told journalist Maciej Wierzyński in 1995.
Karski recalls the collapse of his perception of Poland’s power in his interview with E. Thomas Wood. 
Taken prisoner of war by the Soviet Red Army, Karski narrowly escaped the Katyn Forest Massacre.

On September 17, 1939, the Soviet army invaded Poland. Karski and his battalion were heading to Tarnopol, Ukraine, when they ran into the Red Army. The Soviets promised cooperation but ended up taking the Poles as prisoners of war and sending them to a camp in Kozielsk, Russia. 

The officers were treated worse than the enlisted men. When the Germans and Russians announced a prisoners-of-war exchange, its rules were strict – only privates could participate. Without hesitation, Karski exchanged his officer outfit for a private’s, claiming to be a factory worker from Łódź. This ruse saved his life. The Polish officers left behind were murdered  en masse at Katyń Forest near Smolensk (Katyn, Russia) in one of the most heinous crimes of the war. 

Karski escaped German captivity by jumping out of a moving train. He reached Warsaw on foot. Like most of the brightest and most patriotic Poles, Karski immediately joined the Polish Underground, the largest and most significant wartime resistance movement in occupied Europe.

In his reports to the Polish Government-in-Exile, Karski recounted not only the political scene, but also the attitude of ordinary citizens toward occupiers – the fighting spirit of the Poles.

Karski began his work for the Polish Underground in late 1939. His keen intelligence and superb memory propelled him to becoming one of several chosen emissaries between the Polish Government-in-Exile and the Underground. During his first mission in 1940, he delivered reports about the situation in occupied Poland to the Polish Government, then in Angers, France. He returned with the Government’s organizational guidelines for the Underground leaders. Karski memorized the crucial information and dictated reports upon reaching his destination.

Using multiple false identities, means of transport and ingenuity, risking his own life, Karski undertook four missions as a Polish Underground courier: Missions No. 1 & 2. 1940 - yellow line Warsaw-Angers-Warsaw; Mission No. 3. 1940 - blue line Warsaw-Angers, aborted in Demjata, Slovakia; Mission No. 4. 1942 - red line Warsaw-London via Brussels, Paris, Perpignan, Barcelona, Madrid, Gibraltar.
On his first mission to the Polish Government-in-Exile in Angers, France, in 1940, Karski was tasked with reporting the general situation of Poland under occupation. At this time, he alerted Polish authorities about the grave situation of the Polish Jews.
Official Nazi-announcements meant to terrorize Polish citizens imposed harsh restrictions on daily lives.

Karski reported the details of the situation to the Polish Government-in-Exile. Under German-Nazi occupation, Polish citizens not only faced the danger of being caught and killed due to their membership in the Underground resistance, but also in everyday dealings. Mandatory food rationing meant hunger. The black market made everyday goods available to those who still had money.

Occupiers tried not only to undermine the morale of Polish citizens, but also weaken the Polish nation culturally and economically. All institutions of higher education were closed, education in Polish language banned and punishable with death. Seizure of property was practiced on a daily basis. Consequently, life under occupation meant constant fear of random round-ups and executions, of violating the new Nazi rules and reprisals and subsequent death.

The Polish Government-in-Exile in Angers, France, entrusted Jan Karski with memorizing the draft structure of the Polish Underground, the division of responsibilities and communications. Emissary Karski transmitted the whole concept to the political leaders in occupied Poland. On the basis on these directives, the first and the most significant resistance movement in wartime Europe took shape.

Structure of the Polish Underground State and its relationship to the Government-in-Exile, 1942.

Karski set off on foot across the Tatra Mountains on a third mission back to Angers in June, 1940, with information gathered from key Underground leaders. The weather was vicious, so he stopped for the night in the Slovakian village of Demjata, where a bribed host turned him in to the Gestapo. Arrested and tortured, Karski attempted suicide in order not to betray secrets. But was saved and transported to a hospital in Nowy Sącz, Poland. Jan Słowikowski, a young physician involved with the resistance, and a group of co-conspirators, organized a daring escape.

Plaque commemorating those killed for helping in Karski’s escape from a hospital in Nowy Sącz.

Life under occupation spelled constant fear, suspicion and mistrust. Polish-Jewish relations, strained before the war, steadily declined as Hitler’s henchmen began the implementation of the “Final Solution” in occupied Poland.  

The leaders of the Underground were aware of the attitude of many Polish Christians towards their Jewish countrymen. They viewed anti-Semitism as a blight on the nation. In official leaflets and illegal publications, they warned those who collaborated in the implementation of anti-Jewish terror about potential consequences.

The Underground Directorate of Civil Resistance issued a "Warning" to those denouncing Jews.
Karski recalls his meeting with the Wertheims, a Jewish family, and how he pretended to be a "szmalcownik" (blackmailer) in order to rescue them. 
An official proclamation of the Underground Front for the Rebirth of Poland authored by Karski’s mentor and confidante, Zofia Kossak, co-founder of a Catholic underground group "Front For The Rebirth of Poland" and "Council to Aid Jews" ("Żegota"), author of bestselling books of historical fiction. 

"The world looks at this atrocity, more horrible than anything ever seen in the annals – and stays silent…. This silence cannot be tolerated any longer. Whatever its motives, they are despicable. In the face of crime, one cannot remain passive. Who remains silent in the face of slaughter – becomes an enabler of the murderer. Who does not condemn – then consents."

Zofia Kossak wrote in "Protest". 

German-Nazi regulations meant that those who were merely withholding information about hidden Jews – let alone helping and hiding them – faced serious, even mortal, consequences. The entire family of the one who helped was at risk. 

The Third Decree of General Governor Hans Frank concerning restrictions on residency in the General Gouvernement and introducing the death penalty for aid rendered to Jews, October 15, 1941. 

The German Nazis began mass deportations of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka Death Camp on July 22, 1942. 

Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto on their way to Umschlagplatz, where they were being gathered for deportation to the Treblinka extermination camp.
When Karski entered the Ghetto, nearly 300,000 Jews had already been deported.

In autumn 1942, Karski undertook his last, and most important mission – one that could have saved the remaining Jews of Poland. He witnessed the ongoing destruction of the Jews of Poland, so that could deliver an eyewitness account of the “Final Solution.” He was twice smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto to see the plight of the Jews.

"This was not the world. It was not humanity. It was some hell." - Karski said 36 years later to Claude Lanzmann.

"Naked bodies on the street. I asked my guide, ‘Why are they here?’ He said 'Well, they have a problem. If a Jew dies and the family wants a burial they have to pay tax on it. So they just throw them on the street. They cannot afford it. So then they say ‘Every rag counts’, so they take their clothing."

Karski described his visit to the Ghetto to Claude Lanzmann in 1978.

Jewish leaders who smuggled Karski into the Ghetto arranged for him to visit a German Nazi transit camp to witness Jews being herded onto trains, to be sent to their deaths. Karski entered the Izbica transit camp in disguise. For years he thought he had been in the concentration camp in Bełżec, as he described it in his 1944 book, "Story of a Secret State." Later he recalled this dreadful experience in his interview for Lanzmann’s "Shoah."

Karski recalls his visit to Izbica in his interview with French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, 1978. 
Jews herded into a train to Treblinka at the Umschlagplatz, Stawki Street, Warsaw 1942.
Karski describes the German Nazis’ methods in the “Final Solution” to Claude Lanzmann. 

"They were pushing with butts, shots, pushing them into the trucks. They were raising their bodies, pushing them on their heads, into the trucks. Two trucks filled, the train moved. I was sick."

Against overwhelming odds, using multiple false identities, means of transport and ingenuity, Karski reached London by the end of November. There he prepared detailed written reports for the London-based Polish Government-in-Exile and briefed British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. Karski’s superiors then sent him to Washington where Karski meet with President Franklin Roosevelt for an hour. He pleaded with both leaders to stop the Holocaust. Sadly, his message largely fell on deaf ears. 

A note to Allied and neutral governments on the mass extermination of Jews in German-occupied Poland, December 10, 1942.

On December 10, 1942, the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs submitted a note to the governments of the United Nations describing the ongoing massacre of the Jewish nation in occupied Poland, based, among other reports, on the Karski's eyewitness account. 

After a week, the Allies formally condemned Germany's policy of the extermination of the Jews in Europe. British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden read the terms of the declaration in the Commons and members stood in silence as a demonstration of united support for it. The BBC broadcasted the Declaration in the evening news.

"The attention of the 12 Allied Governments having been drawn to numerous reports from Europe that the German authorities, not content with denying to persons of Jewish race in all the territories over which their barbarous rule has been extended the most elementary human rights, are now carrying into effect Hitler’s oft-repeated intention to exterminate the Jewish people in Europe. ... The above-mentioned governments and the French National Committee condemn in the strongest possible terms this bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination. They declare that such events can only reaffirm their solemn resolution to ensure that those responsible for these crimes shall not escape retribution, and to press on with the necessary practical measures to this end."

Declaration of the 12 Allied Governments in the matter of responsibility for the extermination of Jews, December 17, 1942.

Karski delivered his shocking eyewitness account to dozens of people – politicians, journalists, writers – the leaders of the Free World. He reported to British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and even to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself. The emissary pleaded with leaders to act. Transmitting the demand of the Jewish leaders, he gave a detailed account of what he had seen. “I was a camera”, “I was a machine”, “I was like a gramophone record” – he used to say later. 

Jan Karski in 1943.

“I was like a gramophone record.”

Karski used to say in later days. 
Karski recalls one of his most memorable meetings: with Szmul Zygielbojm, a member of the National Council of the Polish Government-in-Exile.
A few months after Karski’s meeting with Szmul Zygielbojm, in April 1943, the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto rose in a revolt known as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. With light and scarce weapons, they held up for three weeks. In the middle of May 1943, the enemy burned the entire ghetto and all who were inside. Nothing but smoldering ruins remained.

Szmul Zygielbojm took his life in London. He left a letter stating that his suicide was a protest against the passivity of the Allies toward the fate of the Jews, hoping that his death would save the lives of some remaining Jews. 

"The Jewish problem during the Second World War is the death of Zygielbojm. This is what shows this total helplessness, this indifference of the world."
Szmul Zygielbojm’s farewell letter, May 11, 1943
On July 28, 1943, Karski reported to President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the situation in occupied Poland and the dire situation of the Jewish nation.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Everybody would have expected -- just like Jan Karski did -- that President Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of the lords of humanity, could stop the Holocaust and save the remaining Jews by using the power of his nation’s armed forces as commander in chief. Yet, it was not until late in the war that the U.S. Government took action and established the War Refugee Board, ultimately rescuing approximately 200,000 European Jews.

In 1943, Karski met with United States Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. Karski was devastated by how this judge of men declined to accept the possibility of human cruelty on a monumental scale.

“My mind, my heart, they are made in such a way that I can’t accept it. I am a judge of men. I know humanity. I know men. Impossible! No! No!”

Felix Frankfurter said after hearing Karski’s report. 

His identity having been discovered by German-Nazis, Karski could not return to Poland. The Government-in-Exile gave him a new assignment: To convince Hollywood to make a movie about the Polish war effort in order to sway public opinion toward a Poland threatened with Soviet domination. After the film failed to materialize, Karski went to work day and night on a book about the Polish Underground and his wartime experience. “Story of a Secret State” was published in the US by Houghton Mifflin, became an overnight sensation, selling 400,000 copies. It was quickly translated into French, Swedish, Norwegian and Icelandic.

First edition of "Story of a Secret State".

Once "Story of a Secret State" became a bestseller, Karski was invited to deliver lectures on the Polish Underground and the situation in Nazi-occupied Poland all over the US and Canada. Then overnight, the situation changed.

Karski lectured on the Polish Underground all over the US and Canada.

In 1945, the US government recognized the new Soviet-imposed Polish puppet government in Lublin. Karski and the Poland he represented were swept under the carpet at the behest of the “Uncle Joe” Stalin. In Poland under Soviet domination there was no place for opposition. Consequently, all the surviving fighters of the Underground State were labelled as the “besplitted dwarfs of reaction” and ruthlessly eliminated by the new ruling elite.   

Jan Karski in 1943.

Unable to return to Poland, Karski began his new life in America. He struggled, renovating homes to supplement his income. He was invited by Georgetown University’s president Edmund A. Walsh to pursue an academic career. Georgetown became Karski’s home for over 40 years, where he taught in the School of Foreign Service, influencing generations of future leaders.  

In 1952, Jan Karski earned his Ph.D. at Georgetown University. 

In 1965, Jan Karski married Polish-Jewish dancer-choreographer Pola Nireńska, the love of his life. Most of her Jewish family was murdered in death camps during the war. Only Nireńska and her parents managed to escape. She left Poland early in the interwar period, following her dream of becoming a dancer, while her parents emigrated to Palestine in the 1930s, having an inkling of the coming threat to the Jews of Europe. 

Nireńska was baptized a Catholic just before the marriage. Karski later recalled that his wife liked the fact that in Catholicism God chose a Jewess to be the mother of his beloved Son. 

For over 30 years, Karski remained largely silent about his World War II experience. Only through the persistence of French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, who making a documentary about the Holocaust, did Karski agree to tell his story to a wider audience. 

The eight-hour interview set the stage for Karski’s “second mission”, speaking out about the Holocaust and the inaction of the leaders of the Free World. As a professor, he emphasized the importance of individual conscience and values and denounced the heartless pragmatism of nations, organizations and states.

In Claude Lanzmann's “Shoah”, Karski recounted his story to a wider audience after more than 30 years.

"I don't go back to my memories ... I don't speak about it." 

In the early 1980s Karski began his “second mission”: Reminding the world of the indifference of the Allies.

“The Lord assigned me a role to speak and write during the war, when -- as it seemed to me -- it might help. It did not. When the war came to its end, I learned that the governments, the leaders, the scholars, the writers did not know what had been happening to the Jews. They were taken by surprise. The murder of six million innocents was a secret, a ‘terrible secret’. ... Then I became a Jew. But I am a Christian Jew. I am a practicing Catholic. … My faith tells me the second Original Sin has been committed by humanity: through commission, or omission, or self-imposed ignorance, or insensitivity, or self-interest, or hypocrisy, or heartless rationalization. This sin will haunt humanity to the end of time. It does haunt me. And I want it to be so.”

Karski said at the International Liberators’ Conference in 1981.

In June 1982, Jan Karski planted his tree on the Avenue of the Righteous among the Nations on the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem. In subsequent years, many significant honors were bestowed on him: the Anti-Defamation League Courage to Care Award (1988, which in 2012 was renamed the Jan Karski Courage to Care Award); Pius XI Award (1990); the Eisenhower Liberation Medal (1991); the Wallenberg Medal (1991); and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2012) conferred by President Barack Obama.

On June 7, 1982, Yad Vashem recognized Jan Karski as Righteous Among the Nations.
On May 12, 1994, Professor Karski was awarded honorary citizenship of Israel.

“Now, I, Jan Karski – by birth Kozielewski – a Pole, an American, a Catholic, have also become an Israelite! Gloria, Gloria in excelsis Deo. 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.”

Karski said upon accepting honorary citizenship of Israel in 1994. 

Professor Karski was a just man, a real national hero free of any form of chauvinism – he was “the pride and nobleness of the Poles of yore,” as Adam Michnik said upon receiving the Jan Karski Eagles Award. 

In 1980s and 1990s, the professor was involved in bridging a painful divide between Poles and Jews in American and worldwide, working on Polish-Jewish dialogue after the war. Karski  had the courage to go against the tide, he did not shy away from criticizing Polish compatriots’ behavior and Poland’s politics.

In 1989 communism disintegrated; first in Poland, then in the rest of Central Europe. The decline started in 1980 with the establishment of Solidarność (Solidarity), free workers unions, inspiration of John Paul II and the persistent work of the pro-democratic opposition in Poland. Karski – who was persona non grata in the Polish People’s Republic – finally gained the recognition he deserved. 

Lech Wałęsa carried in triumph by his supporters after registration of the Solidarity trade union, November 10, 1980.
Poster for the Polish elections of June 4, 1989, first elections in the new democratic Poland. 
In 1995, Karski received the highest Polish civilian award from President Lech Wałęsa, The White Eagle.
Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, where Karski taught the history of communism and global affairs for 40 years, is one of the premier universities for young Americans and international students who are interested in international politics and world affairs. Many of today’s most prominent politicians, community and business leaders were Karski’s students.

Karski died on July 13, 2000, but his legacy endures. As long as young and old need to learn about the horrors of the Holocaust, which occurred in war-torn, occupied Poland, Karski’s mission continues. The need for Karski’s wisdom endures worldwide as people seek inspiration and guidance about how to act when conditions are at their worst. They learn how to become messengers for truth. Jan Karski –Humanity’s Hero – calls each of us to act on behalf of oppressed peoples everywhere.

Numerous individuals and institutions have put their hearts and souls into the commemoration of Professor Karski and his deeds; today, these initiatives are proliferating. The Polish History Museum in Warsaw runs the Jan Karski. Unfinished Mission program in cooperation with the Jan Karski US Centennial Campaign, which grew into the Jan Karski Educational Foundation. The purpose of these cooperative efforts is to shine the spotlight on this great man and to propagate the Karski legacy with international educational activities, public events and artistic performances, leading up to the centennial year of his birth in 2014 – and beyond. 

Jan Karski, March 2000.
Former Polish foreign minister Adam Daniel Rotfeld accepts the Presidential Medal of Freedom for Jan Karski from US President Barack Obama, May 29, 2012. 

“We must tell our children about how this evil was allowed to happen—because so many people succumbed to their darkest instincts; because so many others stood silent. But let us also tell our children about the Righteous Among the Nations.  Among them was Jan Karski—a young Polish Catholic—who witnessed Jews being put on cattle cars, who saw the killings, and who told the truth, all the way to President Roosevelt himself.  Jan Karski passed away more than a decade ago.  But today, I’m proud to announce that this spring I will honor him with America’s highest civilian honor—the Presidential Medal of Freedom.” 

US President Barack Obama, April 23, 2012, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Credits: Exhibit

Curation — Dorota Szkodzińska, Polish History Museum
Edition — Wanda Urbańska, director of the Jan Karski US Centennial Campaign
Under the supervision of — Ewa Wierzyńska, leader of Jan Karski. Unfinished Mission program, Polish History Museum
IT support — Artur Szymański 
We would like to thank all partners in the project: — The Museum of the City of Łódź, The Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, E. Thomas Wood, Carol Harrison, Hoover Archives, The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Exhibit's origins — The exhibit is one of the projects of Jan Karski. Unfinished Mission program run by Polish History Museum. More information on www.JanKarski.org and www.JanKarski.net.

Credits: All media
The exhibit featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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