Jan Karski, an extraordinary ordinary man

Jan Karski (Łódź, 1914 – Washington, July 2000), born as Jan Kozielewski, was a Polish reserve officer and a junior diplomat who served the Polish Army and then joined the Polish Underground resistance, where his mission was to inform the West and the Polish government-in-exile about the situation in Poland during the Nazi occupation. When he found out about the horrors of the Holocaust, he committed his life to inform the world about it. On 1982 he was awarded the distinction Righteous Among the Nations.

Jan Karski born in a Roman Catholic family and was the youngest of eight children. His


Source: Jan Karski, http://www.yadvashem.org

hometown, Łódź, was an industrial city in the heart of Poland, populated by Polish Catholics, Germans, Russians, and 233,000 Jews before the Second World War. He studied law and diplomacy at the University of Lwów and trained as an artilleryman in the Polish army. Following his studies, he started his career in the Polish diplomatic corps. On September 1939, when both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia began their invasion of Poland from the western and the eastern front, Jan Karski was serving the Polish Army. While he served at the Polish base at Oświȩcim – where few years later would have been built the Auschwitz death camp – the German troops’ attack forced the Polish unit to find shelter in the hinterland. Moving in the eastern territories of the country, the Polish soldiers encountered unexpectedly the Red Army. After being disarmed, together with Polish officers, policemen, and prominent citizens, Jan Karski and the unit he served was sent by the Soviet army to a detention camp now in the Ukrainian territory. Soviet NKVD’s plan was to release the enlisted men, while all the Polish officers and citizens with political past would have been killed in mass shootings, known as the Katyń massacres. However, Karski managed to survive presenting himself as a Private from Łódź. The Soviets believed his story and sent him to Łódź, that in the meanwhile had fallen under German rule. At first, Germans transferred him to Radom, in a POW camp, then, while on a train to reach another camp, he escaped.  He reached Warsaw where he found his older brother, Marian, who introduced him to the Polish Underground Resistance. The representatives of the Polish Underground immediately noticed Karski for his incredible capacity of analysis, his memory, and his loyalty to the cause, and entrusted him with numerous missions to the Polish government-in-exile as a messenger. It was precisely during one of these missions in those territories of Poland under Nazi-occupation, that he found out that mass deportations were taking place. His role of messenger gave him also the possibility to have several important contacts in the major Polish political movements which, in agreement with the Polish government-in-exile, created an Underground state – that in future would have a central role in the formation of a democratic Poland-. However, his brother and other collaborators were arrested and sent to Auschwitz, while he was caught and tortured by the Gestapo few months later. He tried to commit suicide because he was afraid that, under the tortures of the Gestapo, he would have been able to reveal some secret information. Sent to an hospital in a Slovak city, he managed to escape helped by the Underground.

In 1942, the Underground requested Karski to travel to London – where the Polish government-in-exile was transferred – and report as much information as possible about the atrocities committed by Nazis in Poland, especially against the Jews. Karski infiltrated the Warsaw ghetto, were he knew that about 450,000 Jews were living in inhumane conditions; as he wrote in his memoir: “Everyone and everything seemed to vibrate with unnatural intensity, to be in constant motion, enveloped in a haze of disease and death through which their bodies appeared to be throbbing in disintegration”. During his mission, he met Leon Feiner, a Jewish leader, and Menachem Kirschenbaum, a Zionist, who explained him the Nazi’s plan to exterminate the Jewish population. Both men pled him to inform and ask for help to the Allies. On July 22, 1942, the Nazis started to liquidate the ghetto. Then he visited the transit camp at Izbica, and could even document the transport of Jews to the killing center in Belzec. In October, Karski reached London, where he communicated to Polish Prime Minister Sikorski and President what he saw during his several missions to the ghetto and Nazi camps. Even the Vatican was then informed by Polish diplomats, with no results. Other authorities were contacted by Karski, such as British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden, Winston Churchill, and in July 1943 he met in Washington with American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but both parties remained indifferent – or even did not believe –  to him. As Karski wrote in his account, the American President seemed to be more interested in the internal organization of the Polish Underground, how it managed to secretly communicate with the Polish government in France and then in London, and the condition of horses in Poland, completely underestimating what Karski reported on the situation of the Polish Jews. While in Washington, Karski met the Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter as well, who replied to his account saying that: ‘Mr. Karski, a man like me talking to a man like you must be totally frank. So I must say: I am unable to believe in what I have just heard, in all the things that you have just told me.’

After all these appearances, the Germans most likely had identified Karski as secret courier of the Polish Underground, and therefore he decided to remain in the United States. At the end of 1944, he wrote his first book, Story of a Secret State, in which he described the situation of Jews in Poland and his missions with the Polish underground organization. Unexpectedly, the book became a best-seller. In his book, as during his communications, Karski continued to remark the extraordinary nature of the Holocaust, claiming that ‘never in the history of mankind, never anywhere in the realm of human relations did anything occur to compare with what was inflicted on the Jewish population of Poland’.

When the war ended, the Soviet propaganda depicted Jan Karski as an anti-Semite – probably because of his attempts to inform the American Jews of the dangers of the Soviet domination in Poland and other parts of eastern Europe -, making him only a marginal figure of the Second World War.

During the Cold War, Karski decided to remain in the United States, where he completed his Ph.D. studies at the Georgetown University. After that, he will work for 40 years as a professor in the School of Foreign Service, where he previously studied.

In 1982, Karski received from the Yad Vashem the title of a Righteous Among the Nations. In 1994, the Israeli government, such as his Polish hometown, Łódź, declared him an Honorary Citizen. For the help and courage demonstrated by him for the Polish cause during the war, Karski received from the Polish government two high honors, the Order of the White Eagle and the Virtuti Militari. After his death in Washington, on July 2000, his life continues to be celebrated; on 2012, American President Barack Obama awarded Karski of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest American civilian honor.

Despite the attempts of the Communist propaganda to make Jan Karski disappear from the memory of the war and the Holocaust, his works for the Polish-Jewish reconciliation and the recognition of the Nazi crimes against Jews are still remembered and celebrated. Jan Karski is not only one of the numerous Poles who helped the Jews during the Holocaust, he is the man who risked his life to publicly denounce the extreme situation in the Jewish ghettos and death camps and after that the indifference of the Allies. As Kozlowski, his biographer, recalled: ‘There could hardly be another person who felt more deeply, painfully, and bitterly the expedient abandonment of Poland by the Allies in World War II. Jan Karski was a man who, tragically, had to feel that his own prodigious efforts on behalf of the Jews of Europe – and on behalf of his briefly independent native land – were an utter failure. Regarded as a hero in both Poland and Israel, his was a  heroism not of triumphs but of extraordinary integrity and courage’.

Jan Karski surely played a central role in the history of Poland, and his book is the proof of how powerful can be the voice of a single man.


Veronica Pagnani

MA in Central and Eastern European Studies

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