Jan Karski was a Polish resistance fighter and diplomat who warned world leaders about the Nazi extermination of European Jews. Tragically, none of the leaders of Allied countries did anything to stop the atrocity – including U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt.
Jan was born in 1914 in Lodz, Poland to a devout Catholic family. His father died when he was a small child, and his mother struggled to provide for her eight children. They lived in a neighborhood of overcrowded tenements where most of the residents were Jewish. Jan attended military school where he trained to be a mounted artillery officer and graduated first in his class.
He then trained to be a diplomat, and between 1935 and 1938 he worked at Polish consulates in Romania, Germany, Switzerland and the UK. At the beginning of 1939 Jan returned to Poland to work at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the fall of that year, World War II started when Germany invaded Poland. Jan – Officer Karski – was called up to lead a unit of the Krakow Cavalry Brigade. On September 10 the Krakow Army was defeated by the Germans in the Battle of Tomaszow Lubelski and Jan was captured as a prisoner of war. He managed to escape and went to Warsaw, where he joined the SZP, the first resistance movement in occupied Europe.
At that time, the Polish Government in Exile, overthrown by the Germans, was based in Paris. Jan organized secret courier missions to transport important information to the exiled Polish leaders. He traveled frequently between France, Great Britain and Poland, at great risk to himself. In July 1940 his luck ran out and he was arrested by the Gestapo while traveling through Czechoslovakia on his way to France. He was imprisoned and tortured so badly that he was transferred to a hospital. Fortunately Polish resistance leaders found out where he was and managed to smuggle him out of the hospital.
Returning to Warsaw, Jan served in the information bureau of the Polish Home Army, the main resistance movement in Poland. He and other Polish resistance leaders were horrified by the Nazi persecution of Polish Jews, and increasingly aware that the Germans planned to exterminate millions of them. Desperate to alert the rest of the world about the destruction of Polish Jewry, they chose Jan to gather evidence and then travel to Paris to report to prime minister Wladyslaw Sikorski, leader of the Polish government in exile.
Jan worked with Jewish resistance leader Leon Feiner, who smuggled him into the Warsaw Ghetto to observe conditions there. Jan later described the experience: “My job was just to walk. And observe. And remember. The odour. The children. Dirty. 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.”
Jan also visited a transit camp for Jews on their way to death camps. He took photographs of what he saw there and in the ghetto, and carried them out of the country on microfilm. His testimony and pictures formed the first accurate account of the genocide of European Jews. Polish Foreign Minister Edward Raczynski published Jan’s reports in a pamphlet which was widely distributed. Jan traveled to several countries and met with high-level government officials including British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, but they either didn’t believe him, or they feared the political consequences of helping Jewish refugees.
In July 1943 Jan traveled to the United States, where he personally met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Oval Office. Jan vividly described the Warsaw Ghetto and the concentration camps where Jews were being murdered en masse. After telling his grim tale, Jan expected Roosevelt to be emotionally affected and want to learn more. Instead, Roosevelt displayed no reaction and didn’t ask a single question. The president heard first-hand about the murder of millions of Jews – and saw the evidence – but he refused to help in any way and showed Jan the door. Ironically, the majority of American Jews voted for Roosevelt, and many Jews still revere him.
While in the States, Jan met with other important personages including Jewish Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. Jan told his story, answered a few questions, and then the great jurist said, “I am unable to believe what you have told me.” Like Roosevelt, he chose to ignore the inconvenient truth of what was happening to the Jews of Europe. A Polish diplomat later confronted Justice Frankfurter and asked if he thought Karski was lying. “I did not say that this young man was lying. I said that I was unable to believe what he told me. There is a difference.” The difference was likely not clear to the millions of European Jews being tortured and murdered while a Jewish Supreme Court justice chose ignorance over a difficult reality.
Jan Karski’s identity was discovered by the Nazi occupiers in Poland, and he was unable to return home. He stayed in Washington DC, and earned his PhD at Georgetown University. After graduating, he began teaching at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. Jan remained at Georgetown for forty years, teaching generations of American political leaders about East European and international affairs and comparative government. Jan’s students included Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright. Jan wrote several books about the Holocaust, and gave lectures around the world about the horrors he witnessed, and the tragic inaction of world leaders. He was determined to make sure the Jews of Poland were not forgotten.
Jan said that he had two missions in life. The first was to bear witness to the genocide of the Jews of Europe. The second was to reveal the tragic indifference of Allied leaders.
In 1965, Jan married Pola Nirenska, a Polish Jew who was an acclaimed dancer and choreographer. He adored her, but Pola was scarred by losing 75 (!) members of her extended family in the Holocaust, and suffered from mental health issues. Pola tragically killed herself in 1992.
Jan Karski was honored as Righteous Among the Nations by Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem. He was made an honorary citizen of Israel and received many other awards and honors in Poland, the United States, and Israel. He was nominated for a Nobel Prize. In 2000, Jan Karski was formally recognized as a human rights hero by the UN General Assembly. Soon after, Jan died in Georgetown at age 86. Jan continued to be honored posthumously, and in 2012 President Obama awarded him the country’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He has been the subject of multiple books, plays and movies. There is a statue of Jan sitting on a bench on Madison Avenue in New York City.
For bearing witness to genocide and speaking truth to power, we honor Jan Karski as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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