Jan Karski was born Jan Kozielewski to a Roman Catholic family in Lodz in 1914. After completing his university studies, Karski joined the Polish diplomatic service.
At the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, he joined the Polish army but was soon taken prisoner by the Soviets and sent to a detention camp in what is now Ukraine. Karski escaped and joined the Polish underground movement.
With his knowledge of geography and foreign languages and a remarkable memory, Karski became a resourceful courier. He conveyed secret information between the resistance and the Polish government-in-exile. In late 1940, while on a mission, Karski was captured by the Gestapo and brutally tortured. Fearing that under duress he might reveal secrets, Karski slashed his wrists, but was sent to a hospital from which the underground helped him escape.
In late 1942 Karski was smuggled in and out of the Warsaw ghetto and a transit camp at Izbica, where he saw for himself the horrors suffered by Jews under Nazi occupation, including mass starvation and transports of Jews en route to the Belzec killing center. Karski then traveled to London where he delivered a report to the Polish government-in-exile and to senior British authorities including Foreign Minister Anthony Eden. He described what he had seen and warned of Nazi Germany’s plans to murder European Jews. In July 1943 Karski journeyed to Washington and met with American President Franklin D. Roosevelt to give the same warning and plead for action.
Allied governments were focused on the military defeat of Germany, and Karski’s message was greeted with disbelief or indifference. Disheartened, Karski remained in the United States where he earned a PhD from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Karski refused to return to Communist Poland. Instead, he remained in Washington promoting Polish freedom and serving for many decades as a professor at Georgetown.
Spurred by the memory of the Holocaust, for the rest of his life Karski worked tirelessly for Polish-Jewish understanding and to honor the memory of all victims of Nazism. In addition to receiving the highest Polish civic and military decorations, Karski was made an honorary citizen of Israel and was awarded the distinction “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem. Karski died in Washington, DC, in July 2000.
Series: Righteous Among the Nations
Critical Thinking Questions
- What pressures and motivations may have guided Jan Karski in his choices to investigate and to alert other countries?
- How did senior officials in Britain and the United States respond to his information?
- What risks did Karski face as he considered alerting western governments about mass murders?
- What risks to do contemporary journalists or officials face in considering alerting the world about mass murder?