Jan Karski was born Jan Kozielewski to a Roman Catholic family in Lodz in 1914. Before World War II, he completed law school and trained to be a diplomat. He also completed officer cadet school for the artillery reserve. During his studies and after, Karski held diplomatic and consular internships at posts in Romania, Germany, Switzerland, and Great Britain. In 1938, he joined the consular division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.
World War II Begins
World War II began in September 1939, interrupting Karski’s promising career in the diplomatic service. That month Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Poland. In accordance with the August 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Nazi Germany occupied the western half of Poland, and the Soviet Union occupied the eastern half. At the start of the war, Karski joined the Polish army, but was taken prisoner by the Soviets at the end of September. While in Soviet captivity, he adopted the last name Karski.
In November, as part of a prisoner exchange between the Soviets and Germans, Karski landed in German custody. He was briefly held by the Germans in a POW camp in Radom, but managed to escape. From there, Karski made his way to Warsaw, where he joined the Polish underground resistance movement.
Karski as Witness of the Holocaust
Karski was known to have an exceptional knowledge of geography and foreign languages, as well as a remarkable memory. This made him a resourceful courier for the Polish underground movement against the Germans and Soviets. In his capacity as courier, Karski conveyed secret information between the resistance and the Polish government-in-exile headquartered in London. 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 attempted to commit suicide by slashing his wrists, but was sent to a hospital. He escaped with the help of the Polish resistance.
In late 1942, Karski was smuggled in and out of the Warsaw ghetto and Izbica, a transit ghetto for Jews being sent to the Belzec killing center. In both places, he witnessed the horrific conditions imposed by the Germans that had caused tens of thousands of Jews to die of starvation and disease. In Izbica, disguised as a guard, he saw thousands of Jews being crammed into cattle cars. Karski learned that the train was taking them to be murdered.
Karski then managed to travel across German-occupied Europe to London, where he delivered a report to the Polish government-in-exile and to senior British authorities, including Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. He described what he had witnessed and reported the evidence that Nazi Germany was murdering Jews from all over Europe. In July 1943, Karski journeyed to Washington and met with American President Franklin D. Roosevelt to give him the same report. Karski pleaded for specific actions to rescue Jews. Allied leaders, however, insisted that Germany’s military defeat must be their first priority.
In September 1943, Karski returned to London, where he petitioned to join the Polish Armed Forces in the West (Polskie Siły Zbrojne na Zachodzie). For a number of political reasons, the Polish government-in-exile refused this request. Instead, in February 1944, Karski was sent back to the United States on a public relations mission. During that year, he gave lectures, wrote newspaper articles, and presented on the radio about the Nazi German occupation of Poland, the Polish underground, and the plight of Jews under the Nazis.
Life in America
After the war, Karski remained in the United States. He joined the faculty of Georgetown University in 1949 and earned his PhD from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in 1952. He remained on the faculty of Georgetown University until he retired in 1984 with the rank of Full Professor.
Deeply influenced by his wartime experiences and memory of the Holocaust, Karski worked tirelessly for the rest of his life to promote 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.
Jan 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?