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Jan Karski
Jan Karski, before a wall-map of the Warsaw Ghetto at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, recalls his secret 1942 missions into the Nazi "prison-city-within-a-city" Photo by E. Thomas Wood, 1994

Jan Karski, before a wall-map of the Warsaw Ghetto at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, recalls his secret 1942 missions into the Nazi "prison-city-within-a-city"
Photo by E. Thomas Wood, 1994
Born Jan Kozielewski
(1914-06-24)June 24, 1914
Łódź, Poland
Died July 13, 2000(2000-07-13) (aged 86)
Washington, D.C., United States
Nationality Polish
Other names Jan Kozielewski (birth name); Piasecki, Kwaśniewski, Znamierowski, Kruszewski, Kucharski, and Witold (akas)
Occupation Polish resistance fighter; diplomat; activist; professor; author
Known for World War II resistance and the Holocaust rescue

Jan Karski (June 24, 1914, in some sources April – 13 July 2000) was a Polish World War II resistance movement fighter and later professor at Georgetown University. In 1942 and 1943 Karski reported to the Polish government in exile and the Western Allies on the situation in German-occupied Poland, especially the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, and the secretive German-Nazi extermination camps.

Early life

Jan Karski was born Jan Romuald Kozielewski, on June 24, 1914 in Lodz.[1] The date is sometimes incorrectly given as April 24, 1914, which reflected an error on his birth certificate and is used by the executor of his estate as official while the family (see interview about the birth date with Jan Karski's niece and goddaughter Dr. Wieslawa Kozielewska Trzaska) follows Karski's explanation as June 24, Saint John's Day.[2] Another erroneous variant is his diplomatic passport listing his birth date as March 22, 1912. Jan Karski was named "Jan" following the Polish pre-war custom of naming children after saints. In Jan Kozielewski's case an error was made in baptismal records on August 8 as Karski later explained publicly in interviews on several occasions (see Waldemar Piasecki's definitive biography of Karski, One Life, about to be published in Poland). He was raised a Catholic and remained one through his life.[3] He grew up in a multi-cultural neighborhood where the majority of the population was then Jewish.

After leaving a local school Kozielewski studied at the of Lwów (now Lviv, Ukraine) and graduated from the Legal and Diplomatic departments in 1935. During his compulsory military training he served in the NCO school for mounted artillery officers in Włodzimierz Wołyński. He completed his education between 1936 and 1938 in different diplomatic posts in Germany, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, and went on to join the Diplomatic Service. After a short period of resident scholarship, in January 1939 he started work in the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

World War II

With the outbreak of World War II Kozielewski was mobilized and served in a small artillery detachment in eastern Poland. Taken prisoner by the Red Army, he successfully concealed his true rank by pretending to be an ordinary soldier and was handed over to the Germans during an exchange of Polish prisoners of war, in effect escaping the Katyn massacre.[4]


File:The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied .pdf

In November 1939 on a train to a POW camp in General Government (a part of Poland which had not been fully incorporated into The Third Reich), Karski managed to escape, and found his way to Warsaw. There he joined the ZWZ – the first resistance movement in occupied Europe and a predecessor of the Home Army (AK). About that time he adopted a nom de guerre of Jan Karski, which later became his legal name. Other noms de guerre used by him during World War II included Piasecki, Kwaśniewski, Znamierowski, Kruszewski, Kucharski, and Witold. In January 1940 Karski began to organize courier missions with dispatches from the Polish underground to the Polish Government in Exile, then based in Paris. As a courier, Karski made several secret trips between France, Britain and Poland. During one such mission in July 1940 he was arrested by the Gestapo in the Tatra mountains in Slovakia. Severely tortured, he was finally transported to a hospital in Nowy Sącz, from where he was smuggled out. After a short period of rehabilitation, he returned to active service in the Information and Propaganda Bureau of the Headquarters of the Polish Home Army.[citation needed]

In 1942 Karski was selected by Cyryl Ratajski, the Polish Government's Delegate at Home, to perform a secret mission to prime minister Władysław Sikorski in London. Karski was to contact Sikorski as well as various other Polish politicians and inform them about Nazi atrocities in occupied Poland. In order to gather evidence, Karski met Bund activist Leon Feiner and was twice smuggled by Jewish underground leaders into the Warsaw Ghetto for the purpose of directly observing what was happening to Polish Jews. Also, disguised as an Estonian camp guard, he visited what he thought was Bełżec death camp. In actuality, it seems that Karski only managed to get close enough to witness a Durchgangslager ("sorting and transit point") for Bełżec in the town of Izbica Lubelska, located midway between Lublin and Bełżec.[5] Many historians have accepted this theory, as did Karski himself.[6]

Reporting Nazi atrocities to the Western Allies

From 1942 Karski reported to the Polish, British and U.S. governments on the situation in Poland, especially on the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Holocaust of Polish Jews. He had also carried out of Poland a microfilm with further information from the underground movement on the extermination of European Jews in German-occupied Poland. The Polish Foreign Minister Count Edward Raczynski provided the Allies on this basis one of the earliest and most accurate accounts of the Holocaust. A note by Foreign Minister Edward Raczynski entitled The mass extermination of Jews in German occupied Poland, addressed to the governments of the United Nations on 10 December 1942, would later be published along with other documents in a widely distributed leaflet.[7]

Karski met with Polish politicians in exile including the Prime Minister, as well as members of political parties such as the Socialist Party, National Party, Labor Party, People's Party, Jewish Bund and Poalei Zion. He also spoke to the British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, giving a detailed statement on what he had seen in Warsaw and Bełżec. In 1943 in London he met journalist Arthur Koestler, author of Darkness at Noon. He then traveled to the United States, and on July 28, 1943 Karski personally met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Oval Office, telling him about the situation in Poland and becoming the first eyewitness to tell him about the Jewish Holocaust.[8] During their meeting Roosevelt asked about the condition of horses in Poland.[9] Roosevelt did not ask one question about the Jews.[10] Karski went on to meet with many other government and civic leaders in the United States, including Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, Cordell Hull, William Joseph Donovan, and Rabbi Stephen Wise. Frankfurter, skeptical of Karski's report, said later "I did not say that he was lying, I said that I could not believe him. There is a difference."[11] Karski presented his report to media, bishops of various denominations (including Cardinal Samuel Stritch), members of the Hollywood film industry and artists, but without much result. His warning about the Yalta solution and the plight of stateless peoples became an inspiration for the formation of the Office of High Commissioner for Refugees after the war.[12] In 1944 Karski published Courier from Poland: The Story of a Secret State (with a selection featured in Collier's six weeks before the book's publication),[13][14] in which he related his experiences in wartime Poland. The book was a major success (a film of it was planned but never realized) with more than 400,000 copies sold alone in the United States up to the end of World War II.[citation needed]

My Report to the World: The Story of a Secret State was re-published by Georgetown University Press and released on March 18, 2013. A Tribute to Jan Karski panel discussion was held at the University in conjunction with the book release, and featured a discussion of Karski's legacy by School of Foreign Service Dean Carol J. Lancaster, Georgetown University Chair of the Board of Directors Paul Tagliabue, Former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, Former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, Polish Ambassador Ryszard Schnepf and Rabbi Harold S. White.[15]

Life in the United States

After the war Karski entered the United States and began his studies at Georgetown University, receiving a Ph.D from the institution in 1952.[16] In 1954, Karski became a naturalized citizen of the United States. He taught at Georgetown University for 40 years in the areas of East European affairs, comparative government and international affairs. In 1985, he published the academic study The Great Powers and Poland based on research on a Fulbright fellowship in 1974 to his native Poland.

His attempts at stopping the Holocaust were publicized after 1978, following his oral testimony to French film-maker Claude Lanzmann for Lanzmann's film Shoah. The film was released in 1985 and, in spite of earlier promises,[citation needed] didn't include mention of Karski's role in informing the world about the Holocaust. In their book on Karski, Wood and Jankowski state that Karski then wrote an article (which was published in English, French and Polish) called Shoah, a Biased Vision of the Holocaust, in which he pleaded for the production of another documentary showing the missing part of his testimony and the help given to Jews by Polish Righteous among the Nations. In 1994, E. Thomas Wood and Stanisław M. Jankowski published Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust. In 2010 Lanzmann released a further documentary entitled The Karski Report consisting of the previously unreleased second half of his interview with Karski.[17]

Following the fall of communism in Poland in 1989, Karski's wartime role was officially acknowledged there. He received the Order of the White Eagle (the highest Polish civil decoration) and the Order Virtuti Militari (the highest military decoration awarded for bravery in combat). He was married in 1965 to the 54 year old dancer and choreographer, Pola Nirenska, a Polish Jew, whose family (with the exception of her parents, who emigrated to Israel shortly before the Nazi invasion of Poland) died in the Holocaust. She committed suicide in 1992. Similar tragic fate met Jan Karski's older brother Colonel Marian Kozielewski, also a war hero. The Kozielewski brothers were admirers of Jozef Pilsudski and members of the "forgotten army" that suffered many deeply personal wounds. Karski died in Washington, D.C. in 2000 in the presence of his friend young Polish diplomat Mariusz Handzlik. He and Pola had no children.

During an interview with Hannah Rosen in 1995 Karski said about the failure of most of the Jews' rescue from mass murder:

It was easy for the Nazis to kill Jews, because they did it. The allies considered it impossible and too costly to rescue the Jews, because they didn't do it. The Jews were abandoned by all governments, church hierarchies and societies, but thousands of Jews survived because thousands of individuals in Poland, France, Belgium, Denmark, Holland helped to save Jews. Now, every government and church says, "We tried to help the Jews", because they are ashamed, they want to keep their reputations. They didn't help, because six million Jews perished, but those in the government, in the churches they survived. No one did enough.[18]

He died of unspecified heart and kidney disease at Georgetown University Hospital.[19] He was interred at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C.


On 2 June 1982, Yad Vashem recognised Jan Karski as Righteous Among the Nations.[20] A tree bearing a memorial plaque in his name was planted that same year at Yad Vashem's Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations in Jerusalem.

In 1991, Karski was awarded the Wallenberg Medal of the University of Michigan. Statues honoring Karski have been placed in New York City at the corner of 37th Street and Madison Avenue (renamed as Jan Karski Corner)[21] and on the grounds of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.[22] Additional benches, which were made by the Kraków-based sculptor Karol Badyna, are located in Kielce, Łódź and Warsaw in Poland, and on campus of the University of Tel Aviv in Israel. The talking Karski bench in Warsaw near the Museum of the History of Polish Jews has a button where a short talk from Karski can be heard. Georgetown University, Oregon State University, Baltimore Hebrew College, Warsaw University, Maria Curie-Skłodowska University, and the University of Łódź all awarded Karski honorary doctorates.

In 1994, Karski was made an honorary citizen of Israel in honor of his efforts on behalf of Polish Jews during the Holocaust (Shoah). Karski was nominated for the Nobel Prize and formally recognized by the UN General Assembly shortly before his death.

In April 2011, the Jan Karski U.S. Centennial Campaign was created to increase interest in the life and legacy of the late Polish diplomat, as the Centennial year of his birth in 2014 approaches. The U.S. Campaign, headed by Polish-American author Wanda Urbanska, is working in partnership with the International Legacy program at the Polish History Museum in Warsaw, Poland under the direction of Ewa Wierzynska. Polish Consul General Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka hosted a gala kickoff dinner in New York City on May 30, consisting of representatives from Georgetown University, Polish Catholic and Jewish groups composing the steering committee.

One goal of the Campaign group was to obtain the Presidential Medal of Freedom for Karski in advance of his Centennial, as well as to promote educational activities, including workshops, artistic performances and the revival of his 1944 book, "Story of a Secret State." In December 2011, the support of 68 U.S. Representatives and 12 U.S. Senators was obtained and a package for the Medal was submitted to the White House.[23] On April 23, 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that Karski would receive the country's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.[24] The Medal was awarded by President Obama on May 29, 2012 and presented to Adam Daniel Rotfeld, the former Foreign Minister of Poland and himself a Jewish Holocaust survivor.[25] The medal, along with Jan Karski's honors, is on display at "the Karski office" in Lodz Museum according to the wishes of his surviving family led by his niece Dr. Kozielewska-Trzaska.

In November 2012, having met its major goals, the Jan Karski U.S. Centennial Campaign was succeeded by the Jan Karski Educational Foundation, which continues to promote Karski's legacy and values, particularly to young people from middle school through college age. The President of the Foundation is Polish-American author Wanda Urbanska.[26]

Controversy occurred when a misspoken word in the President's Presidential Medal of Freedom speech came to be known as 'Gafa Obamy' or Obama's gaffe,[27] when the President referred to 'a Polish death camp' (instead of "death camp in Poland") when talking of the Nazi German transit death camp that Karski had visited. However, there were no "Polish death camps" in Nazi German-occupied Poland. The death camps in which millions of Poland’s citizens were liquidated were Nazi-conceived, Nazi-built and Nazi-operated. More than six million Poles died in World War II, about half Jewish and half Christian. Most died as a result of the brutal Nazi occupation from 1939 to 1945. In fact, no term more than "Polish death camps" mischaracterizes the role of Poles in World War II. The Polish Underground formed Zegota in 1942 to save Jews and many were saved. There are more than 6,000 Polish Righteous Among the Nations, recognized by Yad Vashem in honor of risking their lives and the lives of their families for saving Jews. Poland was the only country in occupied Europe where death sentences were handed down to anyone helping Jews, as well as their entire family.[28] The terms "Polish death camp" or "Polish concentration camp" were reportedly promulgated by ex-Nazis working for the West German secret services. Historian Leszek Pietrzak explains the propaganda strategies from the 1950s.[29] President Obama later characterized his term as a mis-statement and it was accepted by Polish President Bronisław Komorowski.[30]

In February 2012, independent researcher Helen Radkey discovered that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or "Mormons") had conducted baptism for the dead ceremonies in the name of Karski, who was a devout Roman Catholic. Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, who knew and admired Karski, denounced the church's acts. "He was a hero for thousands of people, and it’s simply unfair to do that to his name and to him," Wiesel said. "He deserves better than that. He deserves to be left in peace."[31]

Remembering Karski's mission

The former Foreign Minister of Poland Władysław Bartoszewski in his speech at the ceremony of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, 27 January 2005, said: "The Polish resistance movement kept informing and alerting the free world to the situation. In the last quarter of 1942, thanks to the Polish emissary Jan Karski and his mission, and also by other means, the Governments of the United Kingdom and of the United States were well informed about what was going on in Auschwitz-Birkenau." [32]

See also


  1. "Error: no |title= specified when using {{Cite web}}". 
  2. Piasecki, Waldemar. "Jan Karski was Born 99 years ago". 
  3. Self-identification by Karski at Yad Vashem website as "a Christian Jew" and "a practicing Catholic"
  4. "Error: no |title= specified when using {{Cite web}}". 
  5. Jakob Weiss, The Lemberg Mosaic (New York: Alderbrook Press 2011) fn 199, p.409
  6. In his book published in the USA during the war, Karski identified the camp as Bełżec death camp even though he knew at the time that the camp could not have been in Bełżec. The descriptions he gave are incongruous with what is now known about Bełżec. His biographers Wood and Jankowski later proposed that rather Karski actually had been in the Izbica Lubelska "sorting camp". Many historians have accepted this theory, as did Karski himself.
  8. Algemeiner 07/17/2013
  9. Nigel Jones (4 May 2011). "tory of a Secret State by Jan Karski: review". The daily telegraph. "Karski reached London where he had an interview with the foreign secretary Anthony Eden, the first of many top officials to effectively ignore his account of the Nazis’ systematic effort to exterminate European Jewry. The very enormity of Karski’s report paradoxically worked against him being believed, and paralysed any action against the killings. Logistically unable to reach Poland, preoccupied with fighting the war on many fronts, and unwilling to believe even the Nazis capable of such bestiality, the Allies put the Holocaust on the back burner. When Karski took his tale across the Atlantic, the story was the same. President Roosevelt heard him out, then asked about the condition of horses in Poland."" 
  10. Claude Lanzmann (4 May 2011). "U.S Holocaust memorial Museum, Claude Lanzmann Interview with Jan Karski". Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive. "Karski first told Roosevelt that the Polish nation was depending on him to deliver them from the Germans. Karski said to Roosevelt, "All hope, Mr. President, has been placed by the Polish nation in the hands of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Karski says that he told President Roosevelt about Belzec and the desperate situation of the Jews. Roosevelt concentrated his questions and remarks entirely on Poland and did not ask one question about the Jews ". Watch the video, or see the full transcript" 
  11. The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation
  12. Szporer, Michael. "Jan Karski: The Man who Soldiered for Human Rights". University of Maryland. 
  13. Karski, Jan. 1944. "Polish Death Camp." Collier's, 14 October, pp. 18–19, 60–61.
  14. Abzug, Robert. H. 1999. America Views the Holocaust, 1933-1945: A Brief Documentary History. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, p. 183.
  15. Georgetown University video of the event
  16. Karski, J. Material Towards A Documentary History of the Fall of Eastern Europe (1938-1948); Ph.D. dissertation 1952 for Georgetown University; publication number AAT 0183534
  17. Jeffries, Stuart (9 June 2011). "Claude Lanzmann on why Holocaust documentary Shoah still matters". London. 
  18. "Interview with Jan Karski". Retrieved 2007-09-30. 
  19. Kaufman, Michael T. "Jan Karski Dies at 86; Warned West About Holocaust." New York Times. July 15, 2000.
  20. Yad Vashem recognizes Karski
  21. "Statue salutes Polish man who warned FDR of Nazi camps", New York Daily News, 12 November 2007
  22. "Monument to Honor Dr. Jan Karski", Polish-American Journal. 30 September 2002. vol 91; No. 9; page 8
  23. Jan Karski Educational Foundation (home)
  24. "President Obama Announces Jan Karski as a Recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom". April 26, 2012. Retrieved April 27, 2012. 
  25. 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom Ceremony
  26. The Foundation's website is
  27. "Matthew Kaminski: 'Gafa Obamy'". The Wall Street Journal. 30 May 2012. 
  28. Jan Karski Educational Foundation: Activities
  29. [1]
  30. [2]
  31. Wiesel: Karski “deserves to be left in peace.”
  32. Address by the former Foreign Minister of Poland Wladysław Bartoszewski at the ceremony of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, 27 January 2005 see pp. 156-157


Publications by Karski
  • "Polish Death Camp." Collier's, 14 October 1944, pp. 18–19, 60–61.
  • Courier from Poland: The Story of a Secret State, Boston 1944 (Polish edition: Tajne państwo: opowieść o polskim Podziemiu, Warszawa 1999).
  • Wielkie mocarstwa wobec Polski: 1919-1945 od Wersalu do Jałty. wyd. I krajowe Warszawa 1992, Wyd. PIW ISBN 83-06-02162-2
  • Tajna dyplomacja Churchilla i Roosevelta w sprawie Polski: 1940-1945.
  • Polska powinna stać się pomostem między narodami Europy Zachodniej i jej wschodnimi sąsiadami, Łódź 1997.
  • Jan Karski (2001). Story of a Secret State. Simon Publications. pp. 391. ISBN 1-931541-39-6. 
About Karski
  • E. Thomas Wood & Stanisław M. Jankowski (1994). Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust. John Wiley & Sons Inc. page 316; ISBN 0-471-01856-2
  • J. Korczak, Misja ostatniej nadziei, Warszawa 1992.
  • E. T. Wood, Karski: opowieść o emisariuszu, Kraków 1996.
  • J. Korczak, Karski, Warszawa 2001.
  • S. M. Jankowski, Karski: raporty tajnego emisariusza, Poznań 2009.

External links

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