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

Jan Karski (24 June 1914 – 13 July 2000), was a Polish World War II resistance movement fighter and scholar 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 extermination camps.



Jan Karski was born as Jan Kozielewski on 24 June 1914[1] in Łódź. He grew up in a multi-cultural neighbourhood, where the majority of the population was Jewish (himself being a catholic). After graduating from a local school, Kozielewski joined the Jan Kazimierz University 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.

Kozielewski 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 scholarship, in January 1939 he started his work in the Polish ministry of foreign affairs. After 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 grade and, pretending to be an ordinary soldier, was handed over to the Germans during an exchange of Polish prisoners of war, in effect escaping the Katyn massacre.


World War II resistance

Jan Karski, 1944.

After crossing into General Government (the German-held part of Poland) in November 1939 he managed to escape a train to a POW camp 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 Witold, Piasecki, Kwaśniewski, Znamierowski, Kruszewski and Kucharski.

In January 1940 Karski started 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 Home Army.

In the summer of 1942 Karski was chosen 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 was twice smuggled by Jewish underground leaders into the Warsaw Ghetto for the purpose of showing him firsthand what was happening to the Polish Jews. Also, disguised as a Ukrainian camp guard, he visited what he thought was Bełżec death camp.[2] (It is now believed that he actually saw a nearby sorting camp of Izbica)

In 1942 Karski reported to the Polish, British and U.S. governments on the situation in Poland, especially the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Holocaust of the Jews. He had also carried from Poland a microfilm with further informations from the Underground Movement on the extermination of European Jews in German occupied Poland. The Polish Foreign Minister, Count Edward Raczynski, provided on this basis the Allies with one of the earliest and most accurate accounts of the Holocaust.[3] Jan Karski met with Polish politicians in exile including the prime minister, as well as members of political parties such as the PPS, SN, SP, SL, Jewish Bund and Poalei Zion. He also spoke to Anthony Eden, the British foreign secretary, and included a detailed statement on what he had seen in Warsaw and Bełżec. In 1943 in London he met the then much known journalist Arthur Koestler. He then traveled to the United States and reported to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. His report was a major factor in informing the West.

In July 1943, Karski again personally reported to Roosevelt about the situation in Poland. During their meeting Roosevelt suddenly interrupted his report and asked about the condition of horses in occupied Poland.[4][5][6] He also met with many other government and civic leaders in the United States, including Felix Frankfurter, Cordell Hull, William Joseph Donovan, Samuel Cardinal Stritch, and Stephen Wise. Karski also presented his report to media, bishops of various denominations, members of the Hollywood film industry and artists, but without success. Many of those he spoke to did not believe him, or supposed that his testimony was much exaggerated or was propaganda from the Polish government in exile. It is possible, however, that Karski's descriptions influenced FDR to create the War Refugee Board several months later in January 1944.

In 1944 Karski published Story of a Secret State, in which he related his experiences in wartime Poland. The book was initially to be made into a film, but this never occurred. The book proved to be a major success, with more than 400,000 copies sold in the United States until the end of WWII.

Life in the United States

After the war Karski was unable to return to communist-ruled Poland and made his home in the United States and began his studies at Georgetown University, where he received a PhD in 1952[7]. He taught at Georgetown for 40 years in the areas of East European affairs, comparative government and international affairs, rising to become one of the most celebrated and notable members of its faculty. In 1954, he became a citizen of the United States. In 1985, he published the academic study The Great Powers and Poland.

His attempts at stopping the Holocaust were forgotten till 1978 when the French film-maker Claude Lanzmann recorded his testimony. But Lanzmann took seven years to produce his film Shoah and, in spite of earlier promises, did not mention Karski's most important role of informing the world about the Holocaust. In their book on Karski, Wood and Jankowski, remind readers that Karski then wrote an article on the film Shoah (published in English, French[8] and Polish) "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. After 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 most of whose family had perished in the Holocaust[9]. She committed suicide in 1992. Karski died in Washington, D.C. in 2000. They had no children.

Why no rescue

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.[10]


In honour of his efforts on behalf of Polish Jews, Karski was made an honorary citizen of Israel in 1994. In Jerusalem a tree bearing his name was planted in 1982 in the Alley of the Righteous Among the Nations.

Statues honoring Karski have been placed in New York City at the corner of 37th Street and Madison Avenue (renamed "Jan Karski Corner"[11]) and on the grounds of Georgetown University in Washington, DC.[12]

Georgetown University, Oregon State University, Baltimore Hebrew College, Hebrew College of America, Warsaw University, Maria Curie-Skłodowska University, and University of Łódź all awarded him honorary doctorates.

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 resistence 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." [13]


  1. ^ Sometimes the date is incorrectly given as 24 April, after his false wartime documents.
  2. ^ Karski himself identified the camp as Bełżec death camp in his book published in the USA during the war, even though he knew at the time that it was not Bełżec. However, the descriptions he gave are incompatible with what is known about Bełżec and his biographers Wood and Jankowski later proposed that Karski had actually rather been in the Izbica Lubelska "sorting camp". Many historians have accepted this theory, as did Karski himself.
  3. ^ Note of the Foreign Minister Edward Raczynski "The mass extermination of Jews in German occupied Poland, Note addressed to the Governments of the United Nations on December 10th 1942" published later (30 december 1942) with other documents as a widely distributed leaflet. See:
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ KARSKI, JAN 1952. MATERIAL TOWARDS A DOCUMENTARY HISTORY OF THE FALL OF EASTERN EUROPE (1938-1948). Ph.D. diss., Georgetown University. In Dissertations & Theses: Full Text [database on-line]; available from (publication number AAT 0183534; accessed July 18, 2008)
  8. ^ See this article, published in the "Esprit" monthly under the following link
  9. ^
  10. ^ "Interview with Jan Karski". Retrieved 2007-09-30. 
  11. ^ Source: Trapasso, Clare. "Statue salutes Polish man who warned FDR of Nazi camps," New York Daily News. November 21, 2007. Online:
  12. ^ Source: "Monument to Honor Dr. Jan Karski," Polish-American Journal. September 30, 2002. Vol. 91; No. 9; Pg. 8.
  13. ^ Address by the former Foreign Minister of Poland Wladislaw Bartoszewski at the ceremony of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, 27 January 2005 see page 156, 157

See also


  • E. Thomas Wood & Stanisław M. Jankowski (1994). Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust. John Wiley & Sons Inc.. pp. 316. ISBN 0-471-01856-2. 
  • Jan Karski (2001). Story of a Secret State. Simon Publications. pp. 391. ISBN 1-931541-39-6. 

Further reading

External links


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