Jan Karski (real name Jan Romuald Kozielewski) – born in Lodz on 24 April 1914, died in Washington on 13 July 2000.
In interwar Poland, he attended law school, studied diplomacy and graduated from a cadet school. Captured after the outbreak of World War Two, he managed to escape and became an active member of the Polish Underground. Thanks to his excellent memory and fluency in foreign languages, he was appointed political emissary of the Polish Underground State.
Arrested by the Gestapo while on a mission to France, he was brutally interrogated. In captivity Karski tried to commit suicide, fearing that he might reveal important information about the Polish Underground to the Germans when being tortured. Rescued, he was placed in a prison hospital, from which he was freed with the assistance of the Union for Armed Struggle.
After assuming the nom de guerre Jan Karski, which he would keep for the rest of his life, in 1942 he was sent on another mission to the United Kingdom and the United States. One of his principal tasks was to brief the Allies about the tragic situation of Jews under German occupation. When compiling his dossier, Karski infiltrated the Warsaw ghetto twice, and also managed to get into the transit camp at Izbica, from which Jews were transported to death camps.
He gave his eyewitness account to a large number of US and British politicians, journalists and artists, and met with the UK foreign secretary and the American president, among others. Yet the emissary’s dramatic appeals to save the Jewish people fell on deaf ears; his report would either meet with disbelief or be dismissed.
After the war, Jan Karski decided to emigrate to the US. He took up political science studies and received a PhD from Georgetown University, Washington D.C., where he would give lectures on international relations and the theory of communism for the following forty years. His students included the future US President Bill Clinton.
Jan Karski also authored several books. Story of a Secret State, his 1944 account of the Polish Underground State’s operations that was published in the US, would soon become a bestseller with editions in many languages.
In the last twenty years of his life, Jan Karski returned to his “unfinished mission,” giving many speeches in America, Israel and Poland about the mass extermination of Jews during WWII, and his attempts to attract the world’s attention to this tragedy.
Jan Karski was honoured with many prestigious distinctions: he was named “Righteous Among the Nations,” eight Polish universities bestowed their honorary degrees on him, he was awarded the Order of the White Eagle (Poland’s highest state decoration) and made an honorary citizen of Israel. Karski in turn endowed the Jan Karski & Pola Nirenska prize, which the New York-based YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw award each year to the authors of a publication showcasing how Polish Jews have contributed to Polish culture and what role they play in it.
Photo © E. Thomas Wood.
Compiled by: Polish History Museum based on “The Emissary. Story of Jan Karski” by Maciej Kozłowski
Source: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Republic of Poland
Offical website of The Year of Jan Karski 2014