Jan Karski was born as Jan Kozielewski on 24 June 1914, in Łódź, where he was raised a Catholic and remained so through his life. He grew up in a multi-cultural neighbourhood, where the majority of the population was then Jewish.
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. 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 his work in the Polish ministry of foreign affairs. Following 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
In November 1939, on a train to a POW camp in General Government (a part of Poland which had not been fully incorporated by Nazi Germany into the 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 Home Army.
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 showing him first hand what was happening to the Polish Jews. Also, disguised as a Ukrainian camp guard, he visited what he thought was Bełżec death camp.
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 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 with 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 be published later along with other documents in a widely distributed leaflet.
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 later author of Darkness at Noon. He then traveled to the United States and reported to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. His report was a major factor in prompting 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.
Karski met with many other government and civic leaders in the United States, including Felix Frankfurter, Cordell Hull, William Joseph Donovan, and 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." Karski presented his report to media, bishops of various denominations (including Cardinal Samuel Stritch), members of the Hollywood film industry and artists, but without success. His warning against 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. In 1944 Karski published Courier from Poland: The 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 World War II.
Life in the United States
After the war Karski entered the United States and began his studies at Georgetown University, where he earned a Ph.D in 1952. 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, rising to become one of the most celebrated and notable members of its faculty. In 1985, he published the academic study The Great Powers and Poland.
His attempts at stopping the Holocaust were publicized after 1978, after the French film-maker Claude Lanzmann recorded his testimony for Lanzmann's film Shoah. The film was released in 1985 and, in spite of earlier promises, 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.
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 all died in the Holocaust. She committed suicide in 1992. Karski died in Washington, D.C. in 2000. They 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.”
In honour of his efforts on behalf of Polish Jews, Karski was made an honorary citizen of Israel in 1994. On 2 June 1982, Yad Vashem recognised Jan Karski as Righteous Among the Nations. In Jerusalem a tree bearing his name was planted the same year in the Alley of the Righteous Among the Nations.
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) and on the grounds of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Georgetown University, Oregon State University, Baltimore Hebrew College, Warsaw University, Maria Curie-Skłodowska University, and the University of Łódź all awarded Karski 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 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."