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Jan Karski

Jan Karski in 1944

Jan Karski, a courier for the Polish underground during World War II and an early witness to the Holocaust, was awarded the second Wallenberg Medal in Ann Arbor in September 1991. Karski’s experiences as a spy for the Polish government-in-exile and for the underground resistance movement in Poland are so amazing and terrifying that they could be the product of a great novelist’s imagination. Fortunately, Karski’s deeds were fact, not fiction.

In 1939, after joining the Polish army, Karski was taken prisoner by the Red Army and sent to a Russian camp. He escaped from the camp, returned to German-occupied Poland and joined the anti-Nazi underground. A brilliant and well-educated young Polish Catholic, Karski spoke many languages and had a photographic memory. He was used as a courier between the government-in-exile in London and the underground authorities in Poland, making numerous secret and dangerous trips between France, Great Britain and Poland. In 1940 he was arrested again, this time by the Gestapo in Slovakia, and they tortured him. He was rescued by the Polish underground, and after receiving medical treatment he resumed his mission as a courier.

In the late summer of 1942 Karski was visited by two leaders of the Jewish underground who had left the Warsaw ghetto briefly to tell him about what they called “Hitler’s war against the Polish Jews.” They informed him that an estimated 1.8 million Jews had already been killed by the Germans and that more than half of the 500,000 Jews jammed into the Warsaw ghetto had been deported to a village some distance from Warsaw where the Germans had set up a death camp. Karski was able to infiltrate both the Warsaw ghetto and a German concentration camp. He observed first-hand the horrifying truth told to him by the two men from the Jewish underground, who had begged him to take the terrible news to Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. Karski was given a key whose soldered shaft contained microfilm images of hundreds of documents. Traveling on local trains through dangerous territory, he eventually reached London.

Jan Karski speaking in Ann Arbor, 1991

Karski relayed the first eyewitness account of the Holocaust to an incredulous and dismissive West. “In February 1943 I reported to Anthony Eden,” he later wrote. “He said that Great Britain had already done enough by accepting 100,000 refugees.” In July 1943 Karski arrived in the United States. Americans offered sympathy when Karski told them what was happening to European Jews. Karski left a secret meeting with Roosevelt believing that his story had not moved the president. But Roosevelt established the War Refugee Board as a result of meeting Karski. The policy of the United States changed overnight from indifference to action. Raoul Wallenberg’s mission to Budapest was instigated and financed by the War Refugee Board.

Jan Karski at his home in Washington, D.C., 1992

Karski learned a profound lesson as the result of his efforts to bring the news of the Holocaust to the world. “The common humanity of people, not the power of governments, is the only real protector of human rights,” he said during his Wallenberg Lecture in Ann Arbor. “I learned also that people in power are more than able to disregard their individual conscience if they come to the conclusion that it stands in the way of what they see as their official duty.”

Karski was so disillusioned when the war ended and Allied leaders began expressing shock and surprise at the discovery of the Nazi death camps that he ceased to speak about what he had seen. “I was disgusted,” he said in Ann Arbor. He stayed silent for thirty-five years until Elie Wiesel prevailed on him to speak out in 1981.

Karski never returned to Poland to live. He became an American citizen and earned a doctorate from Georgetown University, where he had a long and distinguished career as a professor of government. Karski was made an honorary citizen of Israel and treasured the medal presented to him at Yad Vashem, where he is listed among the Righteous Gentiles. This principled and courageous man, one of the great heroes of World War II, died in July 2000.