Jan Karski

(Jan Kozielewski)Born in 1914 in Lodz. During the years 1931-1936, he studied law and diplomacy at the Jan Kazimierz University in Lwow, and then continued his studies at renowned universities in England, Germany and Switzerland. He graduated from the Artillery School in Wlodzimierz Wolynski with the rank of ensign. In 1939, he began working in the diplomatic corps.

During the September campaign in 1939, he was taken prisoner by the Soviets. He managed to escape and made his way to Krakow, where he was associated with the Central Committee of Independence Organizations, which had been created at the initiative of General W. Sikorski. He was then a member of the Union for Armed Struggle. One of his first missions as courier was to Paris, where he gave the Polish government valuable reports and evaluations of the situation. During his second mission, because the borders had been sealed, and as the result of Slovak collaboration, Karski was arrested by the Gestapo, then interrogated and tortured. He tried to commit suicide in order to avoid divulging any secrets. He was freed by a PPS squadron on orders from the commander of the Union for Armed Struggle, Colonel Tadeusz Komorowski, known as "Bor".

Beginning in May 1941, on orders from the Union for Armed Struggle's headquarters, the Office of Information and Propaganda, Karski studied the situation of the Jews and Polish-Jewish relations. He made contact with Adolf Berman from the Jewish National Committee and with Leon Fajner from the Bund. They enabled him to see the Warsaw ghetto for himself in secret, and transmitted the shocking message to the world. The Office of Information and Propaganda also received an alarming report from the Home Army headquarters in Lublin of mass executions of Jews in the newly opened Belzec camp. In mid-October 1942, Karski was assigned the task of going to Belzec. He went to the camp dressed in the uniform of an Estonian guard thanks to help from a guide. This action lasted an hour, and Karski learned that the camp commandant was named Gotlieb Hering and that exhaust fumes from engines taken from Soviet tanks were being used to kill people. As he recalled years later, that experience shocked him deeply.

Using false documents of a forced laborer working in France, he went through France, the Pyrenees and Spain to Portugal, where he went by boat to a British ship that took him to Gibraltar; from there, he went to London. There, he told members of the Polish government, General W. Sikorski and Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, everything that he had learned, and gave reports on the situation of the Jews, the genocide being carried out, and the message from the Polish Jews to the world, a forty-page report prepared by employees from the Office of Information and Propaganda: Henryk Wolinski, Ludwik Widerszal and Stanislaw Herbst. The message of the Polish Jews to the world also urged the Allies to announce that "preventing the physical extermination of the Jews is one of the Allies' war aims" and that the Third Reich would be bombed in retaliation.

At the request of the Polish government, Karski gave all the information in his possession to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Great Britain, Anthony Eden; the leader of the conservatives, Lord Cranborne; the leader of the Labour Party, Arthur Greenwood; trade union representatives; MPs and also leading intellectuals, including H. G. Wells and Arthur Koestler. Without mentioning the name of the report's author, Koestler presented its contents on the BBC. In 1943, together with T. Mann and A. Tolstoy, he wrote The Fate of the Jews.
Karski's next mission was to see President Roosevelt, whom he informed about the fate of the Jews and the Poles, and about the heroic struggle that was being waged there every day. According to a close colleague of the president, John Pehl, this meeting prompted the formation of the War Refugee Board. In the United States, Karski also met with the president of the American Jewish Congress, Stephen Wise; a member of the World Jewish Congress, Nauchum Goldman; and a Supreme Court judge, Felix Frankfurter.

On November 27, 1942, the London National Council, representing the Polish government in exile, appealed to the Allies to act in unison against genocide, including that being carried out against the Jewish nation already underway. On December 10, 1942, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Polish government in exile issued a memorandum on that same subject. On December 17, an announcement was made by twelve states condemning the extermination of Jews and calling for the perpetrators to be brought to justice after the Nazi tyranny was overthrown. Only isolated heroic individuals provided Jews with concrete assistance. Karski was shocked by the futility of his mission. Years later, he said: "The Allied leadership knew what was happening to the Jews. They just didn't know what to do. For them, it was a 'side-issue'".

Karski's mission, despite having been encrypted, was deciphered by German intelligence, and Nazi propaganda announced that Karski was a Bolshevik agent, paid by American Jews, who is defaming the policy of the Third Reich in the USA. Soviet propaganda, through Soviet Russia Today, published in English with Soviet funds and distributed in the USA, described Karski as an aristocrat indifferent to the fate of workers and peasants, an anti-Semite linked with Polish nationalists, a provocateur attempting to undermine the Allies' efforts, and a marionette in the hands of the London government. The publication warned that he should not be trusted.

After Karski's mission ended, he was not able to return to Poland, and was instead turned over to the Polish Embassy in the United States. He wrote an account of the Polish underground state, Story of A Secret State. (The first and only Polish edition was published in 1999: Tajne Panstwo: Opowiesc o polskim podziemiu (Warsaw, Twoj Styl).

After the Second World War, Karski was unable to return to communist Poland. He remained in the United States, where he continued his research, taught East and Central European history at many leading American universities, including Georgetown and Columbia, as well as in sixteen Asian and Franocophone African countries, at the request of the State Department. He took part in the editing of a Catholic encyclopedia, as well as the Colliers Encyclopedia. In addition to being a Fulbright scholar, he also wrote The Great Powers & Poland, 1919-1945: From Versailles to Yalta (1985). He received many honorary doctorates, and was the subject of a book by T. E. Wood and S. Jankowski titled Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust (1994). On June 7, 1982, the Yad Vashem Institute awarded Karski the title Righteous Among the Nations, and the State of Israel made him an honorary citizen. Jan Karski died in the year 2000.

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