Jan Karski at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.
Courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives (Photo #94619)
Jan Karski (1914-2000) was an official in the Polish Foreign Office before the Second World War. He completed his studies in Lvov's Jan Kazimierz University in 1935 and entered the Polish diplomatic service. As a junior diplomat his posts included London and Berlin. With the approach of the war in 1939, he was drafted and stationed in Oswiecim. Following his unit's retreat, he was taken prisoner by the Soviets and sent to a detention camp in Kozielszczyna from which he escaped.
Returning to Warsaw, Karski joined the underground. His knowledge of foreign languages and countries, and his photographic memory led him to become a resourceful courier, conveying secret information between underground authorities and the Polish government-in-exile in London. His first successful mission was in 1940. While preparing for his next assignment, he was captured and tortured by the Gestapo. Then, after an unsuccessful attempt on his life, Karski was transferred to a hospital from which he was rescued by the Polish underground and taken into hiding.
In spring of 1942, he met with leaders of the Jewish resistance. They arranged for Karski to be smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto and into a transit camp - probably Izbica - so he could see first hand the extent of Nazi atrocities. That October, Karski made a perilous journey across Europe to London to deliver the report of what he witnessed to the Polish government-in-exile, to British foreign minister Anthony Eden, and to other British leaders. He described to them what he had seen and warned them of Germany's plans to murder Europe's Jews. The following year he traveled to the United States and spoke with President Roosevelt, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, and other government officials. His information was met with disbelief and a reluctance to act. He was told that the military defeat of Germany would remain the Allies' primary objective.
Since Polish authorities realized that Karski's identity had become known to the German authorities, Karski remained in the United States, where he promoted Poland's cause and publicized information about the Holocaust. In 1982 he was honored by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.