Jan Karski

Jan Karski (24 April 1914 – 13 July 2000) was a Polish World War II resistance movement fighter and later professor at Georgetown University. In 1942 and 1943 Karski reported to the Polish government in exile and the Western Allies on the situation in German-occupied Poland, especially the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, and the secretive Nazi extermination camps.

Jan Karski was born as Jan Kozielewski on 24 April 1914, in Łódź, where he was raised as a Catholic and remained so through his life. He grew up in a multi-cultural neighborhood, where the majority of the population was then Jewish.

After graduating from a local school, Kozielewski joined the 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 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 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. 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.

In 1942 Karski was selected, 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 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.

Since 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.
Recently, Jan Karski was posthumously awarded the Medal of Freedom. You can find out more information on Georgetown University’s website.

To read a more detailed account of the life and experiences of Jan Karski, please visit his obituary here.