Commemorations of Jan Karski

Jan Karski (1914–2000) was a legendary political emissary of the Polish Underground State and the Polish Government-in-Exile during World War II. He completed three successful missions between occupied Poland and the seat of the Polish government in France and Great Britain, passing on messages and documents. In 1942, as an eyewitness to the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto, he also informed the Polish authorities and Allied politicians about the extermination of Jews. See commemorations of Jan Karski in Poland and around the world.

Commemorating Jan Karski takes various forms – from the names of streets, squares and schools, through monuments in the form of benches, murals, commemorative coins and postage stamps, to awards named after him. These initiatives are both official – organised by the state or local government as well as grassroot ideas. His figure connects and inspires. The number of commemorations increased significantly in connection with the celebration of the Year of Karski (2014).

Projects which are disseminating knowledge about Jan Karski

In 2010, the Polish History Museum inaugurated the four-year project “Jan Karski – Unfinished Mission”, the aim of which was to preserve the memory of Jan Karski in Poland and in the world. Another milestone in disseminating knowledge about Karski was the Year of Jan Karski (2014) declared by the Polish Parliament on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Polish Underground State emissary.

In this way, on 6 December 2013, the Polish parliament paid tribute to “one of the most outstanding Poles of the 20th century [...], nowadays often referred ‘the man who tried to stop the Holocaust’” as recorded in the resolution of the Parliament.

As part of the celebration, numerous events were organized: meetings, exhibitions, educational activities, film screenings, publications and a motorcycle rally along the Karski’s trail. The National Bank of Poland issued commemorative coins in denominations of PLN 2, PLN 10 and PLN 200, while the Polish Post issued a stamp with the image of the famous courier.

Currently, the most active institutions disseminating knowledge about Jan Karski are the Jan Karski Educational Foundation, and its sister organization under the same name. The mission of the Foundation is to promote Karski’s legacy: promoting the highest standards of public service, defending human rights and building social relations based on tolerance and openness.

Karski in public space. Streets, benches, trees, plaques

Jan Karski streets and squares are in Białymstok, Bolesławiec, Chicago (Jan Karski Way), Czarnków, Częstochowa, Gdańsk, Gliwice, Głogów, Kielce, Kostrzyn nad Odrą, Krakow (Jan Karski Road Junction), Kutno, Legnica, Lublin, Łazy, Łódź, New York (Jan Karski Corner), Ostrołęka, Paris (Place Jan-Karski), Poznań, Ramat HaSharon in Israel (כיכר יאן קרסקי), Ruda Śląska, Rybnik, Sompolno, Środa Śląska, Warsaw (Jan Karski Boulevard on the bank of the Vistula River).

In 2002, soon after Karski’s death, the idea was born to commemorate Karski by building monuments in the form of benches, designed and made by the sculptor Karol Badyna. They were set up in Washington (2002; Georgetown University campus), Kielce (2005; Sienkiewicza Street), New York (2007; Jan Karski Corner), Łódź (2009; Memorial Mound in the Survivors Park), Tel Aviv (2009; Tel Aviv University campus), Warsaw (2013; Irena Sendlerowa Alley in front of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews) and Krakow (2016; Szeroka Street in front of the Remu synagogue).

The monument in Warsaw is different from the others. Karski is seated on a two-person sofa, and next to him lies the Story of a Secret State, his book from 1944, which is on display in the permanent exhibition of the nearby POLIN Museum. There is an inscription on the external side of the sofa:

Jan Karski (Kozielewski) 1914–2000
emissary of the authorities of the Polish Underground State
Professor of the Georgetown University in Washington
“Righteous Among the Nations”
awarded with the Order of the White Eagle
Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize
the man who wanted to stop the Holocaust
Warsaw 2012

Monuments to Jan Karski were also unveiled in Izbica (Lublin Province) and in Kotor (Montenegro). There are also dedicated to Jan Karki commemorative plaques in Kazimierz Dolny (6 Nadrzeczna Street), Kąty, his hometown Łódź (The Archcathedral in Łódź at 9 ks. Skorupki Street, Monument to the Righteous Among the Nations at 83 Wojska Polskiego Street, Tadeusz Kościuszko High School at 46 Sienkiewicza Street), Opole (1 Konsularna Street), Warsaw (218 Niepodległości Avenue, Jan Karski Boulevard, 6 Czerwonego Krzyża Street, 1 Krakowskie Przedmieście Street). In 2015, in Marcinkowice (Lesser Poland Province), the “Educational path following the Jan Karski’s release trail from Marcinkowice to Kąty was created.”

Karski is also commemorated by trees:

  • A tree in the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations of the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem;
  • Jan Karski’s Oak in Marcinkowice;
  • Jan Karski Memorial Oak in Lublin dedicated to Jan Karski at Niecała Street;
  • A tree in the Garden of the Righteous in Warsaw;
  • A tree in the Garden of the Righteous in Milano;
  • A tree in the Garden of the Righteous in Padua;

Schools and organizations named after Karski

The famous emissary of the Polish Underground State is a patron of many educational institutions and organizations:

On 25 and 26 March 2012, the 1st National Congress of Jan Karski Schools was held in Kielce. It took place under the slogan: “Jan Karski as an educational model for young people”.

Many commemorations have not been carried out. In 2012, the idea of naming the Lublin Airport after Jan Karski was announced, and a few years later, the Australian investor intended to launch Jan Karski Coal Mine in Kulik (Lublin Province). There was also a project to create Karski Gardens in Łódź.

Karski Awards

In 1992, Professor Jan Karski endowed the Jan Karski & Pola Nireńska Award. It is awarded annually by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York to authors of published works documenting Polish-Jewish relations and Jewish contributions to Polish culture. Among the award winners are: Barbara Engelking, Jan Jagielski, Michał Jagiełło, Hanna Krall, Piotr Matywiecki, Fr. Stanisław Musiał, Joanna Nalewajko-Kulikov, Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka, Alina Skibińska. 

Since 2000, the Jan Karski Eagle Award has also been bestowed. It is a distinction for people who “can care for Poland in a dignified way” and those who “wish Poland well, not being Poles”. Its winners were, among others: Władysław Anders, Michaił Gorbaczow, Marek Edelman, Jacek Kuroń, Adam Michnik, Ghetto Fighters’ House, Lech Wałęsa, Shevah Weiss. 

In 2017, the Jan Karski Society in New York minted the Medal for the 75th Anniversary of Jan Karski’s Mission. Honoured with it were: Pope Francis, Abraham Foxman, Archbishop Grzegorz Ryś, Maciej Siekierski, Tomasz Sikora.

Karski in museums

The story of Jan Karski is presented at permanent exhibitions in many museums, including POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, the Museum of the Second World War, Yad Vashem, the Gen. Emil Fieldorf “Nil” Museum of the Home Army in Krakow, Museum – Memorial Site in Bełżec. Since 1999, part of the exhibition at the Museum of the City of Łódź, within the so-called Pantheon of Great Inhabitants of Łódź, there is the office of Professor Jan Karski. At the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews In World War II, located in Markowa, there is a quote from Karski’s book The Secret State:

“For us, Poles, it was war and occupation. For them, the Jews, the end of the world.”

Jan Karski’s activities were also presented at the exhibition: “They Risked Their Lives. Poles who Saved Jews During the Holocaust”, prepared by POLIN Museum in partnership with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland. Since 2013, the exhibition has visited, among others, Berlin, Havana, Madrid, Mexico, Melbourne, Moscow, New York, Shanghai, Vilnius.

Karski in theatre plays

In 2014, the play “Karski” directed by Magdalena Łazarkiewicz was staged by Polish Television. In the same year, the Cyprian Kamil Norwid Theatre in Jelenia Góra invited viewers to a play Karskiego historia nieprawdziwa [Karki’s untrue story] (directed by Julia Mark), and the Marek Edelman Dialogue Center in Łódź staged Emisariusz [The emissary] (directed by Daria Kopiec) and Zupa rybna w Odessie [Fish Soup in Odessa] (directed by Szymon Bogacz), 

In 2018, the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk staged the theatre play Blizny Pamięci – rzecz o Janie Karskim [Scars of Memory – a thing about Jan Karski], based on the drama Blizny Wolności [Scars of Freedom] by Jacek Ryś and the radio drama Plamy w pamięci [Stains in Memory] by Jan Winch. The role of Jan Karski was played by Jerzy Zelnik and Sebastian Ryś. 

Jan Karski’s mission also inspired foreign artists. Derek Goldman directed the play Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski, Arthur Nauzyciel directed Jan Karski (mon nom est une fiction), and Dale McFadden – A Letter from Aunt Sophie.

Krzysztof Bielawski, July 2020
The article is based on: bibliography

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