The story of Jan Karski (according to the latest research)
Jan Karski is 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 United Kingdom, delivering 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.
Table of contents
- Łódź and Lviv. Jan Karski's early years ⇩
- 1939: Karski's combat trail and the Soviet captivity ⇩
- Marian Kozielewski and the beginning of Karski's underground activities ⇩
- From occupied Poland to Angers in France. Karski's first report ⇩
- Emissary of the Polish Government in Exile ⇩
- Arrest. Activities in the occupied country ⇩
- Report on the extermination of Jews ⇩
- Karski's meeting with activists of the Jewish underground ⇩
- Witness of the extermination of Jews. The Warsaw ghetto and the transit ghetto in Izbica Lubelska ⇩
- Not only Karski. Informing the world about Holocaust ⇩
- The Polish Underground State in the face of the Holocaust ⇩
- Meeting with Roosevelt. Karski's mission in the United States ⇩
- Bestseller: The Secret State. Karski's propaganda activity ⇩
- Karski's fate after the war ⇩
- Honouring Karski ⇩
Jan Karski (birthname Kozielewski) was born in Łódź in 1914, into a poor craftsmen’s family. Jan’s father died early, and he was brought up by his mother, to whom he owed his zealous religiosity. An important role in Karski's life was played by seventeen years older brother Marian - a legionnaire, member of the Polish Military Organisation, a high-ranking officer of the State Police in reborn Poland. In Jan’s youth, Marian served as his protector, a life guide and to some extent a promoter of his professional career.
The Kozielewski family home was deeply Catholic and patriotic, but in the spirit of Piłsudski, not of the National Democratic Party. Although Jan attended a Jesuit-run primary school, where he had no opportunity to meet classmates Jews, he later established several friendships with Jews in a state secondary school.
“From the early years of my youth, at Marshal Piłsudski's secondary school in Łódź, I was getting kindness, friendship and help from Jews,” he recalled years later.
After graduating from school, Jan began law studies at the Jan Kazimierz University in Lviv, where at that time his brother was the provincial police commander. During his studies and after graduation, Karski completed diplomatic and consular internships at posts in Romania, Germany, Switzerland and United Kingdom. In 1938, after completing a higher diplomatic and consular course and passing the exam with the top mark, he was employed in the Consular Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he encountered the anti-Jewish emigration policy of the Polish government. A short time later he became the secretary of Wiktor Tomir Drymmer, considered the power behind the throne in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The promising diplomatic career was interrupted by the outbreak of the war.
As a graduate of the Artillery Reserve Cadet School, Jan Karski was assigned to the 5th Regiment of Mounted Artillery in Oświęcim (in 1940, in the same barracks, the Germans were to establish the Auschwitz concentration camp). His unit was part of the Krakow Cavalry Brigade and followed the combat trail from the Dąbrowa Basin, through the Kielce region to the Zamość region, where it was defeated by the Germans on September 23, 1939. Kozielewski's unit decided to break through to Hungary, but the next day he was captured by the Soviets near Bełżec.
Karski showed good intuition: he ripped off the cadet's insignia from his uniform and gave a distorted surname during the registration of prisoners so that he would not be associated with his brother. He purported to be a private, and as such he was included in the Soviet-German prisoner exchange and transported to a POW camp in Radom in November 1939. His fellow officers, with whom he was captured by the Red Army, were murdered in the Katyn massacre.
After a short period in German captivity, Karski managed to escape from a train to a POW camp and found his way to Warsaw. There he met his brother. Marian Kozielewski, who for the last few years before the war served as the commander of the State Police in Warsaw, and after its capitulation, in agreement with the president of the city, Stefan Starzyński, he continued to hold this post. As the Warsaw commander of the Polish Police of the General Government (the so-called blue police) subordinated to the German occupier, he also organized underground structures, trying to draw patriotic policemen into them. It was Marian Kozielewski who swore Jan to the underground. In September 1939, Jan was promoted to the rank of second lieutenant.
On his brother’s recommendation Karski contacted a group of political associates of General Władysław Sikorski, who formed the so-called Political Bureau and Central Committee of Independence Organizations (Centralny Komitet Organizacji Niepodległościowych – CKON). The leading figure in this circle was Marian Borzęcki, in the 1920s the commander-in-chief of the State Police (this explains his relationship with Marian Kozielewski), and later the vice-president of Warsaw. This milieu had the ambition to play the role of the main centre of civil political conspiracy, and this caused some strife between it and the military conspiracy dominated by Piłsudski’s followers as well as members of traditional political parties. Karski was ordered to make a trip to the territories incorporated into the Third Reich and the USSR. The result of this mission, during which he visited Łódź, Kraków, Lublin, Lviv, and possibly also Poznań, was a report on the situation under both occupations which he wrote together with his brother. The report was successfully delivered to the Polish government-in-exile through a Yugoslav diplomat.
It is not entirely clear who was the main initiator of sending Karski on a courier mission to the government of General Sikorski in Angers, France. Was it, as Karski himself wrote, Borzęcki – in that case Karski would have to be recognised as an emissary of the CKON – or else, as documents drawn up in Paris in 1940 suggest, he was rather his brother's personal envoy (this is the opinion of Karski's biographer, Andrzej Żbikowski). For the CKON it was important to convey to the government its own evaluation of the political situation in the underground and to obtain confirmation of its position, while Marian Kozielewski wanted to provide, through the most trusted person, a declaration of loyalty to the Polish government and information about the police conspiracy network he was creating.
On January 20, 1940, Karski set out via Slovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Italy to France. In Angers, he dictated a comprehensive report on the situation in the country. It included a description of the conditions under both occupations, an account of the political situation and social moods as well as the society attitude towards the government in exile. A separate part of this so-called Karski's first report was devoted to the situation of the Jewish population. Karski compassionately described the German repressions against Jews, the deprivation of their rights, acts of humiliation, and the conditions in a refugee camp on the German-Soviet border. He incisively noted that the German policy was aimed at the destruction of Jews. In turn, citing widespread opinions about the enthusiastic attitude of Jews towards the Soviet administration, he nuanced it with references to their experience of discrimination in pre-war Poland.
Karski devoted a significant part of this account to the relations between Poles and Jews, without disguising the hostility towards Jews, which persisted in wide circles of Polish society:
“Their attitude towards Jews is mostly ruthless, often merciless. Most of them use the advantages that the new situation gives them. They often use them, often even abuse them. To some extent this brings them closer to the Germans."
In fueling and using Polish anti-Semitism by the Germans, he saw the danger of moral decline of the Poles.
“The nation hates its mortal enemy - Karski wrote - but this issue creates a kind of narrow footbridge, on which a large part of Polish society and the Germans a g r e e a b l y meet each other”.
Karski's analysis written sine ira et studio testified to his great objectivity. However, the truth about the anti-Jewish moods in the occupied country turned out to be unprintable and Karski was asked to edit the report. In the second version, the more drastic enunciations were softened, and diagnoses about the use of anti-Semitism by the Germans as a common ground with the occupied nation were replaced with warnings of a potential danger.
With his gift of astute observation, analytical talent, and excellent photographic memory, Karski made the best impression in Angers. He gained the sympathy and trust of one of General Sikorski's closest associates, Professor Stanisław Kot. A brave and disciplined young officer, a devoted patriot, distinguished by diplomatic experience and knowledge of foreign languages, he was perfectly suitable for the position of political emissary of the government. His task was to convey to the most important people of the underground the views of General Sikorski and Minister Kot, who was responsible for contacts with the country, on the desired model of the emerging structures of the Polish Underground State (especially the relations between the Government Delegate for Poland, the commander of the Union of Armed Struggle (Związe4k Walki Zbrojnej – ZWZ) and the Political Consultative Committee of underground political parties). Thus, Karski had a much more important mission than that of an ordinary courier. While preparing for it, he thoroughly learned the secrets of political life in exile and in the occupied country.
Karski arrived in Warsaw in May 1940 and, after holding a series of meetings with national politicians, he went back to France. The uniqueness of Karski's mission as a political emissary - both in 1940 and later in 1942 - consisted of two matters.
He had deep knowledge of its extraordinary importance; entrusting it to one man was in fact extremely risky for conspiratorial reasons, but the weakness at that time of the communication channels between the country and the government in exile left no other option. At the same time, Karski had to strictly and impartially convey to the addressees the often contradictory positions of the conflicting entities. He recalled:
“I was the sworn depositary of all the most important plans, secrets and details concerning the internal affairs of the Underground. But not only that. I gave an oath to individual parties to be a courier on a mission to their representatives in Sikorski's office. I swore that I would deliver the entrusted messages only and solely to the person for whom they are intended and that I would never use my knowledge against any political party or for the benefit of my own career. I was clearly put in the role of a confessor, or rather a kind of confessional »channel« between Warsaw and Paris”.
Everyone who came into contact with Karski at that time confirmed that he performed this task impeccably.
Karski's second mission failed. He was arrested in Slovakia and handed over to the Gestapo. Tortured in prison, fearing that he might reveal secret information, he attempted suicide, fortunately unsuccessfully. The Germans took him to a hospital in Nowy Sącz and there he managed to contact the underground. Organizing his escape from the hospital was a joint action of the Union for Armed Struggle and the Polish Socialist Party of Krakow. For the next six months, Karski was recovering under conspiratorial quarantine in the nearby estate of Kąty.
He resumed the underground activities in 1941, being assigned to the Information and Propaganda Bureau of the ZWZ, first in Krakow and later in Warsaw. His duties included analysing the underground press of various political trends and listening to foreign radio stations.
“My third function was to maintain communication between the General Headquarters and individual political centres in the country. [...] Notwithstanding the foregoing, the Government Delegation (Department of the Interior) entrusted me from time to time with the task of making contact on behalf of the Government Delegation with smaller political groups."
Thus, Karski was one of the persons most familiar with the meanders of underground political life in occupied Poland. This predestined him to play once again the role of political emissary - in 1942. This time, the mission to the government in London was formally entrusted to him by the Polish Government Delegate’s Office at Home and the Political Consultative Committee of underground political parties. On their behalf, and at the request of the commander-in-chief of the Home Army, Karski was to transfer to the government the verbally conveyed and written information about the situation in the occupied country and deliver microfilmed documents. Apart from this, he was to convey information face-to-face and postulates of political parties to their representatives in exile, as well as a message from several other organizations and people with whom he met with the consent of the Government Delegate.
"The aforementioned materials - wrote Karski after arriving in London - I am obliged under oath to transfer with all faithfulness, accuracy and to the best of my will, fully guided by the principles of impartiality. I have no right to officially explain, elucidate or analyse the works and persons of the aforementioned centres. [...] I am aware of the difficulties and delicacy of my mission from the political point of view. I understand how much trust was placed in me by the Government Delegate’s Office, the Parties and the Commander in Chief, giving me verbal and many a time contradictory descriptions of the political situation in our homeland.”
Karski set off on his next courier journey on September 27, 1942. After three days he reached Lyon. Due to conspiratorial reasons, in his book The Story of a Secret State published in 1944, he wrote that his path led through Paris. In reality, however, he headed straight to the southern, unoccupied by Germans part of France, the so-called the Vichy France. At his destination, he handed over to the head of the Polish underground organization in France, the keys with the microfilmed documents soldered inside them. Himself, due to a “giveaway” in the organization that coincided with his arrival, was got stuck in Lyon for over a month. For this reason, Karski's mail reached London via Lisbon on November 13, while he himself arrived in England via Madrid and Gibraltar on November 26, 1942, and two days later - after being questioned by British counterintelligence - he visited the Deputy Prime Minister Stanisław Mikołajczyk.
Until now, the historiography attributed to Karski delivering to London a 12-page report prepared at the Home Army's Information and Propaganda Bureau on the so-called great liquidation action of the Warsaw ghetto carried out by the Germans from 22nd July till 21st September 1942. The report also contained information about the functioning of the Belzec extermination camp.
As it transpires from the latest research by Adam Puławski, this report, along with the study "Anti-Jewish Action 1942", was sent by another courier route, via Budapest and Bern to Lyon. From there it was shipped further together with Karski's keys. That was the reason why in London it was wrongly thought that both dispatches were parts of the mail carried by Karski. Due to a similar mistake, the historiography refers to a two-page excerpt from these reports in English, prepared by the Polish government, submitted to the British authorities and made available to the press on November 24, i.e. before the emissary's arrival in London. Concerning the materials on the extermination of Jews, the microfilm transported by Karski included - according to Puławski's findings - a letter from the Bund socialist party to Szmul Zygielbojm and the famous Protest! by Zofia Kossak.
Karski knew Zofia Kossak personally and held her in high esteem. The Catholic organization which she founded, the Polish Rebirth Front (Front Odrodzenia Polski), was on the list of organizations represented by him as an emissary, that he drew up after his arrival in London (perhaps he was even its member). It seems that Karski shared the moral views of the writer, who in her underground journalism condemned the demoralization of Polish society in the context of the extermination of Jews (participation in pogroms, blackmails and denunciations). By a coincidence, on the day when Karski left for London, the Konrad Żegota Social Committee to Aid Jews (Społeczny Komitet Pomocy Żydom im. Konrada Żegoty) was established. Kossak was its co-founder.
In his memoirs, Karski modestly compared his own role to a "live phonograph record", which was to faithfully convey the received message. However, he was much more than that - an outstanding analyst and expert on the political problems of the occupied country. Apart from meetings with ministers and politicians in exile, being part of his mandate as an emissary, he spent the first weeks after his arrival in London dictating hundreds of pages of reports on the situation in occupied Poland intended for the government of General Sikorski. For his services, Lieutenant Jan Karski was awarded the Silver Cross of the Order of Virtuti Militari.
The most important problems raised in Karski's analyses were the divergences between the Government Delegation, the main political parties and the command of the Home Army, relating to the issue of primacy in the structures of the Polish Underground State. Another pressing problem - emphasized especially by the commander-in-chief of the Home Army - was the functioning on Polish territory (both the government and the country held the position of Polish sovereignty within the borders of 1939) of Soviet guerrilla units and the communist Polish Workers' Party considered to be a Soviet agentry. Their subversive activities were considered a serious threat to both the Polish underground and the civilian population, against whom The Germans retaliated. Due to the allied - although just entering the crisis phase - Polish-Soviet relations, the AK commander had his hands tied in this matter.
While preparing for his mission, Karski also met representatives of the Jewish underground: Leon Feiner, the leader of the Bund, and a Zionist whose identity Karski never learned. He might have been Menachem Kirszenbaum or Adolf Berman.
Years later, Karski related their dramatic meeting as follows:
“During this conversation, as well as in the following conversations, I learned horrible things. Both interlocutors were extremely distressed. They were aware that the deportations from the Warsaw ghetto, which began this summer, as well as from other ghettos throughout the country, meant the extermination of the entire nation.
[…] I remember the words of the Bund representative: »You Poles also suffer, many of you will die, but after the war, Poland will be rebuilt, the wounds will heal. But then there will be no Polish Jews anymore. Hitler will lose this war, but he will win the war against Jews«.
[…] They described the general situation more or less in this way: The systematic extermination of Jews in occupied Poland is not motivated by the military requirements of the ongoing war. Hitler plans to exterminate Jews before the end of the war regardless of its outcome. Polish Jews are completely defenceless. They do not have their own country, their own representation in the authorities of the allied countries. They can count neither on the Polish underground nor on Polish society as such. Poles can save individuals; they are not able to interrupt or even delay the extermination. In this state of affairs, the historical responsibility lies with the governments of the Allied countries, which must take extraordinary measures”.
Among these measures, Jewish activists suggested:
- the announcement by the Allied States that stopping the Holocaust is one of the goals of the war;
- by dropping leaflets and radio broadcasts informing the German society about the Holocaust, the methods of carrying it out and the names of the criminals;
- bombing of specific facilities in Germany, liquidating German prisoners of war and civilians interned by the Allies;
They also called for money to be sent for prisoners of ghettos and camps, and for Jews in hiding. Representatives of Jewish organizations in the West called for active protests: strikes, demonstrations, hunger strikes, and if that does not help - for demonstrative suicide. The President of the Republic of Poland, Władysław Raczkiewicz, was requested to ask Pope Pius XII to excommunicate the criminals.
On Feiner's initiative, Jan Karski entered the walled Warsaw ghetto twice to see the conditions there with his own eyes. It was probably at the turn of August and September 1942, during a short break in the German deportation action. He was shocked by what he saw - these emotions were still alive in his account to Claude Lanzmann 35 years later:
“Streets full. Full of people. As if they all lived outside. They exchange their miserable wares. Everyone wants to sell what they have. Three onions. Two onions. A few biscuits. Everyone sells. Everyone is begging. Cry. Hunger. Those terrible kids. Some run alone. Others sit with their mothers. It wasn't Humanity. It was kind of… kind of… hell.
[…] Suddenly panic. Jews are fleeing the street where I am now. We jump into some house. [...] He pushes me towards the window: »Please look out, mister, look out!«. I saw two boys. Pleasant faces, Hitler Youth uniforms. They walked. With every step they take, the Jews run away, they disappear. They chatted. Suddenly one of them reaches into his pocket with his hand, at a drop of a hat. Shot! The sound of broken glass. Screams. The other one congratulates him, they leave. I stood petrified. Then this Jewish woman - she must have realized that I was not a Jew - gave me a hug: 'You better go, it's not for you'.
[…] Everywhere you were choking. Polluted streets. Traffic. Tension. Madness. […] We walked for about an hour. From time to time he stopped: 'Have a look at this Jew!'. A motionless Jew, he stands. I asked: 'Is he dead'. He: 'No, no, he's alive. Mister Witold, remember! He is dying. He is dying. Please look at him! Tell them there! You saw. Don't forget!'”.
A few days after his visit to the ghetto, Feiner was to tell Karski that it was possible to enter the extermination camp in Belzec. In fact, Karski visited the transit ghetto in Izbica Lubelska. It is not entirely clear whether Karski was really convinced that he had got to Belzec - the location of which he knew well from his repeated trips to Lviv - or whether in The Story of a Secret State he used the name as a camouflage.
Disguised as a Ukrainian guard, he was there when Jews were loaded into goods wagons. Those scenes - shooting into the crowd, cramming people into lime-poured wagons, choking, screams - caused him nervous shock, and the memory of them haunted him all his life.
Contrary to the popular version of Karski's biography, informing the Polish government and the Allies about the extermination of Jews was not Jan Karski's main task as an emissary. On the list of organizations whose mandate he had, "the Bund (on behalf of all Jewry)" was on the 11th place (right behind the Polish Rebirth Front), and on the list of issues he discussed during meetings with Polish and British politicians in London the "Jewish question" was at the last place. Karski was not, needless to say, the first one to inform the Allies about the Holocaust.
Information about Jews being murdered by the Germans had earlier come through various channels. For example, the BBC broadcast on June 26, 1942 was based on a Bund letter sent to London through a Swedish businessman; it included information about the first centre of immediate extermination in Chełmno on the Ner river and about mass executions of Jews in the East. One of the important signals that reached the Allied governments was a telegram sent on August 11 by the representative of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva, Gerhard Riegner who obtained information from Berlin about German plans to murder all Jews.
Messages about German crimes against Jews were included in the situational reports of the Polish Underground State, but they usually arrived in London late via courier (priority was given to the information on the acts of repression against the Polish population, provided on an ongoing basis). In 1942, the full scale of the unprecedented crime of the Holocaust was not yet known or fully understood, and the Polish authorities - both in Poland and in exile - managed information about crimes against Jews in such a way that they would not obscure the image of the German terror against the Polish population.
This does not mean, however, that the information provided by Karski was not significant, especially since its importance was strengthened by the status of the emissary as an eyewitness. The reports on the Holocaust, which reached London in autumn 1942, became the basis of the Polish diplomatic action, which resulted in the publication of a declaration of the Allied States on December 17, 1942, condemning the extermination of the Jews and announcing that the perpetrators would be punished.
Karski himself, in his talks with British politicians and journalists in London - apart from his basic message on political issues - spoke about the fate of the Jews with great personal commitment. It was an issue that he was personally concerned about. Under the influence of these talks, the well-known journalist Arthur Koestler prepared a broadcast for the BBC about the tragedy of Polish Jews.
In June 1943, Karski was sent by the government to the United States. Using modern language, the essence of this mission can be described as building good public relations by Poland’s government at a particularly difficult moment - after the disclosure of the Katyn massacre and the severance of relations between Poland and USSR. Karski's task was to win the sympathy of the American establishment for the Polish cause. He talked about the underground state and the uncompromising fight against the occupier. He presented Poland as a faithful ally of the Western powers, a country without a Quisling, one that did not become stained by collaborating with Germany. He alerted about the Soviet threat, which, incidentally, was often not understood in the then sympathetic to the USSR America. Finally, he spoke about the fate of the Jews.
“I prepared very thoroughly for each of these meetings. I knew I had to be brief, because my interlocutor could decide to end the meeting at any moment. I generally prepared a 20-minute general report in which I spent 4 to 5 minutes on Jewish matters” he later recalled.
Karski, whose activities in the United States were overseen by Ambassador Jan Ciechanowski, managed to obtain an audience with the President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt. The emissary's information about the Polish underground drew the President’s interest so much that he extended the meeting by as much as half an hour. Gaining Roosevelt's sympathy helped Karski in organising meetings with other important members of the American administration and political elite.
As in London, also in the United States, Karski raised the issue of German crimes against Jews. This generated various levels of interest among his interlocutors (Roosevelt did not take up this matter, probably having had information from other sources for a long time). On the one hand, it seems that the peak of interest in this problem occured six months earlier in connection with the Allied declaration in December, on the other hand, for many Americans, even in Jewish circles, the extermination of European Jews was a problem difficult to imagine.
Karski was very surprised by the reaction of President Roosevelt's close friends:
“When I reported on the fate of Polish Jews to the judge of the Supreme Court of the United States, Feliks Frankfurter, he concluded: »I do not believe you«. The conversation took place in the presence of our ambassador to Washington, Jan Ciechanowski. Hearing this, the ambassador become outraged: »Lieutenant Karski is on an official mission, the authority of my government is behind him. You cannot tell him that he is lying«. Frankfurter replied: »I did not say that he is lying; I said that I don’t believe him, and that is the difference«. As a matter of fact, I have met disbelief many times”.
The postulates of Jewish activists from Poland conveyed by Karski were not met with understanding. For example, to the request of retaliatory bombing of Germany, the head of the British Special Operations Executive, Lord Selborne replied that, apart from the technical difficulties, it would be undesirable for political reasons, because it would confirm the thesis of the German propaganda that the war was caused by Jews. Absorbing an unimaginable truth meant breaking a serious psychological barrier, which took time. The authors of the report "The Liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto" were aware of this when they wrote:
“An attempt to present the scale of this historically unprecedented murder must begin with a call to people in England or America: You’ve got to believe what’s unbelievable. You’ve got to accept that what comes to your consciousness is, above all, the truth".
Meanwhile, the Germans murdered Polish Jews in the period of their greatest victories on the fronts, when real counteracting, be it by the Polish underground or Western allies, was practically impossible. When Karski was talking to Roosevelt in Washington, the extermination of Polish Jews had been already in general completed.
When Karski returned from across the Ocean in September 1943, the Polish government in London did not have any good idea how to use him further. Due to his recognizability, return to underground work in the country was out of the question. The authorities also did not agree to his request to be assigned to the Polish Armed Forces in the West. In a way, the knowledge Karski had about the backstage of big politics - especially regarding the dissonance between the government and the country over possible territorial concessions to the USSR - was bothersome to London politicians. As a result, in February 1944 he was sent back to the United States.
His second trip to the United States was for propaganda purposes. He published articles in the press, gave lectures and recorded radio broadcasts about the Polish underground, the German occupation and the extermination of Jews. But above all, he wrote a book within a few months – The Story of a Secret State, which was released in November 1944; the whole edition of 400 thousand copies was sold. In the sphere of unrealized plans was a film about the Polish underground which the London authorities commissioned him to make for the money of the Polish community.
The Secret State, written in the convention of a sensational emissary's autobiography, serves as one of the basic sources of knowledge about Karski's missions. However, this reading requires caution, because for both conspiratorial and political reasons the author changed some facts in his story and camouflaged the reality. Due to the opposition of the American publisher, such issues as, for example, the Polish-Soviet conflicts, had to be avoided in spite of the fact that they constituted one of the main themes of Karski's last courier mission. In turn, to maintain the anti-Sanction stereotype, compatible with the political line of the London government, he falsely presented the fate of his unit in September 1939, writing that it was dispersed in the first days of the war, while in fact it fought bravely against the Germans for the period of three weeks.
After the war, Karski decided to stay in the United States. The royalties for the bestseller The Secret State and the contacts he established earlier made it a bit easier for him to start in America. He enrolled in the diplomacy department at the Georgetown University in Washington and after getting a PhD in political science he became a lecturer there. His most important work is the book “The Great Powers and Poland, 1919–1945: from Versailles to Yalta”, published in 1985. In the 1950s and 1960s, commissioned by the State Department, he made several trips around the world with lectures promoting the American model of democracy. Faithful to anti-Soviet views, he also lectured at FBI and Pentagon courses. He also got involved with the CIA, but the details of this collaboration remain unknown. Interestingly, in 1954 he translated the testimony of Józef Światło, an officer of the security apparatus, before a US Congress Committee.
In 1965, after a short and unsuccessful marriage with the daughter of a South American diplomat, he married Pola Nireńska, a Jewish dancer and choreographer. During the war Nireńska stayed in England, but her family perished in the Holocaust. Due to the related trauma, she refused to speak Polish even with her husband.
Karski cut himself off from the circles of Polish war emigration. Perhaps this was influenced by his insight into the backstage of Polish political hell. For years, no one knew his past. He did not talk in public about his war experiences. The emissary was rediscovered by Walter Laqueur, who in 1980 published a ground-breaking book on Allied knowledge about the extermination of Jews, and by Claude Lanzmann, author of the 1985 documentary - Shoah, in which Karski, if front of the camera, for the first time spoke about his courier mission and about what he saw in the Warsaw ghetto and Izbica Lubelska. From Lanzmann's film, the world learned about his mission (Władysław Bartoszewski had earlier written about it in Poland).
In 1982, the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem recognised Jan Karski as Righteous Among the Nations, and a decade later he was granted the honorary citizenship of the State of Israel. In 1995, the President of the Republic of Poland, Lech Wałęsa, awarded him with the Order of the White Eagle. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Jan Karski is the patron of the prestigious award of the American Centre for Polish Culture in Washington and the Freedom House organization as well as the Freedom Award granted by the US Embassy in Warsaw. The Karski marriage fund donates for the Jan Karski and Pola Nireńska Award, granted annually to authors of publications on the contribution of Jews to Polish culture and to talented dancers.
Jan Karski died in Washington on July 13, 2000.
“As for the Jewish part of my mission, as you know, it ended in failure. Six million Jews died and no one gave them effective help. Neither any government, nor nation, nor church. Only individuals gave help, heroic help. […] Everyone who wanted to know about German crimes against Jews could know, not only thanks to me. There were many more accounts. The point is that this truth could not ‘get through’ and not only due to ill will. After all, the Holocaust, the systematic extermination of the entire nation, happened for the first time in history, mankind was not prepared for such a thing. Hence probably the subconscious rejection of even the most credible evidence”, Jan Karski thought.
Other Stories of Rescue in the Area
- Henel Yannick, Jan Karski: powieść, Kraków 2009
- Jankowski Stanisław M., Karski. Raporty tajnego emisariusza, Poznań 2013
- Jan Karski, Tajne państwo. Opowieść o polskim Podziemiu, Kraków 2014
- Korczak Jerzy, Karski. Opowieść biograficzna, Warszawa 2010
- Lanzmann Claude, Shoah, Koszalin 1993
- Libionka Dariusz, red. Żbikowski Andrzej, ZWZ-AK i Delegatura Rządu RP wobec eksterminacji Żydów polskich, Polacy i Żydzi pod okupacją niemiecką 1939-1945. Studia i materiały, Warszawa 2006
- Łubieński Tomasz, Wojna według Karskiego, Warszawa 2019
- Piasecki Waldemar, Jan Karski. Jedno życie. Kompletna opowieść, t.1: Madagaskar, Warszawa 2015
- Piasecki Waldemar, Jan Karski. Jedno życie. Kompletna opowieść, t.2: Inferno, Warszawa 2017
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