Jan Karski Dead at 86
Polish American Journal
August 2000

WASHINGTON—Jan Karski, 86, a courier for the Polish underground during the World War II and the first to speak the truth about the Holocaust, died July 13, 2000 at Georgetown University Hospital.

Serving with the Polish Army in 1939—four years after earning his degree in diplomatic sciences from Jan Kazimierz University in Lwow—he was captured by the Red Army and imprisoned. He escaped and joined the Polish Home Army, A.K., and served as a courier between the Polish Government-in-Exile in London and underground authorities in Poland. As a courier, Karski reported on the mass exterminations of Polish Jews under German direction. His accounts were initially believed to be too outrageous to be true. For his efforts, he was later awarded Israel’s “Righteous Among the Nations” award, and was named an Honorary Citizen of Israel.

After World War II, Karski worked for the U.S. State Department as a lecturer in Asia and French-speaking Africa. His career as a lecturer, scholar and visiting professor brought him to Georgetown University.

Karski was the author of “Story of a Secret State,” “The Great Powers and Poland,” and was the contributor to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, Encyclopedia Americana, and Colliers Encyclopedia.

He was decorated twice with Poland’s Order of Virtuti Militari.

Jan Karski: A Hero for a Troubled Century Past
by John Radzilowski
Polish American Journal, August 2000

Jan Karski died in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, July 13.

That he is not a household name to most Americans can only be due to some colossal failure of our education system or media as well as to the cruel tricks fate played to Karski's native country in the twentieth century.

You see, Jan Karski tried to stop the Holocaust.

He failed, of course, but that is hardly the point. He tried when so many others in the world with so much more power and vast political, military, and financial resources chose to do nothing.

For this, if nothing else, Karski ranks as one of the great heroes in the otherwise sad history of the century that just ended.

Born in 1914, Karski joined the diplomatic service of his native Poland in 1938 and served in the Polish Army during its desperate defensive campaign against the Hitler's armies in 1939. Captured by the Nazis' Soviet allies, Karski escaped almost certain death at the hands of Stalin's NKVD, a fate which befell so many Poles, and joined the Polish underground in

German-occupied Poland.

With his diplomatic experience and his phenomenal memory for details, Karski was chosen a special mission of the utmost importance: to tell the world of the fate Nazi Germany had in mind for Europe's Jews. The Polish underground smuggled Karski into the Warsaw Ghetto and into a German death camp. The cruelties he witnessed there were so scarring that in the decades to come he would often find it hard to speak of them. Having seen the unspeakable crimes the Germans were committing against Poland's Jews and what they had in mind for Jews all over

Nazi-occupied Europe, Karski's next task was to escape to the West.

On a previous attempt he had been captured by the Gestapo and nearly tortured to death. The torturers beat him so severely that lost all his teeth and had most of his ribs broken. The Polish underground launched a rescue mission to save their courier from an SS hospital. In hiding after his rescue, Karski recuperated, and later made his way to Britain.

There, Karski told Allied leaders what he seen happening to the Jews, sparing no detail. His account was met with shock. And disbelief. He went to Washington. He met with congressmen, supreme court justices, leaders of the Jewish community and the Catholic Church. He met personally with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Years later he would recall his meeting with the most powerful man in the free world, doing an imitation of Roosevelt's patrician demeanor, smoking a cigarette in a long holder. Roosevelt mouthed platitudes about how after the war the guilty ones would be punished. It was hard for Karski to hide his bitterness when he did this imitation. Roosevelt did nothing.

Other couriers from Poland followed Karski and met the same reception. Poles were high-strung, untrustworthy, and given to wild fantasies. Surely things were not so bad. The Germans were the enemy, but they were civilized. Kill all the Jews? Who could imagine such a thing? Even after the Polish Government in Exile publicly issued a booklet detailing the crimes against the Jews, the reaction in the West was muted. We now know that Western leaders were well informed about what was happening to Europe's Jews and that their own sources confirmed what their Polish allies were telling them. In 1944, Karski wrote a book, "Story of a Secret State," about life in Nazi-occupied Poland which again described in painful detail what he saw happening to the Jews, as well as the cruel murders and tortures the Germans were increasingly inflicting on Catholic Poles as well.

As more Jews died and Karski grew more desperate, free Polish voices were further marginalized when the Western Allies delivered their Polish comrades into the hands of one of the men who had helped start the war, Joseph Stalin. As the war ended, Karski and the Polish soldiers, sailors, airmen who had fought alongside the Americans and British for over five years in virtually every campaign against Nazi forces, lost their homeland.

In a final bitter irony, as Soviet terror engulfed Poland, Karski became an exile and for years was virtually forgotten.

Truth may be suppressed or distorted, but in the end it has its own way of re-emerging. As interest in the Holocaust grew, Karski was "discovered" in the 1980s and for the first time began to tell his story to audiences around the world, though always downplaying his own role, preferring to keep the focus on the fate of the people he tried to save. He received numerous honors and accolades, including the Order of the White Eagle, Poland's highest national decoration (awarded by Nobel Laureate Lech Walesa) and becoming an honorary citizen of Israel.

Yet, for Karski all the honors in the world could not erase the sadness and bitterness of the fact that the leaders of the free world had failed to heed his words and had stood by while millions went to their deaths.

The Holocaust was a watershed event and although the murderous campaigns of Stalin and Mao far exceeded those of Hitler, the murder of six million Jews, not to mention millions of Poles, Gypsies, the handicapped, and others, marks the history of the twentieth century with a stain that can never be erased or forgotten. It was a confused century, when madness became normal and normalcy madness.

Karski was human, with all the failings of our species. Yet in a morally confused age, in a time of human degradation, he did something extraordinary. The free world, to its shame, did not listen to his message.

Yet, his example is that we need not acquiesce to evil, whether great or small.

For this reason alone, Jan Karski was a hero for the century that just ended.

 

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