Karski, Jan

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KARSKI, JAN (1914–2000), member of the Polish underground in World War ii; Righteous Among the Nations. Born Jan Kozielewski, before the war Karski studied law and diplomatic sciences at Jan Kazimierz University in Lwow (Lvov), and in late 1939, after the German occupation, he joined the Polish underground. Because of his knowledge of languages and foreign countries, he served as a courier between the government-in-exile and the underground. In this capacity, he made several secret trips to France and England. On the eve of one of these trips, in the summer of 1942, he was asked to meet two Jewish leaders of the Warsaw ghetto (Menachem Kirschenbaum and Leon Feiner) to transmit a message to the Polish government-in-exile in London concerning the extermination of the Jewish population then taking place. They spelled out to him the utter hopelessness of their predicament – this was the end of the Jewish people on Polish soil. As they told him: "You other Poles are fortunate. You are suffering too. Many of you will die, but at least your nation goes on living. After the war Poland will be resurrected. Your cities will be rebuilt and your wounds will slowly heal. From this ocean of tears, pain, rage, and humiliation your country will emerge again but the Polish Jews will no longer exist. We will be dead. Hitler will lose his war against the human, the just, and the good, but he will win his war against the Polish Jews. No – it will not be a victory; the Jewish people will be murdered." They urged Karski to call upon the Jewish leaders in the free world to stage a hunger strike in front of the offices of the English and American authorities, to move them to action. Fearing that his report on the fate of the Jews would be received with skepticism, Karski asked to be smuggled inside the Warsaw ghetto to be able to say that his report was based on what he saw with his own eyes. Still not satisfied with this, Karski asked to be smuggled into one of the camps. Dressed as one of the Latvian camp guards, Karski again witnessed, from a safe distance, the brutality which accompanied the unloading of Jews from the deportation wagons. Later, in London, he met the Bund representative Samuel *Zygelbojm, to whom Karski relayed the appeal by the Warsaw ghetto to Jewish leaders. Zygelbojm, who later committed suicide, felt that this approach would not produce any results. Shaken but resolved to carry the message of Polish Jewry to the United States, Karski arrived there in 1943 and personally reported to President *Roosevelt and other high American officials. Roosevelt listened attentively to the relation of events inside Poland, but when it came to the Jewish part, Karski felt that what he said fell on deaf ears. Karski emphasized: "The Jewish leaders are totally helpless. The Poles can save only individuals, they cannot stop extermination. Only the powerful Allied leaders can do that." Roosevelt closed the 90-minute meeting with assurances that the Poles had a friend in the White House; that those guilty would be punished, and that justice and freedom would prevail. Karski also met with American Jewish leader and Supreme Court justice Felix *Frankfurter. When Karski finished, Frankfurter said: "I am unable to believe you." Karski continued to address audiences, and plead for the rescue of the Jews. His book Story of a Secret State became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. But frustration soon set in, as he realized that all he was getting was applause, not action. Settling in the United States, he earned a doctorate from Georgetown University, where he taught political science. After a long period of silence, he was persuaded by Elie *Wiesel in 1980 to speak up again, and subsequently appeared in public on numerous occasions. He was especially pained at the silence of the world's leaders about the massacre of the Jews. "All those great individuals, presidents, ambassadors, cardinals, who said they were shocked; they lied. They knew or didn't want to know. This shocked me." In 1982, on a visit to Yad Vashem, he was declared a Righteous Among the Nations.


Yad Vashem Archives M31–934; J. Karski, Story of a Secret State (1944), 321ff.; T. Wood and S. Jankowski, Karski (1996); M. Paldiel, Saving the Jews (2000), 40–44; I. Gutman (ed.), Encyclopedia of the Righteous Among the Nations: Poland, Vol. 1 (2004), 337–38.

[Mordecai Paldiel (2nd ed.)]

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