Jan Karski

Among the messengers maintaining channels of communications between occupied Poland and the government in exile one must certainly mention Jan Karski. Not so much for how interesting his journey was, but rather for how significant his message was.

Jan Karski (born Jan Romuald Kozielewski) was born in 1914 in Lodz. In 1935 he completed his law and diplomatic studies at the Jan Kazimierz University in Lwow and in 1939 he was employed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. From the start of the occupation Karski was involved in conspiratorial undertakings, serving as both an emissary for ZWZ to Great Britain and the United Sates, as well as the author of reports about the condition of Europe’s Jews. The first of these reports written at the end of 1939, was presented to the Polish government in France in January 1940. He prepared subsequent reports in 1941-42, for which he personally gathered information in the Warsaw Ghetto and in the Transit camp in Izbica.

In the Fall of 1942 he departed at the behest of the Government’s Delegate Cyryla Ratajskiego with the mission to inform the Western Allies of the mass extermination of Jews. In London, on the basis of materials delivered by Karski and his testimony, a memorandum was prepared (named after the Foreign Minister, the Raczynski Note) informing the governments of the West about the oppression of Europe’s Jews and demanding intervention and assistance. The note, published also in the form of a brochure (The mass extermination of Jews in German occupied Poland. Note addressed to the Governments of the United Nations on December 10, 1942) was widely read and discussed, but did not result in any practical actions.

Karski’s efforts to interest American elites in the fate of Poland’s Jews were also unsuccessful. (In July 1943 he met with US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.) Even though other sources also confirmed that the Jews of Europe were being exterminated, Karski’s message was often met with disbelief and was treated as Polish propaganda.

The Story of a Secret State written by Karski and published in Boston in 1944 had a far greater influence and reach. It became a bestseller (400,000) and it was only this book that successfully informed the West both about the suffering, and the resistance of Poles and Jews. After the war Karski stayed in the United States and became a professor at Georgetown University in Washington DC. For his actions in 1982 he received the title Righteous Among the Nations, and in 1994 honorary Israeli Citizenship. He died on July 13, 2000. In 2013 the Polish Parliament declared 2014 the Year of Jan Karski.