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Jan Karski (1914–2000)

Jan Kozielewski went down in history under the alias of Jan Karski. He was a talented son of a craftsman from Łódź, member of the Sodality of Our Lady. He graduated from the Faculty of Law and Diplomacy at the Jan Kazimierz University in Lvov. After the outbreak of World War II he was first in Soviet and later in German captivity. He managed to escape from both and at the end of 1939 he went underground. Due to his knowledge of foreign languages, physical fitness and qualifications he was entrusted with the role of emissary of the Polish Underground State.

During one of the missions, Karski was captured by the Gestapo in Slovakia but was rescued by members of the underground when staying in hospital in Nowy Sącz. In autumn 1942, Karski entered the Warsaw Ghetto and the interim camp of Izbica illegally. He carried microfilms with reports on the situation of Jews in a hollowed-out key (he kept a replica of the key in his archive donated to the Hoover Institution in Stanford, USA). When he managed to get through to England after more than two months, he gave his shocking account documenting the systematically planned extermination of the Jewish nation to his superiors and to American and British elites. He also met with the US President. However, it was to no avail.

After World War II, Jan Karski lived in exile in the United States and withdrew from political life. He studied political science and received a Ph.D. at Georgetown University in Washington, where he became a lecturer. In 1985 he published The Great Powers and Poland, 1919–1945: From Versailles to Yalta. When his unusual history was recalled in the hours-long film Shoah, Karski resumed the subject of the Holocaust and recounted his war mission at the lectures. Being a man of deep religious faith, he was always looking for the sense of history, of which he was a part.

Jan Karski lived to see his recognition – he was bestowed, among others, with the Righteous Among the Nations title, conferred the Order of the White Eagle, and, posthumously – the highest civilian award of the United States.

This is what Zbigniew Brzeziński said of Karski: … his place is on the first pages of Poland’s contemporary history. He represents all that is the most beautiful, and the most admirable in the history of World War II.

Ewa Wierzyńska
Museum of Polish History
and Jan Karski Educational Foundation