Archived Story

Michael Waldron: Jan Karski: Patriot

Published 11:24pm Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Jan Karski.

Who? To answer that question is to tell quite a story. His story is better than any World War II story I’ve ever heard.

Jan Karski was born Jan Kozielewski on June 24 1914, in Lodz, Poland. Before I go further, you should know that Jan Karski will soon receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian award, posthumously from President Obama. Now let me fill in the middle.

Jan Kozielewski (Karski) was called up in the Polish mobilization at the onset of WW II with the rank of artillery lieutenant. He was captured by the Soviets in eastern Poland. After active hostilities ceased, the Germans and Soviets exchanged prisoners.

He posed as an enlisted man and was exchanged with the Germans within a few months. That was his first lucky break. The Soviets executed about 10,000 Polish officers in the Katyn Forest in 1940.  Jan Kozielewski escaped from the Germans and immediately joined one of the first resistance groups in Warsaw.  He soon adopted the “nom de guerre,” Karski (among many others).  Since he had training and experience as a diplomat, he was initially a courier for the resistance. On a mission in Slovakia, the Gestapo captured him.

During its interrogation, Karski’s jaw was severely damaged and remained his most noticeable injury.  I’m sure there were many others. In his second lucky break, Karski escaped a second time from the Germans and made his way back to Warsaw.

By this time, there were rumors that the Germans were killing Jews on a monstrous scale.  The Polish resistance smuggled him into the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, where the Jews gave him proof of some of the German atrocities. Karski was even able to visit a death camp disguised as a Ukrainian. The Polish resistance later smuggled Karski out of Poland and all the way to England and finally to the United States. That was his third lucky break.

When he reached the West, he tried to convinced people in high office that the Germans were committing crimes against humanity, but nobody believed him.

Even Felix Frankfurter, the Jewish Supreme Court justice, said, “I did not say that he was lying, I said that I could not believe him. There is a difference.”

He also met twice with President Roosevelt and also with Cordell Hull, Secretary of State, and Bill Donovan, Director of the Office of Strategic Services (predecessor of the CIA).  Nobody really believed him because his message was so incredible. Even when the Soviets liberated Auschwitz and other extermination camps in the winter of 1944 and 1945, many in the West dismissed Soviet reports as crude propaganda.

It wasn’t until British and American armies overran extermination camps in the spring of 1945 that the world finally believed.

After the war, Jan Karski remained in the United States, became a U.S. citizen, and received his doctorate from Georgetown University, where he became a professor.  That’s where I met him.  As a graduate student in 1987-1988, I was fortunate enough to be his student.  I had read biographies where people praised college professors, but I had never been fortunate to study under such a professor. Professor Karski, however, was a special professor.  I never missed his seminar.  For about two hours, twice a week, I sat rapt in my chair while Professor Karski told us about the politics of Eastern Europe. He emphatically predicted the breakup of Yugoslavia years before it happened.  He predicted that Eastern Europe would throw off Soviet domination; however, he couldn’t predict when and how.

Professor Karski had one other quality that is less known. He told the best off-color story I’ve ever heard. It wasn’t a joke as such. It was a true story that also illustrated life lessons.

Professor Karski died in 2000. His accomplishments during his remarkable life will remain astonishing to most of us who have never faced such danger or such evil as practiced by Nazi Germany.  In honor of his efforts on behalf of Polish Jews, Karski was made an honorary citizen of Israel in 1994.  On June 2, 1982, Yad Vashem (Israel’s official memorial to the Holocaust) recognized Jan Karski as “Righteous Among the Nations.”

I’ll always remember him as a mesmerizing professor.  Unlike most professors who study first or second hand accounts to make their analyses, Professor Karski lived it. Nobody at Georgetown University spoke with such authority. Nobody understood Eastern Europe better. Nobody more deserved the respect that most professors expect from their students.

Jan Karski was a patriot and the bravest man I ever met.

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