Today, Righteous Among the Nations Jan Karski will posthumously receive America's highest civilian honor - the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Jan Kozielewski (he later took on his non de guerre Karski) was born in Lodz. In 1935, after completing his studies at Lwow University, he embarked on a career as a civil servant at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This was cut short four years later by the war, and when Poland was occupied by Germany, Kozielewski joined the Polish underground – the Home Army (Armia Krajowa). His photographic memory made him ideal for the job of courier between the underground in Poland and the Polish government-in-exile that was seated first in France and moved to London, after the fall of France.
In October 1942, at the height of the destruction of Polish Jewry, Karski was ordered to clandestinely go to the West and deliver a report on the situation of occupied Poland to the Polish government-in-exile in London. The situation of the Jews in Poland was to be one section of that report. Since the government in exile was concerned with the internal politics of the Poland’s underground parties, Karski held meetings with the different factions, including the Jewish Zionist and the Jewish Socialist Bund movements. Thus, shortly before his departure, Karski met with two Jewish leaders who asked him to inform the world’s statesmen of the desperate plight of Polish Jewry and of the hopelessness of their situation. Their message was: "Our entire people will be destroyed".
The Jewish leaders' appeals touched Karski and he decided to see things with his own eyes in order to make his report. With great risk to his life, he was smuggled into the Warsaw ghetto and into a camp in the Lublin area. The horrors he witnessed marked him deeply and propelled him to become not only the messenger of the Polish underground, but to concentrate on giving voice to the suffering of the dying Jews.
In November 1942, Karski reached London, delivered the report to the Polish government-in-exile, and set out to meet Winston Churchill, other politicians, journalists, and public figures. Upon completing his mission, Karski went on to the United States, where he met with President Roosevelt and other dignitaries, and tried in vain to stir up public opinion against the massacre of the Jews. In 1944, while in the United States, Karski wrote a book on the Polish Underground (Story of a Secret State), with a long chapter on the Jewish Holocaust in Poland.
After the war, Karski stayed in the United States where he was later appointed Professor at Georgetown University, Washington DC. He became committed to perpetuating the memory of the Holocaust victims, identified whole-heartedly with the tragedy and suffering of the Jewish people, and was unable to come to terms with the world’s silence at the slaughter of six million Jews. These notions were well reflected in a speech he delivered in 1981 to a meeting of American military officers who had liberated the concentration camps. He stated that he had failed to fulfill his wartime mission, and said: “And thus I myself became a Jew. And just as my wife’s entire family was wiped out in the ghettos of Poland, in its concentration camps and crematoria – so have all the Jews who were slaughtered become my family. But I am a Christian Jew… I am a practicing Catholic… My faith tells me the second original sin has been committed by humanity. This sin will haunt humanity to the end of time. And I want it to be so”.
Although he had not saved individual Jews, The Commission for the Designation of the Righteous decided that he had risked his life in order to alert the world to their murder. He had incurred enormous risk in penetrating into the Warsaw ghetto and a camp, and then committed himself wholly to the case of rescuing the Jews. Karski’s case is quite exceptional in many ways. While other rescuers had taken the difficult decision to leave the side of the bystanders, not to remain silent and to stand up and act, Karski, after he reached the West, brought this dilemma to the doorstep of the free world's leaders. On June 2, 1982, Yad Vashem recognized Jan Karski as Righteous Among the Nations.
In 1994, Professor Karski was awarded honorary citizenship of Israel. In a speech he gave on the occasion, he stated: “This is the proudest and the most meaningful day in my life. Through the honorary citizenship of the State of Israel, I have reached the spiritual source of my Christian faith. In a way, I also became a part of the Jewish community… And now I, Jan Karski, by birth Jan Kozielewski – a Pole, an American, a Catholic – have also become an Israeli.