Jan Karski (24 June 1914 – 13 July 2000)
In July 1942, the German Nazis began mass deportations of Jews from occupied Warsaw to the Treblinka death camp. Jan Karski, a young diplomat-turned-courier for the Polish Underground took on a mission of mind-boggling significance. He volunteered to carry to the Free World an eyewitness report of the destruction of the Jewish people of Poland. Twice he penetrated the Warsaw Ghetto and later the Izbica Lubelska transit camp.
Against overwhelming odds, using multiple false identities, Karski reached London by the end of November. There he prepared detailed written reports for the London-based Polish Government-in- Exile and briefed British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. He was then sent to Washington where he met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt for an hour in the Oval Office.
At the time Karski was sounding the alarm, most of Poland’s Jewish citizens had already been killed. But there was still time to save the few who survived.
Karski, who lived to age 86, considered the inaction of the Free World to be mankind’s “second Original Sin.” His recorded testimony remains one of the most eloquent statements against war and calls for action when confronted with acts of discrimination and degradation, injustice and brutality – preconditions for political murder and genocide.
Georgetown University became Karski’s home for over 40 years, where he taught in the School of Foreign Service, influencing generations of future leaders.
In June 1982, Jan Karski planted his tree on the Avenue of the Righteous among the Nations on the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem. In subsequent years, many significant honors were bestowed on him: the Anti-Defamation League Courage to Care Award (1988, which in 2012 was renamed the Jan Karski Courage to Care Award); Pius XI Award (1990); the Eisenhower Liberation Medal (1991); the Wallenberg Medal (1991); and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2012) conferred by President Barack Obama.
Karski died on July 13, 2000, but his legacy endures. As long as young and old need to learn about the horrors of the Holocaust, which occurred in war-torn, occupied Poland, Karski’s mission continues. The need for Karski’s wisdom endures worldwide as people seek inspiration and guidance about how to act when conditions are at their worst. They learn how to become messengers for truth. Jan Karski calls each of us to act on behalf of oppressed peoples everywhere.
“We must tell our children about how this evil was allowed to happen—because so many people succumbed to their darkest instincts; because so many others stood silent. But let us also tell our children about the Righteous Among the Nations. Among them was Jan Karski—a young Polish Catholic—who witnessed Jews being put on cattle cars, who saw the killings, and who told the truth, all the way to President Roosevelt himself. Jan Karski passed away more than a decade ago. But today, I’m proud to announce that this spring I will honor him with America’s highest civilian honor—the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”
— US President Barack Obama, April 23, 2012, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“The Lord assigned me a role to speak and write during the war, when — as it seemed to me — it might help. It did not. When the war came to its end, I learned that the governments, the leaders, the scholars, the writers did not know what had been happening to the Jews. They were taken by surprise. The murder of six million innocents was a secret, a ‘terrible secret’. … Then I became a Jew. But I am a Christian Jew. I am a practicing Catholic. … My faith tells me the second Original Sin has been committed by humanity: through commission, or omission, or self-imposed ignorance, or insensitivity, or self- interest, or hypocrisy, or heartless rationalization. This sin will haunt humanity to the end of time. It does haunt me. And I want it to be so.”
— Jan Karski at the International Liberators’ Conference, 1981.