Jan Karski was a name adopted for a mission and Jan Karski was a man on a mission. A mission so important to Karski that it remained his life’s purpose more than 60 years after he was first assigned it.
Jan Karski was the nom de guerre of Jan Kozielewski, a Polish Catholic born in Lodz a couple of weeks before the start of World War I in 1914. It was not until 1939, and the start of World War II, that the name Jan Karski was born.
Located about 60 miles west of Warsaw, Lodz is a large Polish city and industrial center. At the time of Karski’s birth Lodz had a population of around 500,000, about a third or approximately 170,000 of whom were Jewish.
The majority of the Jews in Lodz were poor and Orthodox. Many followed Hasidic rabbis, most notably the Ger and Aleksander rebbes. The Ger and Aleksander Hasidic dynasties were the largest in Poland before the Holocaust, with the latter hailing from a small town near Lodz. At the time of Karski’s birth, the city was also home to an influx of “Litvak” Jews from Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine, many of who were Orthodox opponents of Hasidism, fluent in Russian and more likely to be supporters of Zionism and secular education.
And not all Jews were poor in Lodz. Jews dominated the city’s retail trade and accounted for more than half of the city’s factory owners. As people adapted to the new world of the industrial revolution, traditional piety was often discarded. An excellent account of this world is found in I.J Singer’s novel “The Brothers Ashkenazi.”
So Karski was born into a city of contrasts—a city of Jews and gentiles, piety and modernity. Like many other cities at the start of the 20th century, in Lodz industrialization and capitalism met unions and communism, tradition came up against progress. Karski’s Catholic family lived in a mainly Jewish neighborhood in the city. Born on Saint John’s Day and named accordingly (Jan is Polish for John), Karski was raised as an observant Catholic and remained so until his death.
After graduating from university in Lvov, the former capital of Galicia that is now part of Ukraine, Karski joined the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a civil servant in 1935. Within in four years, however, Poland was preoccupied with domestic affairs, having just been invaded by Nazi Germany. After German troops occupied Poland, Karski joined the Polish underground resistance.
Leveraging his photographic memory, Karski worked as a courier between the underground home army in Poland and the Polish government in exile based in France and then, after France’s fall, in London. In his role as courier, Karski regularly crossed enemy lines undetected. He became expert at being someone no one took notice of.
In 1942, the Nazis started to implement their final solution and Polish Jewry—which until then had been the world’s largest at 3.5 million, over a tenth of Poland’s population—was systematically destroyed. In October that year, Karski received a new mission. He was to go surreptitiously to the West to provide the Polish government in exile in London with a report on the state of Poland. Part of his report would be on the situation of the Jews in Poland.
To help complete the report before leaving Poland, Karski held clandestine meetings with various Jewish leaders. No matter the faction the leader represented—socialist, Zionist, religious or secular—to a person they implored Karski to share the plight of Polish Jewry with the outside world. They knew their people faced destruction. One man, a Bund (Jewish socialist) leader named Leon Feiner, lived on the supposedly Aryan side of ghetto walls in Warsaw and helped Karski to enter the ghetto via sewers.
To gather evidence for the report, Karski was twice smuggled into the Warsaw ghetto. Once behind the ghetto walls, Karski was horrified by the suffering and brutality he saw. There were corpses piled in the gutter, starving children with nothing but rags to cover their emaciated frames, and men and women reduced by hunger to leaning on decrepit buildings, incapable of supporting their pathetically light bodies.
Karski saw Germans shooting Jews at random as part of a “Jew Hunt.” He saw how hundreds of thousands were being transported away to camps elsewhere. After visiting the Warsaw ghetto, Karski went to camp at Izbica, in the Lublin area of Poland, where Jews were sent en route to death camps. Karski saw Germans take Jews to Izbica, which served as a “sorting station” where Jews were robbed of their last belongings and sent off to gas chambers. Karski had learned some of the true horrors of the Holocaust. He felt compelled to act, but what to do? He asked Feiner what message he could bring to the world, the Jewish world in particular.
“Our entire people will be destroyed. Perhaps a few may be saved, but three million Polish Jews are doomed,” Feiner replied. “This cannot be prevented by any force in Poland, neither by the Polish nor the Jewish underground. Responsibility lies on the shoulders of the allies. Let not a single leader of the United Nations be able to say that they did not know that we were being murdered in Poland and could not be helped, except from the outside…”
“Tell the Jewish leaders,” Feiner told Karski, “that this is no case for politics or tactics. Tell them that the earth must be shaken to its very foundations. The world must be aroused. Perhaps, then it will wake up, understand, perceive. Tell them that they must find the strength and courage to make sacrifices no other statesmen have ever had to make. Sacrifices as painful as the fate of my dying people, and as unique.”
In November 1942, a month after witnessing what was happening to Polish Jews, Catholic Karski arrived in London to deliver his report to the Polish government in exile. The Polish exiled government’s foreign minister, Edward Raczynski, used Karski’s report as the basis for one of the earliest and most complete accounts of the mass murder of Jews in Europe. In December 1942, Raczynski addressed the United Nations with the findings in a document he called “the mass extermination of Jews in German occupied Poland.”
As well as meeting members of the exiled Polish government, Karski attempted to meet with British politicians and journalists to raise awareness of the Holocaust. He received an underwhelming reception. British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden seemed uninterested and Prime Minister Winston Churchill was too bust for a meeting. Karski also met with Jewish leaders and the Jewish-Hungarian novelist Arthur Koestler. After delivering his report and completing his mission in London, Karski traveled to the United States in an attempt to follow Feiner’s instructions to tell the world the fate of Poland’s Jews. Sadly, however, aside from producing the note to the UN, Karski was once again a man who was going unnoticed.
Then in July 1943, Karski held a personal meeting with American President Franklin Roosevelt, whom he told of the situation in Poland. Although this was not the first report of the Holocaust that FDR received, it was the first time he had met with an eyewitness. After meeting the president, Karski held face-to-faces with other prominent figures including rabbis and Jewish lay leaders, the Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and Hollywood players. While still in the United States, he wrote a book, “Story of a Secret State,” which chronicled the Polish Underground and included a chapter devoted to the Holocaust of the Jews in Poland.
His efforts to mobilize the world against the genocide of Europe’s Jews did not succeed, but Karski remained in the US after the war and became committed to keeping the memory of those who perished at the hands of the Nazis. Although he had not personally saved a Jew, Yad Vashem recognized as Jan Karski as a righteous gentile in 1982 for his efforts to alert the world to the Holocaust. In 1994, at the age of 80, the government of Israel made Karski an honorary citizen.
Despite this recognition, Karski, who married a Polish Jew, felt that he had failed his wartime mission. “And thus I myself became a Jew, “ he said. “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.”