Grave of Jan Karski -- the Polish military officer and diplomat who alerted the world to the Holocaust in 1942 -- at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C., in the United States. 2014 is the centenary of Karski's birth.
Jan Karski was born Jan Kozielewski on June 24, 1914, in Łódź, Poland. He was raised Roman Catholic in a pluralistic neighborhood that included a substantial Jewish population.
He attended a prestigious mounted artillery officers' school, graduating in 1936 and joining the 5th Mounted Artillery Regiment. While serving in the military, he completed his diplomatic training and subsequently served in Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Romania (twice). On January 1, 1939, he started work in the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
During the Nazi German invasion of Poland in September 1939, Karski's unit was attached to the Kraków Cavalry Brigade, where he tried to defend the area between Zabkowice and Częstochowa. After Poland surrendered, he tried to escape to Hungary but was captured by the Red Army (which had invaded Poland from the east). He was interred in a prison camp in Ukraine. After concealing his identity as an officer, the Russians turned him over to the Germans. Thus, he escaped the Katyn massacre (in which the Soviets massacred Polish Army officers in April and May 1940).
Karski escaped while being transported back to Germany and found his way to Warsaw. He joined the ZWZ, the Polish resistance movement, and adopted the nom de guerre "Jan Karski". Due to his diplomatic training, he acted as a courier, transmitting messages to the Polish Government-in-Exile in Paris from Warsaw and making several secret trips to Britain. He was arrested in Czechoslovakia in July 1940 and severely tortured by the Gestapo. Hospitalized, the resistance kidnapped him and smuggled him back to Warsaw. After a short period of rehabilitation, he worked with the Polish Home Army (the successor resistance movement to the ZWZ).
In 1942, the Polish Home Army selected Karski to convey information about the Holocaust to Polish prime minister-in-exile Władysław Sikorski in London. He was twice smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto to obtain first-hand evidence of what was happening to Polish Jews. Disguised as a camp guard, he also got close to the Bełżec death camp.
Karski arrived in London with microfilm containing documentation about the Holocaust. His documentation, and his first-hand accounts, provided the Allies with one of the earliest and most accurate accounts of the Holocaust.
He spoke with British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, met journalist Arthur Koestler (who wrote the 1940 novel Darkness at Noon), and on July 28, 1943, personally informed President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Oval Office about the situation in Poland and the Jewish Holocaust. In 1944, Karski published Courier from Poland: The Story of a Secret State, a book about his experiences which was later serialized in Collier's Magazine.
After the war, Karski obtained a Ph.D. from Georgetown University in 1952, and was naturalized as an American citizen in 1954. He taught at Georgetown University for 40 years, and among his students was Bill Clinton.
Following the fall of communism in Poland in 1989, the democratic Polish government awarded Karski the Order of the White Eagle (the highest Polish civil decoration) and the Order Virtuti Militari (the highest military decoration awarded for bravery in combat).
Karski died of heart and kidney disease in Washington, D.C., on July 13, 2000. He was interred at Mount Olivet Cemetery.
In 1965, Karski married the 54-year-old dancer and choreographer, Pola Nireńska. She was a Polish Jew whose family (with the exception of her parents) died in the Holocaust. She committed suicide in 1992. The couple had no children.
On June 2, 1982, Yad Vashem recognised Jan Karski as Righteous Among the Nations. In 1994, Karski was made an honorary citizen of Israel in honor of his efforts on behalf of Polish Jews during the Holocaust. Shortly before his death, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and formally recognized by the United Nations General Assembly. On April 23, 2012, President Barack Obama bestowed on Karski America's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.