Almost seven decades after he met in the Oval Office with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and told him of his eyewitness accounts of Nazi atrocities against Jews, and a dozen years after his death, Jan Karski, the Polish Catholic who had himself been smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto, was honored this week with the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a solemn ceremony in Washington.
A hero of the Polish resistance during World War II, Karski, who grew up near Jews in Lodz, served in the Polish diplomatic service and as an officer in the army. Captured by the Russians, he escaped from a train, came to Warsaw, joined up with the Resistance and did dangerous work as a courier in Paris and London for the Polish government in exile before being captured and tortured by the Nazis. He somehow escaped from a hospital window and, after recovering, went back to his work. To gain information about conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto, he was smuggled in on two occasions, posing as a Jew, and saw the horrors that took place there. He also saw naked Jews herded into boxcars near a Nazi death camp.
He managed to travel to London and Washington to brief the highest officials about Nazi atrocities and the systematic effort to destroy European Jewry. They did nothing. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter told him, “I am unable to believe you.”
Roosevelt, Karski later said, was “rather noncommittal.”
In an interview he said that governments abandoned Jews, and that while thousands of individual Europeans helped save Jews, “no one did enough.”
He wrote a book in 1944 called “Courier For Poland: The Story of a Secret State,” describing his remarkable experiences, and it became a best seller in the United States, where he settled after the war. He enrolled at Georgetown University, earned a doctorate and taught courses in comparative government and international affairs for 40 years at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service.
In his later years, various governments — including those of Poland and Israel, where he was made an honorary citizen — honored him. He died in Washington in 2000, at the age of 86.
This week, at long last, he received the highest honor awarded civilians when he was one of 13 individuals (three deceased) awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (The only foreigner so honored was Israeli President Shimon Peres for his lifelong efforts for peace.)
Perhaps the attention Karski received this week will prompt people to read his works and reflect on how one young Polish Catholic risked his life repeatedly to call attention to the horrific plight of European Jewry. Who knows what the world would be like if those in power had acted on his pleas?