Jan Karski, a World War II Polish resistance hero who tried to convince Allied leaders of the horrors of the Holocaust, died July 13 in Washington at the age of 86.
Jews and non-Jews alike paid tribute to a man whose wartime heroism and lifelong commitment to justice made him a moral authority in the fight against intolerance and anti-Semitism.
“To remember Karski is to remember the very best that human beings were capable of at the awful heart of this awful century,” said Gratz College professor Michael Steinlauf, an expert on Polish-Jewish history.
“He had zero tolerance for any sort of hypocrisy, and no matter who his audience was, he stood before it ramrod straight and never hesitated for an instant to speak the truth as he knew it, no matter how hard, no matter how inconvenient.”
In Warsaw, Rabbi Michael Schudrich led a prayer in his memory during Shabbat services.
“Karski was an absolutely righteous man,” said Stanislaw Krajewski, a member of the board of the Union of Polish Jewish Congregations. “His unbelievable World War II record made him a great moral authority in Poland. He represented the best face of Poland, and it was clear that his views, such as his alertness to anti-Semitism, were against the mainstream. There is no way to replace him.”
Born Jan Kozielewski in 1914 in the central Polish city of Lodz, Karski, a Roman Catholic, was a diplomat in pre-war Poland. After the war broke out in 1939, he joined the underground Home Army.
Thanks to his courage, his photographic memory and his talent with languages, he became a legendary courier, sneaking through enemy lines and occupied Europe to bring news from the Resistance to Poland’s government in exile. He was captured and tortured by the Gestapo in 1940, but managed to escape with the help of an underground commando team.
In 1942, he risked his life to sneak two times into the Warsaw Ghetto. Also, disguised as a Nazi guard, he infiltrated the Izbica death camp in eastern Poland, where he saw Jews tortured, stabbed and crammed into boxcars.
He managed to bring his graphic eyewitness report of executions, mass deportations and horrific conditions to the West, and personally briefed President Roosevelt and other western leaders.
His reports, however, resulted in little concrete action from skeptical Allied leaders.
“Maybe they did not believe, maybe they thought I was exaggerating,” Karski told The Associated Press in 1995.
“Jan Karski tried to inform [the world] about the Holocaust, but the world failed to consider his warnings seriously,” said a statement from the Polish embassy in Washington.
Karski’s 1944 book, “Story of a Secret State,” which detailed the Polish resistance fight, recounted his exploits, and also described the realities of the Holocaust, became a best-seller in the United States.
Karski refused to return to Poland after the Communists took power and settled in the United States, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1954 and a professor at Georgetown University.
The first time he spoke publicly after the war about what he saw in the Warsaw Ghetto and Izbica camp was when he was interviewed in the 1980s for Claude Lanzmann’s film “Shoah.”
Karski returned to Poland only after the fall of communism in 1989. Among many awards, he was recognized as Righteous Among Nations, and also was granted Poland’s highest civilian and military honors.
Karski’s late wife was the daughter of an Orthodox Polish Jew and lost all her family in the Holocaust.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.