World War II Resistance Fighter, Diplomat. He grew up in Lodz, Poland, which at the time was a very ethnically and culturally diverse city. After completing his secondary school education, he attended Jan Kazimierz University in what is today L'viv, Ukraine and graduated in 1935 with a degree in law and diplomatic science. He was also required to have compulsory military training during this time, a requirement he fulfilled at an NCO school for mounted artillery officers in the Ukrainian city of Volodimir-Volinskiy. After serving at various diplomatic posts in Switzerland, Germany, and the United Kingdom, Karski joined Poland's Diplomatic Service and in January of 1939 began working in the ministry of foreign affairs. He served in the artillery after Germany's invasion of Poland in September 1939 and was eventually taken prisoner by the Red Army, although he was able to be handed over to the German Army in a POW exchange by concealing his true rank. After Karski and the other POWs were taken to the German-controlled area of Poland in November of 1939, he fled from the train going to the POW camp and managed to return to Warsaw, where he joined the Polish Home Army. It was during this time that he took on the nom de guerre Jan Karski, which later became his legal name. His primary duty in the Home Army was as a courier to the Polish government in exile. During one of these missions he was arrested and tortured severely by the Gestapo, but managed to escape from the hospital he had been taken to. After recovering, he went back to work in the Information and Propaganda Bureau of the Headquarters of the Home Army. In the summer of 1942, Cyryl Ratajski, the Polish Government's Delegate at Home, selected Karski to secretly visit Wladyslaw Sikorski, the Polish prime minister, and other members of the government in exile in London, to tell him about Nazi atrocities taking place in Poland. To gather evidence, Karski was smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto several times; he also disguised himself as a Ukrainian guard to observe what he believed at the time to be the extermination camp Belzec, but which more probably was the nearby sorting camp Izbica Lubelska. Karski presented this evidence to members of the Polish, United States, and British governments in 1942 and 1943, meeting with such leaders as British foreign secretary Anthony Eden, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen Wise, Cardinal Samuel Stritch, U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, numerous leaders of Polish political parties, Hollywood moguls, and various media reporters. Karski was one of the most prominent people informing the West about Nazi atrocities and appealing to Western leaders to do something to try to stop them, though most of the people he met with either didn't believe what he said, believed he was exaggerating, or believed it were propaganda from the Polish government in exile. However, some believe that Karski's testimony may have led President Roosevelt to create the War Refugee Board in January 1944. Karski wrote a book about his experiences, 'Story of Secret State,' in 1944, which became a best-seller for several years. Initially plans were made to turn it into a movie, though it never came to fruition. Following the war, Karski settled in the United States, where he began studying for a Ph.D. at Georgetown University. After receiving the degree in 1952, he taught international affairs, East European affairs, and comparitive government at Georgetown for over 40 years, eventually becoming one of the most celebrated members of the faculty. Karski became a citizen in 1954. In addition to teaching, he also testified before Congress multiple times about Eastern Europe and went on many international lecture tours sponsored by the State Department, speaking on issues such as the democratization of Poland and the continued presence of anti-Semitism in the world. It wasn't until 1978 that his wartime service returned to the public eye, when Karski was featured in Claude Lanzmann's nine-hour documentary 'Shoah.' In 1982, a tree bearing his name was planted in the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations in Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. After the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, his native Poland granted him their highest civil decoration, the Order of the White Eagle, and their highest military decoration for bravery in combat, the Order Virtuti Militari. In 1994, a biography of Karski was published by E. Thomas Wood and Stanislaw M. Jankowski, 'Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust.' That same year, he was made an honorary citizen of Israel. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998. Karski also received honorary doctorates from the University of Lodz, the Hebrew College of America, Baltimore Hebrew College, Maria Curie-Sklodowska University, Warsaw University, and Oregon State University, in addition to an honorary doctorate from his own Georgetown University. He and his wife Pola Nirenska had no children. Karski died at the age of eighty-six, of heart and kidney ailments, eight years after the suicide of his wife. In 2002, Georgetown University honored one of their most beloved faculty members again by unveiling a statue of him on Copley Lawn and creating a scholarship in his name. Another posthumous honor came from the American Center of Polish Culture in Washington, D.C., which dedicated a Jan Karski Room.
Bio by: Carrie-Anne