Jan Karski and the Hoover Institution

Monday, October 30, 2000

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letter dated April 16, 1945, and signed by Stanford University president Donald Tresidder, formalized a relationship between Jan Karski and the Hoover Library (now known as the Hoover Institution) on War, Revolution and Peace that was to last until the end of Karski’s life. The letter confirmed a temporary appointment “to collect materials relating to political, economic, social, and other developments in Poland and other areas in Europe which have been attacked and occupied by Axis forces.”

It was Herbert Hoover who first proposed that Karski collect materials for the Hoover Institution. Hoover was particularly interested in the wartime underground movements and governments in exile. He also knew that the so-called liberation of Eastern Europe by the Red Army could result not only in great political changes but in the destruction of records documenting these changes. He proposed to his associate and friend Perrin Galpin that Karski be hired to collect these important records for the Hoover Library. Karski’s contacts with the Polish government in exile in London, his position within the Polish embassy in Washington (where he acted as top aide for Polish ambassador Jan Ciechanowski), and his frequent invitations to speak to Polish organizations put him in an excellent position to request documents and printed materials.

“Was he discreet?” Harold H. Fisher, director of the Hoover Library, wanted to know. He feared that the wrong word from Karski might cause the library embarrassment with other governments. “I am not thinking particularly of the Russian government, but of others of which there are several which might react unfavorably if it appeared that the library was supporting a particular political orientation.” Karski’s opposition to Soviet dominance in Poland was known to many, and later he expressed his anticommunist feelings publicly in no uncertain terms. Galpin wrote back, “He seems to me to be a discreet man and he certainly learned when he was in the Polish underground to keep his mouth shut.”

Karski was hired. As he was expected to travel abroad, Galpin immediately wrote his contacts in the State Department to expedite the required visa so that Karski would have no difficulty reentering the United States.

Karski wasted no time in addressing high-ranking Polish, Estonian, and Latvian diplomats, requesting documents and stressing the “safe haven” that the Hoover Library would provide. By the end of May, he could already report some success: 4,000 documents from the underground press, 200 photographs taken in Nazi-occupied Poland, and a large number of books and magazines.

On July 5, 1945, the United States withdrew recognition from the Polish government in London in favor of the Soviet-backed government in Lublin. The London office advised Ambassador Ciechanowski to turn over the embassy papers to the Hoover Library in care of Karski.

Karski’s collecting trip to Europe, scheduled for July, was postponed as negotiations with the U.S. government over his visa grew more and more complex. Finally, on December 30, he was able to depart, armed with all the necessary State Department papers establishing him as a permanent resident of the United States and letters of introduction signed by Herbert Hoover. Ciechanowski related to Karski that an unnamed high official in the State Department noted with some chagrin that letters from Mr. Hoover in Europe would be more valuable than any letters the department itself could provide.

The chief problem Karski faced in London was that all of the offices, ministries, and other institutions of the Polish government in exile no longer officially existed. “They exist, naturally, as a policy, symbol, formal continuity— but, unfortunately, they do not exist in the form of buildings, staff, offices, etc.” He hired a staff of two to locate and process materials. He also needed assurances that highly confidential materials could be shipped to Stanford sealed and secure.

Karski continued his collecting in Paris, Switzerland, and finally Rome, where he helped to secure the Wladyslaw Anders collection. Anders, the acting commander in chief of Polish forces, had instructed his forces to document the experiences of hundreds of thousands of Polish prisoners of war, labor camp inmates, and deportees under the Soviet occupation of 1939—1941. The Anders collection includes the original testimony of more than 18,000 Poles incarcerated in the Soviet Union during the war. Karski finally returned to the United States on July 1, 1946, having won the praise of Herbert Hoover and many in the Stanford community for his work.

The Jan Karski Papers collection was established at Hoover in 1946. Increments followed. In 1999 European collections curator Maciej Siekierski went to Washington at Karski’s request to assist in preparing a final shipment of his personal papers. Karski retained a few records and photographs to use during the writing of his memoirs, with plans to bring them to Hoover in the spring after his work was finished. He also agreed to give a lecture on his experiences in World War II, on his two years collecting Polish documents for “the Chief” (Hoover) and the institution, or on international relations (which he had taught at Georgetown for so many years). He was not able to make that appointment; death came for Jan Karski on July 13, 2000.