Jan Karski, Freedom Fighter

Monday, October 30, 2000


an Karski, a Georgetown University professor emeritus and bona fide World War II hero, died July 13 at age 86. I consider myself fortunate to have been among those he taught.

Tall, thin, and dressed in a crisp gray suit even in August, Karski lectured to me and my fellow college seniors on the Theory of Communism back in the fall semester of 1985. As the Cold War continued its chill, many of us yearned to fathom what made the Kremlin tick. Yet, having heard murmurs about his earlier activities, we begged him near semester’s end to skip the dialectics and answer one question: “What did you do during the war?”

Professor Karski hesitated at first but then began recounting his remarkable wartime story in his thick accent and sometimes high-pitched voice.

Karski and the Polish Underground

In the prewar years, Karski served as a Polish diplomat in Berlin, Geneva, and London. Just before the war erupted, he became an officer in the Polish army. At 5:05 a.m. on September 1, 1939, Lieutenant Karski’s shave was interrupted by Luftwaffe bombs. His cavalry unit proved no match for the Blitzkrieg; its artillery pieces no longer could be hauled by horses too frightened to fight.

Within weeks, Karski was captured by the Red Army after it invaded Poland under the notorious Hitler-Stalin Pact. Passing himself off as a private, Karski talked his way out of a camp in the Ukraine and into a prisoner exchange, thus avoiding the Soviet massacre of Polish officers at Katyn Forest. Karski later jumped from a German train that was carrying POWs to a Nazi forced labor facility.

Returning to Warsaw, he joined the Polish underground as a courier. Code-named “Witold,” Karski employed his photographic memory, familiarity with Europe’s terrain, and fluency in English, French, and German to spirit secret messages between Warsaw and the exiled Polish government in Paris.

Traversing Slovakia on his third mission in June 1940, Karski was caught by the Gestapo carrying a clandestine roll of film. Suffering from truncheon wounds, broken ribs, and missing teeth after three days of torture, Karski feared he might crack under further abuse. “I have little tolerance for pain,” he told us through his still-gaunt cheeks. So Karski reached into a secret compartment in his heel, extracted a razor blade, and slit his wrists.

He awoke in a Polish hospital, having failed at suicide. While confessing to a Catholic priest, he revealed his identity and asked the cleric to alert a member of the underground. Karski’s contact arrived the next day, disguised as a nun. “Go down the hallway at midnight,” Karski remembered Zofia Rysiowna whispering. “Leave your clothes behind. Jump out the window.” As two bribed guards feigned sleep, underground agents from a resistance cell of the Polish Socialist Party took Karski to safety.

After recuperating and being quarantined to ensure that he had not been brainwashed into Nazism, “Witold” resumed his service in the underground.

His biggest mission began in the fall of 1942. Clad in rags, he was smuggled twice into the Warsaw Ghetto, “a haze of disease and death,” as he described it. “Remember this,” Jewish resistance leader Leon Feiner pleaded as they absorbed the Ghetto’s horrors. “Remember this.”

Wearing a Ukrainian guard’s uniform, Karski later gathered information at Izbica—a “sorting point,” as he called it, for the Belzec extermination camp, where the Nazis murdered 600,000 Jews and other individuals.

Karski escaped Poland and crossed occupied Europe on a Nazi passenger train. An injection from a sympathetic dentist swelled his mouth and allowed him to conceal his telltale Polish accent by posing as a volunteer French migrant laborer suffering from gum disease.

He eventually reached Gibraltar and, in the care of Allied intelligence operatives, flew to England in the cargo bay of a Royal Air Force military transport. He conferred in London with British officials, including Foreign Minister Anthony Eden. In Washington, Karski briefed Secretary of State Cordell Hull and others. Alas, skepticism greeted Karski’s warnings about Jews being herded behind barbed wire and dying in cattle cars. “I am unable to believe you,” Jewish Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter told him. Karski also met President Franklin Roosevelt at the White House in July 1943 but recalled FDR being unmoved by his news.

“I saw too much indifference, self-interest, self-controlled ignorance, and self-imposed disbelief in Allied nations,” Karski told Washingtonian magazine in July 1988. “The idea that Allied leaders did not know is nothing more than a myth.”

Karski planned to parachute back into Poland in September 1943 to rejoin the underground. However, an exiled Polish officer told him that a Radio Germany propaganda broadcast had denounced him as a “Bolshevik agent in the service of American Jewry.” Karski quietly replied, “I’ve been deciphered.” Unmasked and unable to return to Poland, Karski stayed in America. He discussed what he saw in some 200 public lectures and wrote Story of a Secret State, about the Polish underground, a best-seller in 1944.

After the war, Karski began his doctoral studies at Georgetown and taught international affairs from 1952 to 1995. He also discussed communism versus the American way of life in 21 African, Asian, and Middle Eastern nations during two lecture tours sponsored by the U.S. Information Service in 1955 and 1966.

As he concluded his reminiscence, we stunned college kids gave Jan Karski a spontaneous and lengthy standing ovation. The world he helped keep free owes him its eternal appreciation as he rests in peace.