Jan Karski

24 June 1914  - 13 July 2000

Jan Kozielewski (whose wartime pseudonym was Jan Karski) was born on the 24th of April, 1914, in Łódź. He was one of the eight children in a family of modest means and aristocratic, bourgeois origins. The father of Karski, Stefan, ran a leatherwork studio. He passed away when Jan was still in junior high school. The whole family lived in a tenement house by 71 Kilińskiego street. Karski would later recall his hometown as poor and dirty, but also tolerant. "Poles, Jews, and Germans lived side by side. Without that Łódź of the past there would probably be no Karski of today", he stated in an interview in 1999.


As a young boy, Karski was very strongly connected to his mother, Walentyna Kozielewska. She was a very religious person, who raised her children in fanatical worship of the Polish statesman Józef Piłsudski. Karski would later recall that she never named the "First Marshall" anything other than "the Father of Fatherland". "When she wanted to praise me, she would say‚ 'son, you have to be worthy of the Father of Fatherland.'"

Karski went to school at the age of six, a year earlier than his peers. While still a student at elementary school, he became a member of the Sodalicja Mariańska, a religious organisation which placed particular emphasis on worshipping the Mother of God. In 1927, Karski found himself in the all-boys Marshal Piłsudski junior high school. It was a school with strong socialist traditions, and one in which the need for social justice was considered an especially pertinent issue. There were numerous Jewish boys at the school, whom Karski befriended. 

Throughout these early years, the older brother of Karski, Marian Kozielewski, also proved to have had a great influence on Jan. Marian was also a Piłsudski fanatic, and a police commissioner in Warsaw. It was thanks to his older brother's good connections at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the young Karski was able to attend diplomatic internships from an early age. 


In 1931, Kozielewski transferred to Lviv, where he took up studies in Law School at the Jan Kazimierz University. The following year, he took an extra course at the University’s School of Diplomacy. Throughout this time, Karski spent most of his vacation time biking across the country, and doing internships at Polish consulates in Chernivtsi (1933), Bucharest (1934) and Opole (in July 1935). It was then that he travelled to Nuremberg for the NSDAP Parteitag, as a representative of Polish youth. This was his first encounter with Nazi propaganda.

In 1935, Karski completed his studies and obtained a master’s degree in law and diplomatic studies. His university friends would often recall his brilliant ability to remember: he was capable of memorising long texts and repeating them without error. This talent would soon turn out to be useful in conspiratorial work during the occupation.

In Diplomatic Service

In 1935, Karski took a one-year course at the in Cadet School of the Artillery Reserve in Włodzimierz Wołyński. He was granted the title of a reserve cadet on the 28th of June 1936, graduating as one of the best students.

As a cadet, he was given a post at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and he began the work with yet another set of internships. He spent 8 months in Geneva and 11 months in London. Karski wanted to become an ambassador and he was well on his way towards achieving this goal. In 1938, he passed the internal examination of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, once again, with one of the best scores. From the 1st of January, 1939, he was already a full-fledged employee of the Ministry, with the post of  referendary and secretary of the department of immigration policy. Just weeks before the outbreak of the war, he received his second promotion to become the secretary of the Ministry’s staff director, Wiktor Tomir Drymmer. On the 23rd of August, 1939,  Second Lieutenant [podporucznik rank  in Poland’s army] Jan Kozielewski received a secret mobilisation order.

The War

Following the invasion of Russia on Poland’s Eastern territories in September, 1939, Karski found himself in Soviet captivity, together with thousands of Polish officers. Thanks to the prisoner exchange between the Third Reich and the USSR, Karski was transported to the German occupation zone and he escaped during transportation. He thus escaped the fate that met the majority of Polish officers, who were mass-murdered in Katyń in 1940.

After arriving in Warsaw, Karski engaged himself in the resistance movement and he became a messenger of the Polish Underground State. With his photographic memory and capacity to speak different languages, he undertook numerous missions to the Polish government members in exile in France and in the UK. He transported secret instructions and orders, and he undertook the first such journey in January, 1940.

He played a part in building up the structures of the Polish Underground State, and also helped to ensure the functioning of what was the largest military and political organisation within occupied Europe. Karski was arrested in Slovakia in June, 1940, while on his third mission. After being tortured by the Gestapo, Karski tried to commit suicide, be he was resuscitated. Soon, the Polish underground organised a rescue action, and saved him from the hospital in Nowy Sącz. It was only years later that Karski learned that over 20 people took part in organising his escape. The Germans killed more than 30 people in revenge.

The Last Mission

After a brief period of recovery, Karski returned to working for the underground. First, he engaged in work in Kraków, and then in Warsaw. In August, 1942, Karski met twice with Leon Feiner, a representative of the Bund, and a delegate of the Zionist movement, Menachem Kirszenbaum. The two had convinced Karski to see with his own eyes what the Germans were doing to Jews, in order for him to transmit the message to government representatives in exile, as well as the Allies, and Jews who lived in the West. 

Karski was led into the Warsaw ghetto twice. Disguised as a Ukrainian soldier he also spent a few hours in the transit camp in Izbica Lubelska. It was from that place that the Jewish people were transferred to death camps in Sobibór or Majdanek. There, he also saw the inhuman treatment of people, many of whom were dying of starvation. He also witnessed numerous executions. These were images that he would remember until the end of his life.

In the autumn of 1942, Karski made it to London, after travelling through Brussels, Paris, Perpignan, Barcelona, Madrit and Gibraltar. He reported to the Prime Minister and the General Sikorski about the structures, the organisation and the functioning of the Underground State. He also told them about the extermination of Jews.

Karski had memorised an abbreviated, 17-minute version of his report off by heart, and he presented it to the British Minister of Foreign Affairs, Anthony Eden, as well as the War Minister, Henry Stimson. In July, 1943, two months after the annihilation of the Warsaw ghetto, Karski found himself at the White House, where he met with Franklin D. Roosevelt, the President of the United States of America.  Karski’s talks did not bring about the expected results - the Allies never intervened.

In August 1943, Karski travelled back to the United Kingdom. There, he worked on a film script about the Polish underground state. After being sent to the United States yet another time, to Hollywood in 1944, Karski tried to ensure the realisation of a film based on his script. Faced with the failure of the film project, Karski published his memoirs and report in the form of a book. The Story of a Secret State, released in 400 thousand copies in November, 1944, turned out to be a great success. 

After the War

After the war, Jan Karski stayed in the US, where he studied and obtained a doctorate from Georgetown University in Washington. For a period of forty years, Karski lectured in international relations and the theory of communism at the School of Foreign Service. In 1954, Karski was granted American citizenship, and in 1965 he married Pola Nireńska, a Polish-Jewish woman and acclaimed dancer and choreographer who had lost all of her family members in the Holocaust. Pola Nireńska committed suicide in 1992.

Karski did not reveal his wartime experiences for many years. Claude Lanzmann, who was making his film Shoah, conducted an interview with Karski in 1978. It was only then that his key role in informing the world of the then ongoing Shoah became known to the public.

In 1995, Jan Karski was presented with the Order of the White Eagle by the President of the Republic of Poland, Lech Wałęsa. On the 29th of May, 2012, the President of the United States of America, Barack Obama, post-humously bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom upon Karski. The Medal is the highest civilian award presented by the United States government. 

Jan Karski passed away on the 13th of July, 2000, in Washington, D.C.


Edited by Mikołaj Gliński, translated by Paulina Schlosser, 23/04/2014