In a White House ceremony Tuesday, President Obama will bestow the Medal of Freedom posthumously on the late Jan Karski, Ph.D. America’s highest civilian honor will go to this Polish-born World War II hero, whose daring deserves universal acclaim.
Speaking April 23 at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., Obama praised Jan Karski, calling him “a young Polish Catholic who witnessed Jews being put on cattle cars, who saw the killings, and who told the truth, all the way to President Roosevelt himself.”
I am fortunate enough to have been among Dr. Karski’s students at Georgetown University. I spent my senior fall semester in his “Theory of Communism” class in a brick building called Old North. George Washington once spoke there.
Dr. Karski’s students found him fascinating and often very funny. He also was incredibly modest. Indeed, most of his students had heard little more than rumors about his life during wartime.
As his second-to-last lecture began, we begged him to tell us about his actions during that era. He was reluctant, but we insisted.
Dr. Karski then kept us spellbound for 90 minutes, detailing how he saw the Nazis attack his horse-drawn artillery unit on the morning of September 1, 1939. He fled as the Nazi Blitzkrieg overran the Polish Army. He later was captured by the Red Army as the Soviet Union implemented the Hitler-Stalin pact and invaded Poland from the east.
Jan Karski talked his way out of a troop movement that ended in one of the war’s most notorious atrocities, the Katyn Forest Massacre, in which Russian soldiers slaughtered some 8,000 Polish officers. Having escaped execution there, Karski jumped from a Nazi train soon thereafter as it sped through the Polish countryside.
He fled into the woods and, before long, joined the Polish Underground, for which he served as a courier. He carried coded messages from Warsaw across Europe to the Polish government-in-exile, then based in still-free France.
The Gestapo captured Karski on one of his missions. Nazi agents tortured him, but he neither would identify his colleagues nor confess other secrets. Karski feared, though, that he could not survive another day of torture without cracking and telling everything he knew. So he reached into the sole of his shoe, withdrew a small razor blade, and slashed his wrists.