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.
The Nazis found him before he bled to death and took him to a hospital so that he could recover enough for them to torture him anew.
Karski spoke with a visiting priest who told a member of the Underground that Witold — Karski’s code name — was in the hospital. Disguised as a nun, another Underground agent came to Karski’s bedside, fluffed up his pillows, and told him that the guards had been bribed to take tranquilizers and fall asleep as he leapt from an open window that evening.
Thus Karski slipped out of Nazi custody and returned to the Polish Underground.
On his last mission, Karski posed as a Jew. Wearing a yellow Star of David, he penetrated the Warsaw Ghetto and witnessed its horrid conditions. Days later, he impersonated a pro-Nazi Ukrainian guard, complete with a borrowed uniform and identification documents. In the fall of 1942, he visited Izbica, a sorting point for the Belzec extermination camp.
After witnessing Nazi genocide, Jan Karski prepared to alert the free world.
A dentist with the Polish Underground injected a saline solution into his gums to make them swell temporarily, mimicking the aftereffects of oral surgery. This gave Karski a perfect excuse for not speaking, which would have exposed his telltale Polish accent.
Using papers acquired from a migrant French worker, he boarded a German passenger train that traversed Nazi-occupied Europe. Karski reached France, traveled over the Pyrenees and through Spain, then reached Gibraltar, where a Royal Air Force plane whisked him to London.
That’s when Jan Karski became one of the first to reveal the Final Solution.
He briefed members of the British War Cabinet. Then he came to America and shared his experiences with Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter — the most powerful American Jewish official at that time — and, finally, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
These leaders were skeptical of Karski’s report. They did not grasp the totality of Hitler’s hatred or believe he was murdering Jews and others by the millions.
So Jan Karski went public with his story.
He delivered some 200 lectures and wrote a best-selling book, The Story of a Secret State, in 1944. He did this not for personal grandeur but to inform the civilized world about the unbridled barbarism then devouring Europe. (Also, in 1996, E. Thomas Wood wrote Karksi: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust, a nonfiction page-turner reminiscent of a fine spy novel.)
In the years after the Nazis were crushed, Dr. Karski spoke little about his wartime experiences. He studied and taught at Georgetown for the rest of his career.
Jan Karski was a humble man who — when the times required it — became one of Hitler’s most heroic enemies.
“Jan Karski did not cave; he stood steadfast,” says Wanda Urbanska, director of the Jan Karski U.S. Centennial Campaign, which is holding a number of events to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Dr. Karksi’s birth — April 24, 1912. “He went on to a distinguished career as an educator,” she adds, “one who was not bitter but who reached out to the better angels in us all, advocating for tolerance, for being active agents of good in the world, for building bridges between communities at odds with each other.”
Urbanska’s group plans a variety of educational and cultural activities to increase awareness of Dr. Karski’s life and deeds. A major motion picture about Karski’s life may also be in the works. In the right hands, it should be both morally uplifting and riveting.
As Americans and others search for people to inspire us, few examples surpass that of Jan Karski.
— New York commentator Deroy Murdock is a nationally syndicated columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University.