Jan Karski: witness to the Holocaust

drawing of a scene from the Warsaw Ghetto, a man in uniform stands in front of a group of huddled children

His secret mission informed world leaders about Nazi atrocities in occupied Poland

Jakub Zgierski (åbner i nyt vindue) (National Film Archive–Audiovisual Institute)

In spring, the last week of April in 1987, Jan Karski, a then 73-year-old professor of comparative government and theory of communism, entered, as he did regularly for more than 30 years, the lecture hall at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in Washington D.C.

The room was packed. Karski’s courses in Middle European studied were always over-subscribed. Students loved him for his work as a professor, but also for his 'presence and grace', an air of Polish aristocratic gallantry that made him stand out when he walked across the campus.

The Washington Post’s Sarah Booth Conroy described him as follows: 'His speech has a charming, lilting accent, as well as grace and eloquence. He's very thin, a body of bones and nerves'.

black and white portrait photograph of Jan Karski

He was no stranger to affection or even admiration. But this time things were different - he got a standing ovation. Everyone cheered and clapped. Karski was surprised and moved.

Probably no less so than his students, when they saw their beloved professor on PBS earlier that week.

Karski was one of the key witnesses interviewed in the eagerly anticipated Shoah, a 9.5 hour long, seminal Holocaust documentary by Claude Lanzmann. Three decades later, it is widely considered a cinematic masterpiece and a milestone in Holocaust studies. Karski’s testimony, shot in 1978, accounts for 40 minutes of the film.

During World War II, Karski was a lieutenant of the Polish Underground State, tasked with special courier missions, carrying dispatches to France and Britain.

But his true life mission - which marked his life forever - came in the autumn of 1942. Karski was selected to undertake a secret mission to contact world leaders, and inform them of Nazi atrocities in occupied Poland. In order to gather evidence, Karski with the help of Jewish activists, entered twice the Warsaw Ghetto.

He recounted in Shoah:

My job was just to walk. And observe. And remember. The odour. The children. Dirty. Lying. I saw a man standing with blank eyes. I asked the guide: what is he doing? The guide whispered: 'He’s just dying'. I remember degradation, starvation and dead bodies lying on the street. We were walking the streets and my guide kept repeating: 'Look at it, remember, remember'.  

And I did remember. The dirty streets. The stench. Everywhere. Suffocating. Nervousness. Tention. Then something horrible happened. Two boys from Hitlerjugend were walking around, laughing joyfully. One of them took the gun from his pocket and started shooting. Window glass broken. A voice: 'Aaa!'. It was not part of this world. It was not part of humanity. I was not a part of it. I was told that these are human beings. They didn’t look like human beings. Then my guide said: 'We might be able to arrange your visit to a death camp'.

drawing of a scene from the Warsaw Ghetto, a man in uniform stands in front of a group of huddled children

What they managed to do is put Karski in a transit camp in Izbica Lubelska, dressed as an Estonian guard. What Karski saw in the Ghetto and in the camp, he had to engrave in his memory, smuggle out of Poland and weaponize. He converted these sights into words that would convince the most powerful people of the world to take action.

What followed was a spy-thriller-style escape from Poland, involving prison escapes and teeth being pulled out in order to disguise foreign accent in Karski’s otherwise impeccable German and French.

There was a secret meeting with British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. There was the White House conversation with Franklin D. Roosevelt himself. And then the mission was done.

Karski went back to London, but was told that he became identifiable to the Nazis. So his job as a soldier was done too and Karski decided to start a new life in the United States. What didn’t end were the Nazi atrocities. The feeling of failure. And then - in the long run - the haunting memories, the images of inhumanity.

sepia postcard with a photograph of a city street and words Lodz Jude Getto printed in red

Shoah begins with an excruciating scene. Karski says: 'Now I go back 35 years'.

But he chokes up and abruptly leaves the room saying: 'No, I don’t go back!'.

It was the first time in many years that he had to revisit the experience. During his 30 year teaching career, Karski failed to mention to his students a story that later made him a towering historical figure, honoured with numerous statues in New York, Washington, Tel Aviv, Warsaw and other cities.

The screening of Shoah on national television marked a turning point late in Karski’s life. Now he was no longer first and foremost a professor. His job title seemed to change. He started being introduced as a 'Witness to the Holocaust'. This caption seems now inseparable from his name. And it sounds like something more than just a description of one of his many life roles, more than a profession even - it’s something from the realm of biblical fate.

At great personal cost, Karski became the role model par excellence - the embodiment of the universal task, which every human being is invited to undertake at some point in their life. That is: to look, to remember and to personally confront the inhuman suffering of others.

This blog post is a part of the Migration in the Arts and Sciences project, which explored how migration has shaped the arts, science and history of Europe.