The Polish parliament has declared 2014 as “Karski Commemoration Year,” named after legendary anti-Nazi Resistance fighter Jan Karski, who brought the first updated reports about the extermination of European Jews to England, and later to the United States, in the fall of 1942. Karski was also one of the Righteous Gentiles and an honorary citizen of Israel.
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Last Friday’s decision by the Polish parliament was supported unanimously by all members of both the ruling party and the opposition. It was the result of an intiative by Poland’s Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorsky, and was sponsored by Poland’s President, Bronislaw Komorowski.
Throughout the year, Poland’s representatives around the world will endeavor to remind the world of Karski’s actions, telling people the truth about the struggles of the Polish Resistance movement, and especially about the extermination of the Jewish people on Polish soil.
Karski visited the Warsaw Ghetto many times, before embarking on his dangerous mission. Dressed as a German officer, he also investigated the living conditions in the ghetto-transit camp of Izbica. His report was intended for the Polish government-in-exile in London, but Karski also delivered it to representatives of the Bund and of other Polish Zionist organizations, who had found refuge in England.
While doing so, he proclaimed that “these people still have equal rights, since they are citizens of Poland and their parties were represented in parliament before the war.”
Based on Karski’s testimony and on documents he provided, the Polish Foreign Minister-in-exile, Edward Raczynski, prepared a detailed report on the Holocaust and submitted it to the Allied authorities on December 10, 1942.
He did not receive an adequate response. Winston Churchill refused to see Karski, saying that his reports were exaggerated. In July 1943 Karski was invited to see U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt but, according to Karski, the President treated the reports of annihilation of European Jews with suspicion.
Karski’s requests that the railway lines leading to the camps be bombed were turned down. His suggestion that German cities should be threatened with destruction, unless the massacre of Jews stopped, was also rebuffed. Karski did not despair and met with almost all influential personalities across the country in order to tell his story but, in his words, nowhere did the plight of Europe’s Jews raise real interest.
Jan Karski was born to a Catholic family in 1941, in a Lodz building in which most of the residents were Jewish. His real name was Jan Kozielewski. He finished his studies in law and diplomacy at Lvov University and, from January 1939, began working in the Polish foreign ministry. He was an emissary of the Polish underground from 1940 and, prior to his fateful trip to England and the U.S., he went on several secret missions to France.
At the end of the war, he remained in the U.S. and married a Jewish dancer named Pola Nirenska. He taught for 40 years at Georgetown University in Washington. The world learned of him mainly through Claude Lanzmann’s movie “Holocaust.”
Karski was posthumously (he died in 2000) awarded the Medal of Freedom from President Obama for his actions during the war, as well as a few citations in Poland. There are now “Karski benches” in many cities around the world to commemorate his deeds. In 2007, such a bench was placed at the corner of Madison Avenue and 37th Street in New York. The ceremony was attended by Rabbi Yisrael Lau, who was then the Chief Rabbi of Israel. A “Karski bench” was also placed on the grounds of Tel Aviv University.