I met Jan Karski in the early 1980s.
He was a neighbor of mine, an old-world, courtly figure who taught history at Georgetown University.
In middle age, he had married the renowned modern dancer Pola Niresnka, a Polish Jew who had escaped the Holocaust spending the war years in London, yet whose entire family disappeared in the concentration and extermination camps. Now an older man, Jan told me over the course of a dinner of his and Pola’s past.
In…1940 Karski[, a Pole], began [as] a courier … [between] … the Polish underground [and] the Polish Government in Exile. During one such mission in July 1940 he was arrested by the Gestapo in Slovakia [and s]everely tortured. He managed to escape.
In 1942 Karski was…twice smuggled by Jewish underground leaders into the Warsaw Ghetto for the purpose of directly observing what was happening to Polish Jews. Also, disguised as an Estonian camp guard, he visited a sorting and transit point for the Bełżec death camp. Karski then met with Polish politicians in exile and the British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, giving a detailed statement on what he had seen in Warsaw and Bełżec. In 1943 he traveled to the United States, meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Oval Office, telling him about the situation in Poland and becoming the first eyewitness to tell him about the Jewish Holocaust. He also described the Holocaust to Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. Frankfurter, [a Jew himself, sat politely through] Karski's report. 
Recollecting, Karski told me that Frankfurter had told him, "I cannot believe you of what’s happening to the Jews in Poland. I do not say that you are lying, I am saying that I CAN NOT believe you.”
If FDR had acted immediately to stem the atrocity by bombing the gas and incineration complexes in the death camps, perhaps 2 Million Jews could have been saved from destruction. By the time Allies did act against the camps, Karski’s efforts were estimated to have saved ¼ million Jews, making Karski the most effective savior of European Jewry during the war. Yet Karski lived with the knowledge that perhaps 10 times more could have been saved, IF ONLY. If only FDR had acted immediately.
While he acknowledged that perhaps deeper levels of military strategy may have prevailed upon FDR, Karski told me that he regretted that he had failed to find the right words in his efforts to convince FDR and the other Allied leaders of the necessity to act. Karski, who had trained for the diplomatic corps, strained every diplomatic muscle he had in trying to persuade the Brits and Americans. In his appeal, he even extravagantly addressed FDR as, “Lord of Humanity.”
Karski also struggled with words around the prisoners: their condition almost rendered him silent. He recognized he was in the midst of the struggle of good and evil. In that struggle, there were moments of irrepressible holiness by the prisoners straining every sinew of their being to help each other stay alive. Karski recognized these were stories of struggle, stories of fierce love inside inexpressible trauma and horror.
Later, Karski volunteered to sneak into the darkness of the Warsaw ghetto and the transit point of the Bełżec death camp to bring the news of Allied efforts to the prisoners. He brought hope. He was an example of the volunteering saint, representing the Prophet Isaiah's "send me" attitude. Karski felt the call of his Christian upbringing to make a prophetic difference to people who were enslaved, oppressed, and daily murdered.
In 1985, the French Film Director Claude Lanzmann released a 9-1/2 hour documentary series Shoah which documented the living witnesses of the Holocaust. I committed 4 afternoons of a winter week in early 1986 to seeing Shoah at the Key Theater in Georgetown of Washington, DC. During the second installment, Jan Karski appeared on-screen discussing the conditions he had found of the Jews confined in the Warsaw Ghetto, and he wept. Then I was moved to tears in the dark and flickering theater by his descriptions of what he saw and what he experienced in the conditions at Bełżec.
I left the theater that gloomy Tuesday emotionally spent and got on the bus. It was raining. I sat down and focused internally on my memories of the moving witness to the Holocaust in the documentary. I then became aware of a disturbance at the front of the bus.
It was my friend Jan Karski, whom I had just seen on screen, off from his shift as a professor at Georgetown University. He was having difficulty putting away his umbrella while trying, in flustered English, to secure his senior citizen bus discount. The bus passengers were surly at the delay and, hearing his accent, cast their anger frontward at him: some shouted, “Down in Front!” and “Go Back to where you came from."
Carried by instinct, I got up from my seat and went to the front and embraced Karski, giving him my arm for support as I almost carried him to a seat. At our seat, I told him of my emotion at having just then seen him in Shoah.
“Yes,” he said, “Lanzmann has made a necessary document of the time. Pola can’t watch it, it’s too painful for her.”
Since that bus ride, I’ve often wondered if I should have addressed the surly passengers on the bus—shamed them, perhaps with the words, “this is a great man, people!”
But in the presence of holiness, I was silenced.
I sat a mostly silent vigil with Karski during the bus ride back to the Maryland suburbs. I had nothing profound to say, and the moment seemed to require something moving and deep and profound that I couldn’t utter.
For me, like Zechariah, Nicodemus, and the prophet Isaiah, there is the season of speaking out—a time of moral revival and assertion. There may also come a season when we can find no words. In those times, connection isn’t in the thundering eloquence of the pulpit or in the rebukes of the crowd we offer, but in the soft companionship of standing firm next to someone until they are ready to go their own way.
There may be in our recollections times when we were silenced—when our common human inheritance for communication was brought up short. These times should be approached with great tenderness and discernment of recollection because I believe our souls have at those times been confronted with something intended and sent from God. Something of holiness.
Practicing the virtue of recollection, we might gather a spiritual truth from these times when our voices failed. For at the risk of his life Karski took forth into history’s deepest darkness a message of hope, compassion, and concern. Risk is the price for the companionship with the Holy and the vigil with the Divine that we all crave.
My silence on that bus, I later recollected, inadvertently had discovered that holiness—that common, unobtrusive love-- is not found in rebuking the mob, but rather in companionship and chaplaincy with an elderly and disoriented man on a rainy evening as he struggled with his umbrella and the hostility of the crowd.
Sometimes, we are not called for the glamour positions—the shiny speaking positions, the apostleships, and prophecies—but rather to fulfill our role companionably in the local milieu in which we are called—to a witness of presence—a witness of presence for righteousness and compassion through silent accompaniment.
We may often experience ourselves as bursting with expression which threatens to overwhelm others’ capacity for listening. Especially when events and personalities make a mockery of our deepest, shared morality. At those times, being given to silent companionship can provide the ailing and the onlookers a sign of our trust in goodness when the world is hostile and collapsing.
Twenty-five years after these encounters with Jan Karski I became an ordained Presbyterian minister. I have come to regret not asking Karski, a Catholic, how his personal theology was impacted by his experience of the events of the Holocaust and their horrors. Of course, the Holocaust has exerted a major influence on later 20th C theology. There was great wisdom in the man I came to know, and now some of that is lost to God's keeping.
But the small wisdom I derived from encountering Jan Karski on that bus ride was that our human task is to companion and bring stories of enduring wonder with the mystery of God and the enigma of faith, speaking and living life to the fullest. In this, we risk that even our words and stories will for a season fail. Holiness—God’s humble love--demands it.
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Karski accessed on 6 August 2015.  Pers. Comm.
First published at https://douglasolds.blogspot.com/2019/07/righteous-gentile-personal-recollection.html on July 20, 2019
My name is Tony Gerlicz, the son of Oscar Gerlicz and Zofia Bronikowska. I live in the United States after my parents survived WWII, emigrated to Argentina and then to the USA.
I read your website article, "Tatra couriers. They carried messages, carried people" with great interest. http://krakow.wyborcza.pl/krakow/1,44425,19127065,tatrzanscy-kurierzy-przenosili-meldunki-przeprowadzali-ludzi.html. The story of the Tatra couriers (who guided Jan Karski on his missions) is extremely close to my family's story and history. Like so many, Zofia Bronikowska participated in a number of activities as a member of the AK before the Powstanie. Her brother, my uncle, Jan Bronikowski's name is on the wall at the Uprising Museum, having perished during the Powstanie.
One of my mother’s activities factored directly in allowing our family to emigrate to the US. She was directed by the leaders of the AK to transport downed American and British pilots out of Warsaw, to Zakopane, across the Tatras using mountain trails, into Czechoslovakia and onwards to Budapest where she met Polish priest Father Laski, who was the contact that allowed the pilots to return to the Allied war effort.
During one of her return trips, she was informed upon, arrested and spent time in Pawiak prison where she was freed through another story entirely. As a result of her trips across the Tatras, she received a commendation signed by American General Dwight Eisenhower as well as a certificate from Arthur Tedder, British Deputy Supreme Commander.
It was that certificate from General Eisenhower that convinced the US government to allow my family, with a very mentally retarded child (my brother), to enter the US from Argentina.
And now....I plan to retrace the trips my mother took over the Tatras, into Slovakia and then Hungary on foot.
I had the honor of attending Jan Karski's Modern Foreign Governments class in 1982. Tensions were high between Poland and USSR. Someone in the class asked what would happen if the Soviets invaded Poland. Karski replied "It will never happen" . The student asked something like "how can you be sure". Karski answered "If it does we'll all be dead and I don't have to worry about the correctness of my answer".
The man qualifies for sainthood. His absolute statement stays with me to this day.
Further to my earlier entry I was in New York a couple of years or more ago at the Polish Consulate in Madison Avenue where my late father, Bruno Nadolczak, was honoured with a posthumous award by the Polish President for his services to the cause of Polish-international relations. I was charmed to find that on a bench outside the Consultate sits a statue of Jan Karski, in bronze, nonchalant and relaxed. A touching tribute indeed.
Hello! I had the privilege of taking a course with Prof. Karski in the summer of 1982 at Georgetown University. Prof. Karski taught the course "Modern Foreign Governments", which was a most interesting course, made the more so by all his fascinating anecdotes and stories. Then I had no idea of Karski's past, other than that he was from Poland. Since then I have been living In Israel, and "see" Prof. Karski posthumously quite often, as I am a guide at Yad Vashem - Israel's Holocaust Museum, in which Prof. Karski appears quite prominently in a film describing his activity during World War Two. I will never forget Jan Karski, his warmth, humanity, knowledge and even his great sense of humor, and consider it a privilege to have met him. I am a bit of an impersonator on the side, and on a lighter note Prof. Karski with his unique accent and countless stories left an impression on me in this category as well. May his memory be blessed!
The word “hero” gets bandied about quite a bit. But I often think of a true hero, my professor and friend JAN KARSKI.
He taught me at Georgetown University in the 80s and we forged a friendship in the 90s, having regular Sunday brunch at the old Houlihan’s in Chevy Chase, MD. I was in awe that this larger-than-life figure, the legendary courier who carried the first eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust to the West (as chronicled, among other sources, in the book “Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust”) would take time to chat with me for hours every week.
Jan Karski died in July 2000. He received many awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded posthumously in 2012.
I recently found this article I wrote about him, published in The Georgetown Voice in December 3, 1987. If you have some time, please read it and remember him, or get to know a little about a great man who has been called “Humanity’s Hero”. I miss him and continue to honor him.
Jan Karski – Notes from the Polish Underground
by Flavio Cumpiano
The Georgetown Voice - December 3, 1987
In 1949, Jan Karski entered Georgetown University to prepare his dissertation on the “Communist seizure of power in Eastern Europe after the Second World War.” But he was no ordinary student entering a university to do scholarly work based on library research. Karski had lived the horrifying experience of the war as a wartime courier for the Polish underground. He had suffered in flesh and spirit the atrocities carried out against the Polish people, his countrymen.
Karski, now a Georgetown government professor, often plays down his role as a courier, and considers his contribution to Poland to be that of a mere messenger whose virtue was a photographic memory. But on rare occasions, this imposing man, who exudes an aura of gentle grandeur, is willing to open his soul and talk about his life. “As you can see I am an old man. I’m on my way out. I am not afraid of anything or anybody so I can speak my mind.”
The first time Karski arrived in the United States was June 1943, when he was sent by the Polish government-in-exile to inform American officials about the situation in Poland and about the extermination of the Jews in his native country. Karski was given a diplomatic passport and stayed in the United States for two months in a secret mission. During that time, he spoke with President Roosevelt, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, and met with prominent Catholic and Jewish leaders such as Apostolic Delegate Cardinal Cicognani and the president of the World Jewish Congress Rabbi Wise.
All these meetings were supposed to be secret; however, upon arrival in London after his mission was over, the Polish Prime Minister showed Karski a transcript of a broadcast in the Nazi Germany radio which said that “in the United States there is a certain individual who calls himself Jan Karski, he is a Bolshevik agent in the payroll of the American Jews.” The Polish courier’s cover had been blown by the Nazi intelligence. Nevertheless, while in London, Karski reported to four members of the British War Cabinet, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden included.
The Polish government then decided to send him once again to the United States, this time openly, in December 1943. Although formally assigned to the Polish Embassy, Karski enjoyed total freedom to lecture and write. It was in this period that he wrote Story of a Secret State, a book recounting his wartime experiences that became a bestseller. Karski met once again with President Roosevelt to report the condition of the Jews in the concentration camps. He had volunteered in 1942 to be smuggled into the Belzic death camp to gather evidence of the Nazi’s extermination policies and had just witnessed the abhorrent state of the Jewish people in the Warsaw ghetto two months before his meeting with the President.
Karski tells of his role in expressing the plight of the Jews: “I was not a political leader. I was just a messenger who reported what I saw.” What was the reaction of the Allies upon learning of Hitler’s Final Solution? “Great sympathy, but those who wanted to know what was happening in Poland had many sources: the Jewish escapees, Great Britain and the United States had their own agents, the World and the American Jewish Congress had access to foreign offices, the press had ways to find out.” Karski sensed a great amount of hypocrisy in the apparent surprise at the Holocaust expressed by many secular and religious leaders after the war was over. He claims the information was accessible to them all along.
At any rate, shortly after Karski’s meeting with Roosevelt, the President ordered the creation of the American Refugee Board, an organization whose main task was to protect the Jewish escapees and place them in the U.S. Karski recounts most of what he saw in the concentration camps of the Polish countryside in a 45-munite segment of the documentary movie “Shoah.” He explains that “Warsaw was destroyed in the campaign of 1939. So the Germans allowed the Aryan, the Polish population, to move into the Warsaw Jewish ghetto. So there was no difficulty for me to get in there. Originally there were 450,000 Jews in the ghetto, at the time (1943) I saw no more than 60,000. The rest were already killed or sent over to the concentration camps.”
Karski himself had suffered excruciation at the hands of the Germans. Shortly after the German invasion of Poland in September 1, 1939, the Russians entered Poland from the East. The Poles had no chance of successful resistance against the colossal military might of the German and Russian invaders. At that time, Karski was a second lieutenant of the horse artillery in the Polish Army and fell as a prisoner of war to the Soviets. The German and Soviet military staff made the arrangement that those non-commissioned officers captured by the Nazis who were of Ukrainian, Byelorussian or Jewish descent could go to the Soviet part of Poland if they wanted. The Soviet Army then agreed to free the captured officers who were of German descent to the German side. So, officer Jan Karski got rid of his officer’s insignia, went to the simple soldier’s barracks and told the commander he was born in Lodz, which at that time was already incorporated into Germany. The Soviets agreed to send him to the German side of Poland. Karski met a worse fate there.
“I was then on the German side and they sent us for forced labor in a cattle train, so I jumped from the window and escaped the Germans and joined the underground movement, “ Karski recalls. Between the winter of 1939 and the early summer of 1940, Karski was sent by the underground movement back and forth from Warsaw to France in successful missions as a courier. But in June 1940, he was arrested in Slovakia by the Nazis and tortured because they found a film he was to deliver to France on one of his secret missions.
According to Karski, the Gestapo used abominable methods of “persuasion” to make him reveal the full content of the partially developed film, and to disclose the identity of those that appeared in it. The members of the Polish underground movement that had given him the film, however, did not inform Karski of its content. So, for several days, Karski suffered “beatings, they were beating me with a rubber hose and just by chance they didn’t knock out my eye; they knocked out most of my teeth and broke something inside my right ear and later they broke my ribs…I was in bad shape.” Karski was sent to a hospital where his unbearable pain led him to try to take his life by slashing his wrists with a razor blade he had hidden in his shoes. But the tenacity of his veins matched the tenacity of his spirit, and Jan Karski lived to see another day. Some weeks later, he was rescued by the Polish underground and continued serving his country in the midst of the war.
Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945. At that time Karski was still assigned to the Polish Embassy and for the next three months, the Polish government-in-exile in London was still recognized by the Western Allies. But on July 5, 1945 the American, British and Soviet governments withdrew recognition of the Polish government-in-exile and recognized the new government in Poland that was under Communist control. So Karski became a “political refugee” since he did not want to serve the new “set-up” in Poland, and acquired legal status to enter the United States through an immigration visa obtained in Montreal. From 1946 to 1948 Karski worked as a member of the Board of Directors of an American company in Caracas. He stayed in Venezuela until President Rómulo Betancourt, whom he describes as “one of the greatest statesmen ever,” was overthrown in November 1948. Karski moved to the States in 1949, earned his Ph.D. from Georgetown, and began teaching regularly at the university in 1952.
During the war one of the people to whom Karski had reported was Edmund A. Walsh, S.J., who at the time was Regent of the School of Foreign Service. President Roosevelt had advised the Polish Embassy to get Karski in touch with Father Walsh in 1943. So, Karski became involved with Georgetown through Walsh, whom he describes as a “mysterious man who had his hands in everything, a charismatic leader who was respected by everyone.”
After working as a professor at Georgetown for five years, the State Department sent Karski on a six month lecture tour of Asia, including South Korea, Japan, Viet Nam, Singapore, India, Pakistan, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). In 1967, he was sent again on another six month lecture tour, this time to French-speaking Africa. Karski says with pride, “Everywhere I go, Georgetown University is known.”
In 1984, Karski’s major work The Great Powers and Poland (From Versailles to Yalta) was published by the University Press of America. Janus K. Zawodny, of the Polish Review magazine, calls this book a “classic of its genre, a magnum opus of a scholar whose gentle instincts of fairness are commensurate with his compassion for humanity in general.” On April 16, 1983, Karski received the Doctorate of Humane Letters honoris causa from Georgetown University. He has also received the “order Virtuti Militari,” the highest Polish military decoration, a special citation by the United Nations, and the medal, “A Righteous Gentile Among Nations,” by the state of Israel. A tree bearing his name has been planted in the Alley of Rigtheous Gentiles Among Nations in Israel.
Professor Karski offers an insightful look at the evolution of Georgetown: “When I entered Georgetown it was a very respected, purely Catholic university. There was an overwhelming majority of Catholic students sent from one generation to another. Fathers would send their sons and so on. There were a lot of rich students, very many of them from South America, most of them interested primarily in cars, fraternities ad social activities. So it was a genteel, Catholic, provincial university. And then change came. Girls came to Georgetown. At the time, you couldn’t imagine the college or the School of Foreign Service accepting girls. Then came blacks, then Jewish students and faculty, then people from South America, not rich but able and capable students whose education was in many case subsidized by the government. There was an increase in the quality of students and Georgetown was becoming more and more liberal. In a good sense, more tolerant, more open. Our students presently are ten times better than 35 years ago. At the time professors would deliver sermons, but now the students challenge teachers and even evaluate them. And this, of course, makes teaching more difficult for us. But this I respect, this intellectual independence of young students in the United States.”
Karksi has found his niche at Georgetown for his teaching and scholarly work. Yet according to fellow Government professor William V. O’Brien, “Above everything else, it is his moral presence and sensitivity that has been his biggest contribution to Georgetown.”
Dr. Karski was my professor of Comparative Western European Governments at Georgetown in 1977 or 78. At that time, he was extremely circumspect (at least in class) as to his experiences and made light of his past.
I attended the John Carroll Weekend in London in March of 2013 and was pulled into his story. He had been such an incredible professor, and I adored that class. I had no idea of his trials.
I am now preparing a paper to present in January dedicated to him, entitled "Jan Karski, Passionate Patriot."
Janet Daley Duval
I am an Irish writer (see www.lismoreautobiography.co.uk) with an undying admiration for the most exceptional courage and probity of the late Professor Karski. I humbly offer these few lines in his honour.
(In memory of Jan Karski,
a hero of terrifying times)
I was a nuisance.
They couldn't see me.
They didn't want to see me.
They didn't want to hear
the message i was bringing
about the plight of the Jews.
Perhaps I had the wrong face -
my tortured look, my dolorous voice,
my sonorous Polish intonation,
my eyes brimming with the horror
of what I had seen, telling a story
no one wanted to believe, and yet,
one that was all too well accepted
in the power circles of the time.
They knew all right, but sent me away.
They didn't have time for my accounts -
the governments, the churches, the elites.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was not on their maps,
not on their moral compasses. 'What
about the condition of Polish horses?'
Roosevelt asked. I was such a nuisance!
I graduated from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in 1984 and had the opportunity of taking two classes in Modern Foreign Governments with Mr. Jan Karski. His classes where rich in anecdotes, experiences, reflections and theory which were insightful and inspirational to me over the years as a father, husband, businessman and Latin Americanist.
I remember one day, Mr. Karski was talking about his first military experience during the outbreak of World War II. His experience was a testament to the strength of the individual and is a lesson that I have always kept. He talked about how he, as a young lieutenant in the Polish Army, was deployed to meet the oncoming German invasion. As he told it, he was in charge of a cavalry unit and as he went up over the hill proudly mounted high on his horse, he saw in the distance a growing rumble of noise and dirt. As the noise grew loader and through the dirt, he was able to make out the incoming blitz of panzer tanks and Luftwaffe. Due to the very erect nature of his stance in the classroom, I have no doubt that he met the approaching wall of iron with dignity and will. Laughingly he told us that it was all over within hours. It was amazing to me that considering the tragedy of the moment and the years of horror as a POW, a member of the Polish underground and a witness to the Holocaust, he was able to find humor in this story. As I grew older, it became clear to me that this was a powerful lesson in the strength of the individual over something seemingly much greater.
Having taken courses in comparative politics with Mr. Karski, we studied multiple political systems. As he had lived in various countries during different time periods, he was able to talk first-hand about the political systems whether totalitarian, communist or democratic. My first class with him was when I was a sophomore and I was very impressed with his experiences in Venezuela. He had briefly lived in this Latin American country during the post-World War II period and held up this country as a testimony to the strength of the democratic system. Having suffered so much under totalitarian countries and seeing his beloved Poland lost after the war, he appreciated Venezuela and attributed it to the democratic ideals of the country. Due to this political system, Venezuela avoided much of the political and economic instability of its South American neighbors throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Since his classes, I went on to graduate from Georgetown University with a BSFS and a Certificate in Latin America. I also have a MA from UCLA in Latin American Studies and an MBA from Thunderbird. I have lived and worked in Latin America for the last twenty-five years. During this period, I have seen democracy grow in former military dictatorships and democracy flounder in Venezuela. He would be sad to see what happened in Venezuela since the turn of this century. However, democracy was his ideal not Venezuela. The individual is stronger than any system but it is up to the individual to band together collectively and continually fight, establish and preserve a democratic system whether within the family one is raising, the company that one works for or the country that one lives. Democracy is the only system that protects the individual and advances humanity, but the individual must learn to participate in the system.
I have not forgotten Mr. Karski. I read his book, STORY OF A SECRET STATE, and talked to many people who lived during the same times as he in an effort to better understand how a man, erect and proud, can survive, learn and then teach until the nineteen-eighties. He often said to us that we, the youth, were the future. As I enter the autumn of my own life, I am learning about the responsibility and difficulty of passing on this same message to today´s youth. Most people will never know how they influence others.
I hope that these few paragraphs are helpful in order to continue to celebrate the life and works of this man. Thank you. David James Drake
In London at a Georgetown University gathering, first-time reader Adelaida Palm testified to the book’s enduring and page-turning appeal. “I never knew anything about Poland or the Underground. Jan Karski has opened a whole new world for me. My admiration for the Polish people has risen tenfold. I must now visit Poland and walk in Karski's footsteps. The story of Karski and the bravery and experience of the Poles during the war has to be told."