NEW YORK — In a White House ceremony next Tuesday, President Obama will bestow the Medal of Freedom posthumously on the late Dr. 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 Washington, D.C.’s Holocaust Memorial Museum, Obama praised Jan Karski, as Obama explained, “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. As our second-to-last lecture began in Theory of Communism class, we begged him to tell us about his actions. He was coy, 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 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 cost a large contingent of Polish officers their lives at the hands of Russian soldiers in the notorious Katyn Forest Massacre. Having escaped certain execution there, Karski soon jumped from a Nazi train as it sped through the Polish countryside.
He fled into the woods, and then nestled into the Polish Underground, which he served as a courier. He carried coded messages from Warsaw across Europe to the Polish exile government, then in still-free France.
On one of his missions, the Gestapo captured Jan Karski. German agents tortured him, and Karski feared he would crack. 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, then took him to a hospital so he could get well enough to be tortured some more.
Jan Karski consulted 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 agent came to Karski’s bedside and told him that the guards had been bribed to fall asleep as he leapt from an open window that evening.
So, Jan Karski slipped from Nazi custody and returned to the Polish Underground.
On his last mission, Karski posed as a Jew. Wearing a yellow Star of David, he witnessed the Warsaw Ghetto’s horrid conditions. Days later, in autumn 1942, he penetrated Izbica, a gateway to the Belzec extermination camp.
After witnessing Nazi genocide, Jan Karski prepared to alert the free world.
Using a migrant French worker’s papers, he boarded a German passenger train and traversed Nazi-occupied Europe. Jan Karski passed through France, Spain, and on to Gibraltar, where a Royal Air Force plane whisked him to London.
That’s when Jan Karski became among the first to reveal the Final Solution.
He briefed members of the British War Cabinet. Then, in America, he shared his experiences with Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter — then America’s most powerful Jewish official — and finally, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Unfortunately, these leaders back then found it difficult to believe that Hitler’s hatred was so severe that 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-seller, 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.
Long after Nazi Germany was crushed, Dr. Karski spoke little about his wartime experiences. He quietly studied and taught at Georgetown for the rest of his career.
As Americans search for people after whom to pattern our lives, few examples surpass that of Jan Karski.