This is where the story begins: 71 Kilińskiego St. (formerly Widzewska St.) where Jan Kozielewski was born. Yes, yes – Kozielewski, not Karski. Karski was in fact his nickname which he used as the Polish Underground State courier during his mission to Western Europe.
Jan Karski grew up in a tenement block in a multi-cultural environment: “I grew up in the city of Łódź, which was a poor but tolerant city. Poles, Jews and Germans lived there side by side.”
Unfortunately, those who would like to see the place today will be disappointed. Under this address, there is only and empty space, where shopping malls are being built, with no reference to Jan Karski – a sad symbol that some people in modern Poland has forgotten about the Emissary.
(Photo: Google Maps)
After Karski arrived in London, his health was so bad that Minister of the Interior Stanisław Mikołajczyk decided that the Courier would need a few weeks of “quarantine.” Not only was he physically exhausted, but he also had symptoms of depression and was easily losing his temper. He regained his strength alone and practically did not leave his London apartment.
In this time in London, Karski was only allowed to go to a confession. The priest, Władysław Staniszewski gave him a communion using the Host that the Emissary had hidden on his chest during the mission. The golden box in which Karski carried the Host for a safe journey was hung by Fr. Staniszewski at and altar of the Polish church dedicated to Black Madonna of Częstochowa at Devonia Road. It still hangs there today.
The Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations in the Warsaw district of Muranów was built with the initiative of the Varsovian History Meeting House and the Italian foundation GARIWO. The place commemorates no longer living people who distinguished themselves by defending human dignity and was acting against mass atrocities. After the recipient is chosen by the Committee, a tree and a stone dedicated to her or him are placed in the Garden. In 2014, Karski was honored by this commemoration.
After his daring escape from Soviet captivity and narrowly escape the Katyń massacre, Karski joined the Polish resistance movement. His first mission was a journey to Poznań where he had to contact a prewar clerk to expand the ranks of the just forming Secret State. For this mission he got a new identity and he started the journey as a German, Andrzej Vogst.
The mission was relatively safe and was successfully accomplished. Karski, now felt that he truly was part of the underground movement.
Poznań has commemorated the Emissary’s time there by naming a small street in the north of the city after him.
In 1944 Karski, was still working as and emissary of the Polish Underground State in the US by spreading information among different groups about Poland’s fight against the occupier and about the situation of civilians in the occupied Poland. In between his engagement trips, he indulged himself with a bit of a luxury. The Courier liked music and dance very much, so he spent hot Saturday nights on Broadway.
His favorite show was “Fancy Free” about the life of three sailors in New York. Karski gladly visited a small bar, where he met Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein (on the right), who were not famous yet. They both had hugely successful careers in show business, and Karski remember their friendly meetings till the end of his life.
After Karski regained some strength, he was taken from a forester lodge to a manor in Kąty. Karski was hidden in a barrel, on a cart carrying vegetables. The driver (member of the underground army) changed the route.
The picture shows a bench with a chess board dedicated to Karski. In the background, you can see the manor where the Emissary was hidden.
(Photo: Stowarzyszenie Przyjaciół Kątów; autor: Piotr Salamon)
The monument of Karski in Kielce, Poland is located on a small square at the corner of Sienkiewicza St. and Planty Boulevard. It was unveiled on April 22, 2005. The Emissary invites the passerby to take a break from walking or shopping and to play chess with him. The tree behind the bench is reminiscent of the famous poem by a beloved Polish Renaissance poet Jan Kochanowski and seems to echo Karski’s invitation: “Guest, sit under my leaves for a rest!” The bench was created from the initiative of the Jan Karski Society in Kielce.
(Photo: photo.bikestats.eu; Artist: Karol Badyna)
The first reference to Jan Karski can be found at the Church of the Holy Cross Day at 38 Sienkiewicza St. The parish records entry concerns the date of his birth, 04/24/1914. It was at this place that Jan was baptized; his middle name was Romuald.
Interestingly, the April date is being questioned. The same date appears on Karski’s Master’s Degree diploma. Some people claim that he was born on June 24, 1914, on his name day. Perhaps there is a mistake caused by writing it using Roman numerals, and number four (IV) was erroneously written as six (VI). The foundation celebrates Karski’s birthday in accordance with the parish records – on April, 24.
On December 2, 1942 Karski had his first formal meeting with members of the Polish National Assembly – Shmul Zygielbojm from Bund and Ignacy Schwarzbart from the Socialist Party. The Courier told them about the situation in the Warsaw Ghetto and in the concentration camp he had visited. He repeated the appeal of the Polish Jewish leaders to “shake the conscience of the world.”
Through the next five months Zygielbojm tried to convince the Allied governments to take action against the Third Reich’s policy – without any success.
On May 12, 1943 Zygielbojm committed suicide by poisoning himself with gas. As he wrote in a farewell letter, “it was a protest against the inaction, in which the world watches and permits the destruction of the Jewish people.”
Karski was commemorated in Kotor, a town in a south – west part of Montenegro. Olive tree dedicated to Karski was planted by Yossef Levy, Ambassador of Israel and Grażyna Sikorska, the Ambassador of Poland on October 27, 2014 as a part of the celebration of the hundredth anniversary of Karski’s birth.
In February 1940, during his first foreign mission, Karski sneaked through snowy Tatra Mountains with Colonel Stanislaw Puzyna and a guide. They set off from Zakopane pretending to be a group of skiers. Trying not to attract people’s attention, they crossed the border and reached Slovakia. There, the group split – the guide went back to Poland, Puzyna headed off to a soldiers’ gathering point, and Karski went to Kosice to meet and agent of the Polish Underground State. This place was a starting point for his journey to Hungary. Colonel Puzyna (in the picture) managed to reach England where he joined the Royal Air Force. He died in a plane crash near Exminster, England on April 3, 1942.
The end of the war found Karski in the US. In July 1945, the US authorities recognized the Communist government in Poland, which meant that the government-in-exile in London lost its international status. Polish Ambassador Jan Ciechanowski resigned from his position and so did almost all the staff of the Embassy. So did Karski.
Embittered Ciechanowski, a good friend of Karski, never went back to Poland and stayed in the US. He shared his memories in the book Defeat in Victory, and died in April, 1973 in Washington.
Krakow was crucial for Karski’s war story. He twice crossed it during his mission to the Western countries, He worked here between 1941 and 1942 by listening to foreign radio stations, and the backstreets of Krakow gave him shelter against the Gestapo many times. Unfortunately, the memory about the exact places is lost.
On November 11, 2007, the corner of Madison Avenue and 37th Street became a Polish enclave on the map of New York. That day, the third bench dedicated to Karski was unveiled – this time in the front of the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland – to acknowledge the Emissary’s efforts for the Polish diplomacy. Two years later, the crossroads of Madison Ave and 37th Street was named the “Jan Karski Corner.”
(Photo: sites.google.com/site/jankarskistrona; Artist: Karol Badyna)
In the neighborhood of Karski’s home, at 14 Targowa St., there was a Jesuit Primary School No 4, which was established by a decree of the Chief of State dated February 7, 1919. According to this decree, education was compulsory for all children 7 to 14 years of age. It was at this school that little Jan started his education. The building no longer exists. It was replaced by another tenement block.
(Photo: Google Maps)
Karski did not expect his mission to last long, and hoped that at the end of January, he would be able to come back to Poland, where the Government Delegation for Poland was impatiently awaiting a response to their questions from the polish government-in-exile based in London. When it turned out that this scenario was impossible, the Courier recommended that Jerzy Lerski be his deputy. Karski knew Lerski from Lviv, where they both studied law at the Jan Kazimierz University.
Through the following weeks, Karski was preparing Lerski to fulfill the task. In February, Lerski parachuted over Poland, avoided being caught by the Gestapo and safely reached Warsaw with the report.
After the war, Lerski was a political activist and a lecturer at the University of San Francisco. He also received the medal Righteous Among the Nations.
Łódź remembers about Karski and commemorates him in many ways.
The City of Łódź has a special place in the story of Jan Karski, so there are many places in this city commemorating him.
The spectacular building at 15 Ogrodowa St., the so-called Louvre of Łódź, is a special place. It houses the Museum of the City of Łódź with one of its biggest rooms dedicated to the Emissary. Set up as Karski’s office, it displays numerous souvenirs donated by Karski himself, such as documents, medals, and furniture. The Emissary himself talks to the visitors from a monitor, which is a part of the exhibition. The office was originally opened in 1999, later renovated, and then re-opened during the celebration of the hundredth anniversary of Karski’s birth. A visit to this room is highly recommended, as you can get a sense of time travel and a personal encounter with Karski.
(Photo: lodz.naszemiasto.pl; Author: Grzegorz Gałasiński)
Karski drove from Kosice to Budapest by car. As he recalled, he was very nervous because he was afraid of the border control. The agent of the Polish Underground State that was travelling with him tried to calm him down by ensuring that the Hungarian police did not control cars. Indeed, the eight-hour drive passed without any problems.
Karski was welcomed in Hungary every place he went. He recalled that when people heard the Polish language they assured him of their warm feelings for Poles, moving over in the tram (similar to the one in the picture), offering a lift, and even paying his bills at restaurants.
Proceeds from his Story of a Secret State book were quickly exhausted and Karski had to find a job. He decided to get engaged in academia and after finishing his M.A. studies in 1953 (his diploma from Lviv was not recognized), he obtained Ph.D. and started his career at Georgetown University.
Karski taught Comparative Theory of Government and the Theory of Communism, which were very popular, because every year there were not enough spots for the students who wanted to sign up for his classes. For that reason Karski did not get to know and outstanding graduate, later the President of the US, Bill Clinton, but he was a teacher of the former ambassador of the US to Poland, Stephen Mull, and great basketball player and a member of the famous “Dream Team” from 1992, Patrick Ewing.
From October, 1941 until September, 1942, Karski was charged with the responsibility of listening to foreign radio stations in Warsaw and writing reports for the most important people from the resistance movement. He worked for some time at this tenement house at 6 Czerwonego Krzyża St. (earlier, number 11).
The work at the radio was incredibly dangerous. The possession and even only listening to the radio carried a risk of the death penalty. Frequent inspections were extremely risky for the residents.
How did the Home Army mechanics deal with that problem? They removed the radio mechanism from the outer cover and installed it in a gas stove.
(Photo: wyborcza.pl, author: Jerzy S. Majewski)
The fourth Karski bench was created in Łódź, where the Emissary was born. The city was multicultural before the war, with the Jewish minority constituting 35% of the population. During the German occupation, the Łódź Ghetto (the second largest after the Warsaw Ghetto) housed over 200,000 Jews, not only Polish, but also from Germany, Luxemburg, Austria and Czech Republic, most of whom perished. To commemorate this tragedy, the citizens of Łódź built the Survivors’ Park in downtown. A monument dedicated to the Emissary, who tried to save millions, is located on top of the Park’s hill, near The Marek Edelman Dialogue Center.
An interesting note: this bench is much longer than other benches and can sit up to seven people at one time.
(Photo: Łukasz Przechodzeń; Artistt: Karol Badyna)
Karski was a hard-working student, so he continued his studies at the Józef Piłsudski Municipal Junior High School for Boys, which was located at 46 Sienkiewicza St. In this school he passed his final exams.
A school with Piłsudski as its patron could not function during the occupation of WWII, nor during the Polish People’s Republic times after the war. Nevertheless, the building endured the war and next generations were able to attend it. The patron and its level were changed (now it is a Tadeusz Kosciuszko Secondary School), but the memory of the Emissary is still alive. The commemorative plaque near the main entrance is dedicated to one of the school’s most outstanding students.
On February 1, 1943 Karski met with General Władysław Sikorski, Prime Minister of the Polish government-in-exile, and briefed him on the mission. The general was extremely content with the Emissary’s work and Karski received the medal Virtuti Militari. Sikorski also presented Karski with his silver cigarette case, not as and official gift, but as “a souvenir from and old man who (…) is tired and who appreciates friendship”. On February 3, in the headquarters of the Polish government-in-exile at Kensington Palace 18, the ceremony of bestowing the Virtuti Militari honor took place.
Karski Street – another way of honoring Karski in his hometown – is in the Bałuty District and metaphorically connects the past (the east border of the Old Cemetery) with the present (the Manufaktura shopping mall and arts center).
The picture shows a warehouse which was a part of the former factory of Izrael Poznanski, now at 5A Karski St.
(Photo: www.geodruid.com, author: Daniel Wilk)
During the next stage of the mission, Karski travelled to Milan, Italy by train, then to the small French town of Modane, and then to Bessières, a town north of Paris with a gathering point for Polish refugees and a recruiting camp for the army. Karski went through a standard procedure of the registration to the army, as many others Poles were heading to the Allied army.
In 1954 Karski was granted the American citizenship. He wanted to get back to his prewar surname, Kozielewski, but it proved to be impossible, because he had to apply with identical data as on his visa application from 1943. Additionally, he was persuaded that under his nickname he was more known in the US, and the name “Kozielewski” would be more difficult for Americans to pronounce.
Financial problems soon appeared. His academic salary was small and Karski wanted to live at the level of the American middle class. He found and effective way to earn more income by flipping houses. His friends praised his entrepreneurship and hard work.
Pictured is one of the last houses where Karski lived in Bethesda, Maryland.
(Photo: Google Maps)
A vital part of the preparations for Karski’s most important mission was sneaking to the Warsaw Ghetto and a concentration camp from the inside. The camp was located in Izbica Lubelska, near the town of Bełżec (Karski originally believed this was actually Bełżec, but historians have verified this information), where in a disguise of a Ukrainian soldier (in his book he wrote it was and Estonian uniform, most probably so that he would not reveal the soldier’s identity), he saw the extermination of the Jews with his own eyes.
“The Bund leader had warned me that if I lived to be a hundred I would never forget some of the things I saw. He did not exaggerate,” Karski wrote later in his book Story of a Secret State.
Museum–Memorial Site in Bełżec commemorates the lost lives. A part of the exposition is dedicated to Karski.
(Photo: jankarski.org; Author: Ewa Wierzyńska)
The fifth bench is located on the campus of the Tel-Aviv University in Israel. It was unveiled by the then Speaker of the Parliament, later President of the Republic of Poland, Bronisław Komorowski, on November 30, 2009. In the recognition of his efforts Karski was named Righteous among the Nations and received the honorary citizenship of Israel.
(Photo: Avishai Teicher; Artist: Karol Badyna)
Karski went to a primary school and junior high school in his home town of Łódź. Afterwards, he moved to Lviv to study and lived there from 1931 till 1935 in this building at 1 Sapiehy St. He recalled: “I was happy in Lviv even though I was busy, but young. It was a happy time.”
Unfortunately, the name of the street did not endure – as a part of depolonisation (the process of wiping out traits of Polish history and culture) it was renamed to Stepana Bandery St.
On a side note, a few hundred meters away, at 59 Sapiehy St. Wojciech Kilar, great Polish pianist and composer was born on July 17, 1932.
One of the most important British politicians Karski met in London was the Minister of Foreign Affairs Anthony Eden (in the picture). He listened carefully to the Emissary’s report, asked about a few details connected to the mission, and in the end he expressed praise and thanks for his work. Encouraged by the warm reception, Karski asked if he could pass this information directly to Churchill, but Eden refused. He claimed that the Prime Minister was too busy. By this too hasty question, Karski lost his chance to meet the British Prime Minister. (Karski ignored the advice of Jozef Retinger, Sikorski’s coworker, who urged him not to ask for a meeting with Churchill.)
On the hundredth anniversary of Karski’s birth, a commemorative plaque dedicated to the Emissary was unveiled at the Cathedral of Stanislaw Kostka. Located in one of the church’s aisles, it honors one of the most outstanding citizens of Łódź.
In Bessières, he got in touch with Adam Kułakowski (personal secretary to General Sikorski), who sent him to Angers (about 350 km from Paris). There, he met the minister of the interior Slawomir Kot and General Władysław Sikorski, Prime Minister of the Polish government-in-exile. Karski talked to the General in Café Weber in Paris. The décor remained the same until 1951 when the picture was taken. Shortly after, Karski headed off back to Poland using the same route that he taken to Paris, and arrived safely in Warsaw in May, 1940.
Karski was and anti-Communist authority, and his skills were soon utilized by the US Department of State. In 1955, Karski was sent on a trip to South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Pakistan, India, Ceylon, Burma, Philippines, and Turkey. He gave 140 lectures, which were very popular. He talked about his experience as and immigrant exposing Communist methods.
The American government evaluated him positively and used his knowledge and experience again twelve years later. This time Karski went to Africa (Congo, Cameroon, and Senegal) and to the Mediterranean countries (Greece, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Algeria). Everywhere he went, his oratorical talents and passion made great impression on his listeners.
Karski’s last journey (September – November, 1942) had a totally different route. The Emissary was supposed to go through the whole of Western Europe! In Berlin, which he reached by a train, Karski met the Strauch family, his acquaintances from the prewar times, near Unter den Linden. He remembered them as people with liberal and democratic views, so he expected them to be in opposition to Hitler. But they seriously let him down – every question Karski asked and every doubt regarding the war situation he posed met with and automated answer: “Führer knows what he is doing”.
The pictures from this time show that even during the war, Unter den Linden was one of the most beautiful streets of Berlin.
The POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews is one of the most important educational places in Warsaw, which reminds us that Jews have been living in Poland for almost one thousand years. On June 11, 2013, close to the main entrance of the Museum, the sixth bench dedicated to Karski was unveiled. It is a bit different than other monuments. The Courier sits in a comfortable stone armchair, and after pushing a button, one can hear his voice. It is a fragment of Karski’s moving account of his visit to the Warsaw Ghetto, to which Karski was smuggled undercover to see – with his own eyes – what was happening behind the wall, which divided the city into the Aryan and non-Aryan side.
(Photo: Bartosz Krupa; Artist: Karol Badyna)
Between 1931 and 1935, Karski studied law and diplomacy at the Jan Kazimierz University of Lviv. His friends and teachers remembered him as a hard-working student with and exceptional memory. He was able to memorize long fragments of a text and later this skill turned out to be very helpful in his work as a courier.
The Emissary recalled that during his studies he encountered anti-semitism. A group of ultra-right wing juveniles would force Jews to sit at the last benches. Karski did not react then. As he admitted later, he did not want to intervene, because as a future diplomat he preferred to stay away from political conflicts. He was not proud of it, and during the war, whenever he had and opportunity, he tried to redeem himself.
The picture shows the current look of the university which during the war was named Ivan Franko National University of Lviv.
By the end of April, Karski had met almost all of the most important Polish politicians in London. At the beginning of May, the Polish government-in-exile decided to send the Emissary to the United States. The official goal of the visit was to inform the Americans about the situation in the country, but unofficially Karski was to tell the Americans about “Soviet saboteurs.” (On April 25, the Soviet Union had broken diplomatic relations with Poland.)
On June 10, 1943, Karski started his journey by the sea. After his arrival to Washington, the Polish Ambassador Jan Ciechanowski invited him to move to a room on the second floor of the Polish Embassy, which belonged to his son Władysław, a pilot of the British Royal Air Force, who had died six months earlier.
There are many places linked to Karski in Warsaw, too. The Ministry of National Defense of the revived Republic of Poland did not forget about Jan Karski, a former soldier of the Polish Underground State. A commemorative plaque dedicated to Karski was placed on the MND building during the celebration of the hundredth anniversary of Karski’s birth in 2014, in appreciation of Karski’s efforts not only on behalf of the Jews, but also for the occupied Poland. The date of the unveiling – November 11 – had a symbolic reference to Poland’s regaining of its independence and the Karski’s Year passed by the Polish Parliament.
(Photo: Polska Agencja Prasowa; Author: Rafał Guz)
Karski’s second mission started in June 1940 and he was supposed to follow the same route as before, through Budapest and Italy. Karski stopped in the small town of Nowy Sącz on his way.
Nearby the main market square in Nowy Sącz, at 13 Lwowska St., there is another place associated with Karski: the Zaroffe family house. During the Nazi German occupation, it was and important place for the underground activity of the Home Army, where couriers would hide before starting their journey. Also Jan Karski stayed there during one of his missions, but he was far from being careful.
Władysław Zaroffe – a witness of those events – recalled that Karski could not help going out and that he took long walks in the town. He did not care that Nazi German soldiers were sunbathing on the shore of the Dunajec River.
A commemorative plaque was dedicated to Karski. A few similar ones can be seen in the vicinity of Nowy Sącz.
(Photo: piotrcackowski.pl, family album of the author)
Despite his university responsibilities as well as the engagements and trips sponsored by the US government, Karski found time for his private life. In the middle of 1950’s, he started dating the Polish-Jewish dancer Pola Nierenska, whom he had met at the beginning of the war in London, where she was and aspiring artist.
Despite of distinctive difference in their political views (Karski was a Republican and a supporter of Eisenhower and Nirenska supported Adlai Stevenson, a Democrat) they found common grounds and in 1965, they got married in Washington, DC. Former Ambassador of the Republic of Poland Jan Ciechanowski (in the picture on the right) and Karski’s friend from the wartime and their work in diplomacy, served as the couple’s witness.
In Brussels he started his journey under a French surname, but he was afraid that his strong Polish accent would give him away. Before the trip he visited a trustworthy dentist, who, with and injection to his mouth made his face swollen. Throughput his journey, Karski pretended to have a bad toothache to avoid risky conversations. While traveling from Berlin to Brussels he met and extremely empathic trader who almost by force took him to a dentist – a German non-commissioned officer who reprimanded Karski because of his rotten teeth. He could not know that his Nazi colleagues had knocked out Karski’s teeth during the interrogation in Slovakia.
This is the train station from which Karski most probably headed off to Paris.
The seventh bench dedicated to Karski was created in January 2016, in the Kazimierz district of Kraków, in front of the Remuth Synagogue at the 40 Szeroka St. It is in fact the only place in Krakow – the city which was important for the Courier’s mission during World War II – that commemorates the Emissary. However, its location gives a wonderful opportunity to get familiar with the Karski story, especially during the Jewish Culture Festival., the biggest event of this kind in the world.
(Photo: Maciej Balamut; Artist: Karol Badyna)
Military service was obligatory in Poland and Karski spent it at the Reserve Cadet School of Artillery in Włodzimierz Wołyński. Thanks to his university diploma and excellent skills, he reached the rank of lieutenant. Nowadays there is not a single trace of Karski at the school.
(Photo: J. Karski, M. Wierzyński „Emisariusz. Własnymi słowami” Warsaw 2013)
Karski’s first meetings in the US were with three powerful Jewish American politicians: Ben Cohen, advisor to the US President; Oscar Cox, Deputy General Counsel; and Felix Frankfurter, a Supreme Court judge (in the picture).
For Americans – who did not experience the tragedy of the war, the story of the Courier was truly shocking. After having listened to Karski’s report for a few minutes, Frankfurter walked back and forth in the room, and then said that he could not believe what he had just heard. After a strong reaction from Ambassador Ciechanowski, he responded that he had not claimed that Karski had been lying, but that the he could believe him. After the meeting Karski rarely told the details of the Holocaust taking place in the Third Reich and the occupied territories.
Vistulan Boulevard in Warsaw is a perfect place for an afternoon walk. The landscape of the east part of the city connected with the roaring Vistula River creates a special atmosphere. The part to the north of the Śląsko-Dabrowski Bridge on the left side of the river, which is called Karski’s Boulevard is particularly recommend. The leaders of the “Jan Karski. Unfinished Mission” program originated this commemoration.
(Photo: politykawarszawska.pl; Author: J. Stawiany)
Karski’s second mission started in June, 1940 and was supposed to follow the same route through Budapest and Italy. From the start, there seemed to be some bad vibes, because another guide had not been in touch for a while and was assumed to have been caught by the Gestapo. After a long march (the guide Franciszek “Myszka” Musiał did not want to stop because he was afraid of the German police), they reached a village called Demjata (in the picture). The Courier was really exhausted and convinced Musial to spend the night in a cottage in Slovakia. This turned out to be a disastrous decision. In the middle of the night, a German policeman entered the house, arrested the Emissary and transported him to Presov. In captivity, the Gestapo tortured him in and unimaginable manner.
The guide who travelled with Karski through Tatra Mountains was Franciszek “Myszka” (which in Polish means “mouse”) Musiał. He was a very experienced guide and this was his thirty-fourth expedition. After being arrested in Presov, he was sent first to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp and later to Revensbruck Concentration Camp. He managed to survive the war.
Karski settled down and did not want to go back to his wartime memories, but one French film director had other plans.
Claude Lanzmann wanted to make a documentary film about the Holocaust from the perspective of the victims, witnesses and persecutors, and approached Karski for an interview. Karski reluctantly agreed. Going back to the horrifying mages from the past was a traumatic experience. Karski’s appearance in the film brought recognition and fame to his mission and to Karski himself.
Karski’s speech at the International Conference of the Liberators organized by Jewish Holocaust author Elie Wiesel in 1981 in Washington, DC, made him even more famous. For the first time after the war, he shared the story of his mission with the public, and made a huge impression.
Karski arrived in Paris too early to meet the messenger so he decided to have a walk through the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. The city made a sad impression on him. He used to say that every time he visited Paris before the war he wanted to stay there forever. And now?
“My only desire was to get out of the city as rapidly as possible, to get a taste of the wide, free world outside the zone of German occupation and influence,” Karski wrote in his Story of a Secret State.
Maybe it was the season (Karski arrived in Paris between October and November 1942) or the war atmosphere made him feel depressed – the Avenue des Champs-Élysées pictured in the summer of 1942 is as charming as usual.
(Photo: German Federal Archive)
The eighth – and for the time being the last – bench dedicated to Karski was unveiled in Estroil, Portugal, in February 2016. This sculpture differs from the others as it shows three couriers of the Polish Underground State sitting next to each other – Jan Karski, Jerzy Lerski, and Jan Nowak-Jeziorański. The idea was put forward by Ambassador of the Republic of Poland to Portugal Bronisław Misztal and the monument was designed, again by sculptor Karol Badyna.
(Photo: cm-cascais.pt; Artist: Karol Badyna)
Before being accepted to the diplomatic service, Karski had several internships at foreign missions. While he was still a student, he worked in Czernichowce (the Tarnopol District at that time, now Ukraine; 1933), Bucharest (1934), and Opole (1935), which was then a German city.
The Emissary would most probably never have gained such experience if it had not been for Wiktor Drymmer’s recommendations. Drymmer was considered the power behind the throne of the Polish diplomacy corps.
Opole did not forget about Karski. In 2014, a commemorative plaque dedicated to him was unveiled on the building at 1 Konsularna St., where before the war, a German diplomatic mission was located.
(Photo: nto.pl, author: Artur Janowski)
Having in mind his experience from London, Karski was careful during his conversations while awaiting the invitation from the President of the US, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He visited many cities, met many politicians, and in the end he received a letter from the most important of them all. His meeting with Roosevelt took place on July 25, 1943.
The Courier recalls President Roosevelt as a very energetic and commanding person. Roosevelt asked many questions and wanted to know many details. He did not react to unassertive remarks regarding the activity of the Soviets. Karski was so charmed by the strong personality of Roosevelt what he left the Oval Office walking backwards.
69 years after Karski’s meeting with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt the Polish emissary was honored by the President of the United States Barack Obama by posthumously endowing him with the highest civilian American award. The representatives of our Foundation were among those who were handed the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Obama on May 29, 2012.
Ruda Śląska has a collection of Karski souvenirs, too. They were given by Kaja Mirecka-Ploss, Karski’s friend from Washington. The Emissary’s office, set up at the Jan Karski International Institute for Dialogue and Tolerance, which was established with her initiative, has on display many documents, decorations, and furniture from Karski’s home in Washington. He was not personally connected to Ruda Śląska, but thanks to the Institute, Ruda Śląska became and important center for education and memory of Jan Karski.
Let’s take this opportunity and recall the history of other heroes who are often forgotten and anonymous – the couriers who guided Polish Underground agents over the mountains of Southern Poland throughout the war. They had great knowledge about the surrounding mountains and knew how to climb them in every possible weather condition. They frequently carried documents, money, and letters, but they also served as guides to those who wanted to get to the Western Europe.
The picture shows monument in Kosarzyska dedicated to the couriers and other people whose efforts enabled successful mountain-crossing.
(Photo: Foundation’s collection)
After Karski’s presentation at the International Conference of the Liberators, two prominent Jews came up to Karski. It was Gideon Hasuner, the prosecutor in the Eichmann trial, and Itzak Arad, the director of the Institute Yad Vashem. They both invited the Emissary to Israel where Karski went in June 1982. The Courier planted a tree with his name in the Righteous Alley (in the picture) and was awarded by the medal of the Righteous Among the Nations. The visit in Israel was the beginning of the series of the public speeches and honors linked to his war activity – in some measure against the will of Karski himself, who did not want to revisit those tragic memories.
The Courier left Paris for Lyon where he received and order to cross the border with Spain near Perpignan. He did it by a bike (for this mission he pretended to be a Communist!), but he did not manage to find the Spaniard who was supposed to escort him to Barcelona, because that man had been arrested a few days earlier. Karski spent three days on a boat. He was freezing, lying in and uncomfortable position, but having in mind his recent experiences, he withstood it all.
Finally, he reached Barcelona by train and contacted the honorary consul Eduardo Rodón (in the picture) who organized his transfer to Madrid.
Beside commemorative plaques and monuments, the idea of ”living monuments” is becoming more and more popular and Karski is being honored by trees planted in special places to honor him.
Karski has his tree in the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations in Padua, Italy. The Garden was created in 2008 and commemorates the people who risked their lives to rescue others. The Emissary was one of two Poles (along Irena Sendler) who was honored in this way. The tree of Karski was planted by the President of the Jan Karski Society Bogdan Białek on October 17, 2010.
The prewar Ministry of Foreign Affairs was located at the Brühl Palace on 1 Wierzbowa St., between the Saski Square and Theatre Square, in Warsaw. It was here that Jan Karski started his diplomatic career. After completing his internship, he was hired by this institution in January 1939.
Unfortunately, the palace where the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was located did not endure the war. It was blown up on December 19, 1944 by Nazi Germans after the fall of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. After the war, despite a few attempts, it was not rebuilt. Only one single block, located now at the Saski Garden, has remained. Since 1981 it has served as a plinth of the monument of the last prewar president of Warsaw, Stefan Starzyński. The location of the statue is unfortunate – far away from the popular touristic routes and overshadowed by a more famous monument at the Bank Square, unveiled in 1993. That was the reason to move the statue of Starzyński to the front yard of a school that bears his name in Saska Kepa District. The plinth was left in its original place, but its neglected state contrasts with the prewar beauty of the palace.
(Photos: Wikipedia, “Warszawy Historia Ukryta” funpage)
After his return to London in September 1943, Karski was greeted with bad news – Stanisław Mikołajczyk (Prime Minister of the Polish government-in-exile after General Sikorski died in a plane crash) told him that Germans learned about his mission. They knew what he looked like; they knew his personal data – his identity was simply exposed. His return to Poland was too risky and the Emissary had to stay in the West. On February 21, 1944 he came back to the US.
Some claim that Mikołajczyk (in the picture) forged the report so that Karski would not enter the German territory (there is no proof that Germans knew about Karski). The Courier knew a lot about the situation of the Polish Underground State and about the attitude of the Allies towards the Polish future. It is not surprising that the Prime Minister would not want to let Karski go to the enemy’s territory.
After being arrested, Karski was subjected to unbearable torture. Afraid he would give out the Underground secrets, he tried to commit suicide by slashing his wrists. He was rescued by guards and treated at a hospital in Nowy Sącz.
A nun at the Polish hospital helped him contact his superiors, who, with the help of doctors and nurses, organized Karski’s escape. The ill and exhausted Emissary jumped out of a window, so soldiers of the Home Army could intercept him.
The rescue operation is commemorated at the entrance to the hospital with a plaque bearing the names of Karski’s rescuers.
After the war, Karski visited Poland a few times.
In 1971, he came to Poland incognito and met with Józef Cyrankiewicz, former Polish Prime Minister, who during the war was a member of the Polish Underground and a prisoner of Auschwitz. Cyrankiewicz also participated in the rescue operation that saved the Emissary in Nowy Sącz.
In 1991, he received and honorary doctorate from Warsaw University. Karski was touched by his return to his now free homeland, even though the long stay in the US made him feel more American.
During his visit in 1995, he received the Order of the White Eagle, the highest Polish decoration, from the President of the Republic of Poland, Lech Wałęsa.
(Photo: M. Sadowski ”Jan Karski. Photobiography” Warsaw, 2014)
In Madrid, it was arranged for Karski to travel by train to a seaside town, Algeciras. There he went for a ride on a fishing boat, which he later changed to an English motorboat. At last, he landed in the Allies’ territory, the Gibraltar. Finally, he was safe.
On the next day (November 25, 1942), he flew to London on board of an American Liberator bomber (in the foreground of the picture). Even though the perilous trip ended there, the actual mission had hardly started.
Jan Karski’s tree can also be found in Lipsk, Germany. It was planted on the hundredth anniversary of the Courier’s birthday, on April 24, 2014. Many distinguished politicians, social activists, and priests participated in the ceremony. Wojciech Więckowski, vice-director of the Polish Institute in Berlin, unveiled the tree.
Karski was in a camp near Oświęcim when World War II broke out, serving in the Polish army reserves. The camp was destroyed by German Air Force. Soldiers were ordered to retreat by a train to Krakow. During the journey, the train came under fire and was heavily bombed by German planes, so Karski, along other fellow soldiers, headed off on foot to Tarnopol. On September 18, they were captured by the Red Army and were transported from Tarnopol to a POW camp far into USRR. Many of them saw Poland for the last time.
The picture shows a contemporary train station which during past 75 years that has not changed much.
After his return to the US in February 1944, Karski tried to find a Hollywood producer willing to make a film about the Polish underground movement. A screenplay was accepted by the government-in-exile in London. However, producers did not want to get involved in the film being afraid of the controversy implemented by the Polish–Soviet conflict. Hollywood (in the picture with its former, longer name) turned Karski away.
The attempt of gaining the interest of a broad audience was successful – the Courier wrote and managed to publish the Story of a Secret State, describing the activity of the Polish Underground State in its Nazi German occupied territory. The whole edition of the book was immediately sold out, which provided Karski with money for a few following years.
After Karski escaped, the Gestapo launched and intensive search for him. The hospital staff and the locals were interrogated. Vehicles on the roads and houses were searched in vain – Karski was not caught. Germans learned about the background of the escape operation later and arrested many people, including its participants. On August 21, 1941, thirty-two people were shot in retaliation. The majority of them had not taken part in the escape operation. The Emissary found out about this brutal revenge many years after the war.
The picture shows a monument in Biegonice (nowadays part of Nowy Sacz) commemorating the tragedy of innocent people’s lives taken in retaliation by the Nazis.
(Photo: eksploratorzy.com.pl; author: Jan Poszept)
Shortly before his death, Karski visited his hometown, Łódź. He donated many souvenirs connected with his work to the city and they became part of the exhibition at the Museum of the City of Łódź.
Jan Karski died on July 13, 2000 in Washington, DC, at the age of 86. He was interred at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington.
The following map illustrates the main routes of Karski’s journeys, specifying the most important towns. Nowadays, when we are accustomed to modern ways of transport, we may be unimpressed. It is worth reminding that it was war time and Polish couriers were being constantly haunted by the Gestapo.
(Photo: Polish History Museum, author: Jacek Kotela)
More and more cities in Poland want to commemorate Karski, even those not strongly linked to his work. On the hundredth anniversary of Courier’s name day and oak tree was planted in Lublin, at the Primary School No 24 at 1 Niecałej St., near the Monument of the Victims of the Lublin Ghetto.
It is worth mentioning that in this very city you can also go for a walk down Karski Street.
(Photo: www.dziennikwschodni.pl; Author: Maciej Kaczanowski)
Another important place for Karski in Warsaw was the building at 1 Krakowskie Przedmieście St. Right there, shortly after the escape from the German captivity, he started his work for the Polish Underground State.
As Karski describes in his book Story of a Secret State, he joined the Underground thanks to his friend from the university, Mr. Dziepatłowski, who provided Karski with forged documents and introduced him to the structure of the Underground. It was the start of the story which culminated with Karski’s mission to inform the Allied governments about the situation in the occupied Poland and the Holocaust in the Nazi German occupied territory.
The neighboring Church of the Holy Cross is also worth mentioning. It was there that right after his arrival to Warsaw, Karski met with his brother, Marian Kozielewski.
(Photo: sztetl.org.pl, author: K. Bielawski)
On June 5, 1944, Prime Minister Mikołajczyk arrived in Washington to meet the President of the US. Karski played here and important, though very prosaic role. Right before the meeting, Mikołajczyk realized that he forgot to bring toothpaste. The Courier ran from the White House and asked a policeman to help him. On the backseat of the police motorbike with its siren screaming, he went fast through the traffic jam to get to a store open 24/7, which was a few miles away, on the corner of Wisconsin Street and N Street (in the picture). Karski jumped inside, grabbed the toothpaste, threw the money on the counter and run away. The mission was accomplished – the Prime Minister managed to brush his teeth before his meeting with Roosevelt.
(Photo: Google Maps)
The forester’s lodge in Marcinkowice, where the ailing Karski was hiding after a spectacular escape from the hands of the Gestapo, displays a commemorative plaque with two names of people who helped Karski. Unfortunately, they were captured by Germans after Karski had left, and sent to a concentration camp. Feliks Widel died in Auschwitz in 1943, but Jan Morawski managed to survive the war.
Monuments showing Karski resting on a bench are the most characteristic form commemorating Karski’s achievements. Such a bench was unveiled in Washington, DC, in September 2002, launching a series of such monuments dedicated to the Emissary. The place was not chosen by accident: the first bench was placed on the campus of Georgetown University, where Karski was a graduate student, and later a professor.
You can sit next to the Courier and join him for a game of chess, his favorite pastime.
(Photo: kresowiacy.com; Artist: Karol Badyna)