Everyone who knows the story of Jan Karski is impressed by this extraordinary man. He was 25 years old when World War II began on September 1, 1939. He knew several foreign languages, was well-educated, a dashing young man endowed with a photographic memory, ready for career in diplomacy.
All his hopes and dreams were crushed with the beginning of the German occupation in Poland. He would spend the following years on dangerous missions crisscrossing occupied Europe and carrying secret information from Poland to France and then Great Britain, where the Polish government-in-exile established headquarters. He met the most important Polish leaders in the country and abroad, and knew well the structure and the secrets of the Polish resistance. Many a time his wits and luck served him well – he managed to escape, first the Soviets, and later, German captivity to serve his country as and emissary of the Polish Underground State.
Germans continuously hunted Karski, knowing that he was holding priceless information. During his second foreign mission, he was captured in Slovakia. Tortured viciously and fearful that he might not be able to withstand another interrogation, Karski slashed his wrists in a prison cell. Transported to a hospital in Nowy Sącz by the Gestapo, he was rescued in a daring operation of the Polish Underground.
The suicide attempt left tell-tale marks on his wrists, his jaw broken and teeth knocked out. But the experience did not break his spirit. He returned to service for the Polish resistance soon after recuperating. His next historic mission was to reach London to deliver messages from the leaders of the Underground. At the request of the Jewish leaders, he entered the Warsaw Ghetto in disguise and then the transition camp in Izbica Lubelska, thus becoming and eyewitness of the annihilation of the Jewish people. He was determined to tell the leaders of the free world about what he had witnessed. At great risk, he made his way across occupied Europe – Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, France and Spain – and reached London to deliver his report to British officials. He talked to many people and impressed them with his story. But there was no military reaction. His superiors decided to send him to the US so that he could report to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President of the United States of America – the most powerful leader of the world. Karski was 29 years old when he was invited to the White House.
Whoever values courage, righteousness and the sense of responsibility for fellow men, irrespective of their nationality, religion or race can admire Karski and see in him a fascinating hero, a role model and someone we should all emulate.