Research

Karski, Jan

Courier for the Polish and Jewish Underground

Warsaw - met twice with Jewish leaders as a volunteer, Belzec - was smuggled in to determine facts

Karski was born in Lodz, Poland, as the younger of two sons to a Catholic family. His parents died when he was still a young boy. Karski states that he had formed a "learning-group" with five Jewish school mates in "gymnasium" and that they became good friends. After finishing high school in 1931, Karski studied law and diplomatic sciences in Lvov and, after graduation in 1935, he was drafted into the Polish army for compulsory one-year service. Beginning in 1936 Karski travelled through Switzerland, France and England to learn foreign languages. He returned to Poland in February, 1938, and in January, 1939, he became a member of the Polish diplomatic corps.

When in August 1939 Germany and the Soviet Union signed their Non-Aggression-Pact, the Polish army mobilized its reservists and Karski was drafted again. In September 1939 the German army invaded Poland from the west and the Russian Red Army occupied Polish territory in the east. Karski's unit retreated from the German army and eventually surrendered to the Red Army. The Russians took Karski and his fellow soldiers to a prisoner of war camp but Karski managed to escape a few days later. In the meantime the Polish army had surrendered to the Germans and the Nazis started immediately to establish their anti-Jewish laws in occupied Poland. During the interview Karski describes some of those restrictions and the impact on Jewish life in Poland. At the end of October 1939, Karski went to Warsaw to live with his brother who worked for the Polish police.

In Warsaw Karski became a member of the Polish underground and in December, 1939, he was sent as a courier to Paris to the Polish government-in-exile. His task was to establish a connection between the government and the underground. In May 1940 Karski was sent back to Poland to deliver secret information to the underground. On the way to his next mission in France he was arrested in Slovakia by the Gestapo, the German secret police force. After being tortured for hours, Karski tried to commit suicide by cutting his veins but was rescued by the Gestapo and sent to a hospital in Poland. In the hospital he was again able to contact the Polish underground which arranged his escape. Karski spent the four months following his escape in hiding on a little estate in the country side. After several months in Kracow, he returned to Warsaw in June, 1941, to work for the underground again. Karski states that the Polish underground published newspapers reporting about what happened to the Jews in the ghettos and concentration camps. He says that everybody in Warsaw was informed about the terrible happenings.

In October 1942 Karski got in touch with two leaders of the Jewish underground movement who asked him to submit a memorandum to the Polish government-in-exile and to the Allied powers. This memorandum included the request for a declaration by the Allies that the stopping of the extermination of Jews was a principle of supreme importance in the war policy of the Allied Powers. Further the memorandum carried a demand that the Allies should drop millions of leaflets after each air raid over Germany. These leaflets should state that all Germans would be held responsible for the crimes against the Jews and that the bombing of German cities would continue as long as the killing of Jews continued. The Pope should declare that German Catholics must not participate in the actions against Jews. To be able to report the truth to the Allies, Karski went to see the Warsaw ghetto and the Jewish underground took him to the outskirts of the Belzec extermination camp.

In February 1943 Karski submitted this memorandum to the Polish government-in-exile (then located in London), as well as to the American Consul in London, and to several British politicians. In July 1943 he was sent to the United States to meet with President Roosevelt, the American government, American Jewish leaders, and representatives of the Vatican to personally hand-over the report of the Jewish underground and the Polish government-in-exile. During the interview Karski describes how American and British politicians explained to him why the Allied forces could not bomb concentration camps in the east of German occupied territory. He states that they were afraid that the American and British people would resent the risking of their soldiers for the bombing of non-military targets.

At this point the interview ends.

Interview Information:

Date: January 12, 1987
Interviewer: Rabbi Charles Rosenzveig
Length: 1 hour 40 minutes
Format: Video recording