Born Jan Kozielewski in Lodz in 1914, Karski worked as a diplomat before joining the military. Apprehended by the Soviets following the September invasion, he escaped the POW camp by hiding his rank, narrowly avoiding the massacre that befell his compatriots in the forests of Katyn.
Joining the underground in Warsaw and adopting the alias “Karski”, he began high-risk courier missions across Europe to relay information to the government-in-exile. Captured by the Gestapo in July 1940 in Slovakia, he was tortured and attempted suicide, hoping to ensure his silence. Luckily, he was smuggled from hospital by Polish partisans, and quickly resumed service.
Poles and Jews had already relayed details of the Holocaust to the Allies, but to no avail. Hoping an eyewitness may provoke action, in 1942 Karski made contact with Leon Feiner of the Jewish Bund, who, at great risk, smuggled him into the Warsaw Ghetto disguised as a Jew. Karski described the experience:
“I remember degradation, starvation and dead bodies lying on the street. We were walking the streets and my guide kept repeating: “Look at it, remember, remember.” And I did remember.”
Next, disguised as a guard, he stole into a transit camp of Izbica Lubelska, where he saw Jews beaten, forced into rail carriages and sent to execution.
Determined to inform the Allies, he obtained a concealed microfilm of documents, and had several teeth removed so he could use the swelling as an excuse for his silence if questioned. He eventually arrived in London by way of Berlin, France, Spain and Gibraltar.
Sadly, he found the Allies unforthcoming. “In February 1942, I reported to Anthony Eden [the future British Prime Minister]”, he wrote, “He said that Great Britain had already done enough by accepting 100,000 refugees”. Arriving in Washington DC in July 1943, he personally spoke with President Roosevelt, beseeching him to act; however, Karski believed he had left Roosevelt unmoved.
His cover blown, he represented Poland in the US for the rest of the war, where he remained for the rest of his life. He died on 13 July 2000, at the age of 86.