July 15, 2000, New York Times

Jan Karski Dies at 86; Warned West About Holocaust


"KARSKI How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust"/John Wiley & Sons

Mr. Karski in 1944.

Jan Karski, a liaison officer of the Polish underground who infiltrated both the Warsaw Ghetto and a German concentration camp and then carried the first eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust to a mostly disbelieving West, died on Thursday in Washington. Mr. Karski, a retired professor of history at Georgetown University, was 86 years old.

He died of heart and kidney ailments at Georgetown University Hospital, the university said.

In the late summer of 1942, Mr. Karski, then a 28-year-old clandestine diplomat in Warsaw for the Polish government-in-exile in London, was preparing for a secret mission to carry information from Nazi-occupied Poland to London and Washington. Before leaving Warsaw, he was visited by two leaders of the Jewish underground who had managed to leave the Ghetto briefly to tell him about what they called "Hitler's war against the Polish Jews."

They said that by their calculations, more than 1.8 million Jews had already been killed by the Germans and that 300,000 of the 500,000 Jews jammed into the Warsaw Ghetto had been deported to an obscure village about 60 miles from Warsaw where the Germans had set up a death camp.

They asked him if he could carry their information to Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. They also asked if he would be willing to enter the Ghetto and see for himself what was happening. Mr. Karski, a Roman Catholic from a patriotic Polish family who seems to have been blessed with a photographic memory, agreed.

By that time he had already endured a horrible war.

Karski was his nom de guerre; he had been born Jan Kozielewski, the youngest of eight children, in Lodz, Poland's second-largest city, on April 24, 1914. He was a prize student and was recruited into the Polish diplomatic service, where he was quickly given coveted assignments to London and Paris.

But as war approached, he enlisted in the army and was serving as a cavalry officer in 1939 when German soldiers, followed less than two weeks later by Russian troops, invaded Poland and divided the country. Mr. Karski was captured by the Soviets and placed in a detention camp. He escaped and joined the Polish underground; most of the Polish officers imprisoned with him were later executed by Soviet troops.

Mr. Karski became a skilled courier for the underground, crossing enemy lines as a liaison between the Polish fighters and the West. He was captured by the Gestapo while on a mission in Slovakia in 1940 and was savagely tortured. Fearful that he might reveal secrets, he slashed his wrists and was put into a hospital. An underground commando team helped him escape, and he resumed his work as a clandestine liaison officer.

"KARSKI How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust"/John Wiley & Sons

Jan Karski at the opening of a 1944 exhibition on the Polish underground, for which he served as a liaison officer to Poland's government-in-exile in London.

In October 1939, the Germans enclosed the main Jewish areas in Warsaw with barbed wire. In less than a year the Ghetto was walled in, trapping half a million Jews. By July 1942 the first mass deportations of Jews to extermination camps had begun.

In the third week of August 1942, Mr. Karski entered the cellar of an apartment house on the so-called Aryan side of the Ghetto wall and met with a youth from the Jewish Combat Organization, then secretly being formed in the Ghetto. The youth gave him some ragged clothes and an armband with a blue Star of David and led him through a recently dug tunnel. As they emerged, Mr. Karski saw the Ghetto streets and tenements crowded with haggard, hungry and dying Jews.

Where Nazi Boys Shot Jews for Sport

Decades later, when asked to describe what he had seen, Mr. Karski would usually simply say, "I saw terrible things."

But on some occasions, for example in "Shoah," Claude Lanzmann's classic documentary about the Holocaust, he would tell of seeing many naked dead bodies lying in the streets, and describe emaciated and starving people, listless infants and older children with expressionless eyes. He remembered watching from an apartment while two pudgy teenage boys in the uniforms of the Hitler Youth hunted Jews for sport, cheering and laughing when one of their rifle shots struck its target and brought screams of agony.

One of the Jews who had prompted Mr. Karski to enter the Ghetto, and who escorted him, was a lawyer named Leon Feiner. Mr. Karski recalled that Mr. Feiner kept murmuring, "Remember this, remember this." There was also another escort whose name Mr. Karski never learned. They both urged Mr. Karski to tell what he was witnessing to as many people in the West as he could, though they knew the facts would be hard to believe.

At the time of Mr. Karski's visit, the expulsions from Warsaw had temporarily subsided, but they were to intensify in September as the liquidation of the Ghetto resumed in earnest. Mr. Feiner was among the hundreds of thousands who died.

There were five points that the two men in the Ghetto asked Mr. Karski to pass on to the Allied leaders:

Mr. Karski later said that the Jews' proposals were "bitter and unrealistic," as if they knew such a program could not and would not be carried out, and that he had told them their five points went beyond international law.

For the rest of his life he remembered the response of the man accompanying Mr. Feiner: "We don't know what is realistic, or not realistic. We are dying here! Say it!"

"KARSKI How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust"/John Wiley & Sons

Mr. Karski in 1935 as a cadet in the Polish Army, which he joined as World War II approached.

Mr. Karski asked what he should say to Jewish leaders abroad. Unhesitatingly his hosts told him that such leaders should consider hunger strikes, fasting to death if necessary, to shake the conscience of the world.

In Ukrainian Outfit, A Scent of Death

Mr. Feiner then asked if Mr. Karski was still ready to carry out another fact-finding mission: Would he be willing to see for himself what was happening at one of the camps to which the trainloads of Jews were being sent?

Mr. Karski consented, and a few days later he and a member of the Jewish resistance went by train from Warsaw to Izbica, a small town near Warsaw.

There, his Jewish guide turned him over to the owner of a hardware store who was a member of the Polish underground. Mr. Karski was given the uniform of a Ukrainian militiaman working under the German command who had been bribed to take the day off. Another Ukrainian guard -- also bribed -- then led him to a large area encircled by barbed wire.

Mr. Karski heard keening cries of men and women and thought he smelled burning flesh. Soon he witnessed the arrival of several thousand starving and frightened Jews who had been brought to the camp from Czechoslovakia. He watched as their valises and bags were taken away from them. Then he saw Jews being beaten and stabbed.

Ranks of uniformed men pressed the crowd onto waiting box cars that had been coated with quicklime. Those who fell or fainted or who could not move were thrown into the cars. When no more bodies could fit inside, the doors were shut. Mr. Karski was told that the trains were heading for a camp not far away where their human cargo would be led into gas chambers. But he was also told that sometimes the trains were just left on sidings until those inside starved or suffocated.

A Perilous Journey, A Bleak Reception

Mr. Karski returned to Warsaw to prepare himself for his dangerous journey to London. He was given a key whose soldered shaft contained microfilm of hundreds of documents. He went to a dentist and had several teeth pulled so that the resultant swelling could provide him with a reason why he couldn't talk if he was stopped by Germans; he was certain his Polish-accented German would give him away.

Using local trains, he went to Berlin, the capital of the Reich, then through Vichy France to Spain, where a rendezvous led to passage to Gibraltar and then to London.


He turned over the key containing the microfilm, described resistance activity and assessed as bleak the prospects of cooperation between the anti-Communist Polish underground and the partisans, who were sponsored by the same Soviets who in 1939 had joined Hitler in invading and dividing Poland.

He spoke of the Jews, saying their fate was far more perilous than that of non-Jewish Poles. But for many of his Polish diplomatic superiors, the plight of the Jews remained marginal to Poland's struggle to regain its conquered land. Some even feared that any emphasis on the victimization of the Jews might detract attention from Poland's tragedy and diminish their own appeals for help.

And when Mr. Karski carried his information about the destruction of the Jews to British authorities, he was met by even greater reluctance to act.

"In February 1943, I reported to Anthony Eden," he later wrote about a secret meeting with the British foreign secretary. "He said that Great Britain had already done enough by accepting 100,000 refugees."

In London, Mr. Karski met with Szmuel Zygelboym, who represented the Jewish Socialist Bund in the National Council of the Polish government-in-exile, to present the Polish Jews' urgings of active resistance.

Mr. Zygelboym listened in pain but then said, "It's impossible, utterly impossible." If he went on a hunger strike, he said, the authorities would send the police and drag him away to an institution. But he added: "I'll do everything I can do to help them. I'll do everything they ask."

A few months later, on May 12, 1943, just after the Germans put down the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Mr. Zygelboym sent a letter to the president and prime minister of the Polish government-in-exile, and then took his own life.

He wrote, "By my death I wish to make my final protest against the passivity with which the world is looking on and permitting the annihilation of the Jewish people."

Did Western Leaders Ignore 'Conscience'?

In July 1943, Mr. Karski arrived in the United States. Two months earlier, attempts by the Germans to liquidate those Jews still remaining in the Warsaw Ghetto was met with armed resistance. In a desperate, uneven struggle over three weeks, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, more than 10,000 Jews were killed in the fighting or in fires set by the Germans to destroy the Ghetto. The 56,000 Jews remaining were taken to the Treblinka death camp.

"Almost every individual was sympathetic to my reports concerning the Jews," Mr. Karski said. "But when I reported to the leaders of governments, they discarded their conscience, their personal feeling.

"They provided a rationale which seemed valid. What was the situation? The Jews were totally helpless. The war strategy was the military defeat of Germany and the defeat of Germany's war potential for all eternity. Nothing could interfere with the military crushing of the Third Reich. The Jews had no country, no government. They were fighting, but they had no identity."

He kept telling what he knew, honoring the promise he had given to the two men in the Ghetto. A secret meeting was arranged between Mr. Karski and President Roosevelt. He said that commanders of the underground Home Army were estimating that if there was to be no Allied intervention in the next year and a half, the Jews of Poland would "cease to exist." He did not tell Roosevelt of his own experiences or observations.

Mr. Karski believed that he failed to move Roosevelt to any real action. But John Pehle, who became head of the War Refugee Board, a federal agency that helped settle surviving Jews, said later that Roosevelt had decided to establish the board as a consequence of his talks with Mr. Karski. The mission, Mr. Pehle said, "changed U.S. policy overnight from indifference to affirmative action."

Mr. Karski was planning to return to Warsaw and resume his clandestine work, but his superiors told him that his identity had become known to the Germans and ordered him to remain in the United States.

His mission then was to promote the cause of Poland, which once freed of German occupation would have to contend with Stalin's designs. He gave interviews, wrote magazine articles and drew on his own experiences to write a book, "Story of a Secret State," which was published at the end of 1944 by Houghton Mifflin and became a Book of the Month Club selection.

Within a year the war came to an end, and so did the Polish government-in-exile that Mr. Karski had served. The Yalta agreement had consigned postwar Poland to the Soviet sphere, and Mr. Karski, who knew and scorned Communism, did not return to his native land.

A Life in Academics, A Family Tragedy

Instead, at the age of 39, he enrolled at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown. He received his doctorate in two and a half years and stayed on, teaching at Georgetown until his retirement in 1984. He became a citizen in 1954.

In 1965 he married Pola Nirenska, a dancer and choreographer who had been born Pola Nirensztajn in Poland, the daughter of an observant Jewish father. All her many relatives had been killed in the Holocaust, but she had survived the war in London and had become a major force in dance in Washington -- teaching, choreographing her own work and leading her own company -- when they met.

In 1992, Pola Nirenska, then 81 years old, jumped to her death from the balcony of their apartment in Bethesda, Md. Her last dance piece, presented in Washington in 1990, was inspired by Holocaust victims she had known and was called "In Memory of Those I Loved . . . Who Are No More."

Soon after her death, Mr. Karski established a $5,000 annual prize to be awarded by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research to authors documenting or interpreting Jewish contributions to Polish culture and science.

Jan Karski leaves no immediate survivors.