My first personal recollection of Karski dates back to the 1940s, when he embarked on his mission to the US to inform American leaders and Western society about the tragic fate of Jews in the Nazi-occupied Poland. I remember precisely how he discussed this problem with my parents, sitting at a table at our home. I can still remember my father’s great astonishment when he learned that literally all Jews, not only men, but also women and children, were deliberately annihilated. My father was an ardent critic of anti-Semitism, hence, he was deeply moved by Karski’s eyewitness account. As a young boy, I was fascinated by Karski’s personality, scars on his wrists and the dramatic account of his mission to the West, which ended up tragically when he was captured and subsequently tortured by the Gestapo. What endeared Karski to me was his honesty and courage.
Jan Karski will undoubtedly go down in the contemporary history of Poland. He personifies everything most dignified and heroic about the Second World War period. He faithfully served in the cause of the freedom of Poland and was deeply committed to saving the dying Jewish society. Understanding Karski’s history is crucial to understanding the history of the Second World War. Although today the basic facts about the Holocaust are common knowledge, at that time in the West this knowledge was virtually non-existent. Karski strived to register in the consciousness of the West and, probably to an even greater extent, to appeal to its conscience. He achieved his goal only to a certain degree. That was the tragedy of his life.
The history of Jan Karski’s life testifies to the fact that one’s morality is a measure of one’s greatness. Life can only be enjoyed to the full and have a real meaning when it is subordinated to ethical values. Although today’s world issues are different than the ones known to Karski, one can still learn a lot from his history, especially in the context of keeping the peace around the world.
Dr. Zbigniew Brzeziński, Polish American political scientist, advisor to President Jimmy Carter
Objective witnesses, who try not to omit even the most trivial details, do exist. Karski was a person of that kind. What’s more, he was a rebellious witness. A witness who did not allow for sanitizing the significance of his account. A witness who did not allow anyone to think that the testimony did not concern them.
In the age of lies and treason, Karski proved that regardless of circumstances one could remain faithful to the truth.
Konstanty Gebert, essayist, historian, journalist
Professor Karski was free from any form of chauvinism. He was free from Germanophobia even though he was a soldier of the Home Army, which fought against the Third Reich. He was free from Russophobia even though, aware of the domination of the Soviet Union over Poland after 1945, he decided to emigrate. He was free from Ukrainophobia… Generally speaking, he was free from any form of xenophobia.
He was characterized by the ability to understand other, the courage to tell the truth and call spade a spade.
He also had the ability to forgive and see beyond the horizon of his own biography, the injustice that he suffered. He entirely approved of diversity and entirely rejected demagogy, fanaticism, and intolerance.
For me, Jan Karski, similarly to Czesław Miłosz, Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, and Jerzy Giedroyc, had considerable standing among emigrants from Poland. For me, he is a symbol of the very best in Poland. He changed Poland for the better with every gesture and with every speech.
Karski’s Poland is the Poland of a good Christian, Poland of mercy and not the Inquisition. This is the Poland of a democrat who values moderation and defends his country against chaos. To sum up, Jan Karski is an embodiment of the pride and nobleness of former Poles.
We should remain faithful to the ideals inherited from Jan Karski-Kozielewski. What is extremely important to me, Karski was not afraid to be in the minority. He often swam against the tide. To quote Zbigniew Herbert, he knew that one had to search for one’s roots and to go against the tide, as only scums drift along with the current.
Adam Michnik, chief editor of "Gazeta Wyborcza," historian
Jan Karski was one of the Poles who played a leading role in the 20th century Polish-Jewish relations. His dedication to his mission to discover the truth about the Holocaust and to reveal this truth to Western leaders deserves the highest praise. In all the years that he spent as an émigré, he was also an ardent advocate of the truth about the Poles’ attitude to Jews during the war. He was strongly opposed to false generalizations and stereotypes.
With the approval of the Polish Underground, disguised as an Estonian camp guard, Karski infiltrated the Izbica concentration camp. The observations that he made there served as the basis for his report on the German genocide. In November 1942, he made his way to the West and in great detail informed the Polish Government in Exile, as well as the British and American governments, about the mass extermination of Jews in concentration camps. He also delivered an appeal issued by the Jewish National Committee in the Nazi occupied Poland for the assistance of the Allies in stopping the Holocaust. Help never arrived.
Professor Wojciech Roszkowski, Chairman of the Council of the Polish History Museum
The role of Jan Karski, a person without whose war experiences the tragedy of the Holocaust could hardly be comprehended, is extremely important. There are two ways of presenting it. The first one, and a considerably simple one, refers to Raul Hilberg’s classic definition of the Holocaust as seen from three perspectives: the perspective of victims, perpetrators, and bystanders. These three perspectives complement each other. Only thanks to these three types of narration one can try to understand the nature of the Holocaust. However, there were different kinds of bystanders. Karski was the only one of them who informed the “Free World,” when some of the Polish Jews were still alive, about the mass murder in progress. He was the only witness to the Holocaust who spoke with mighty Allies, Anthony Eden and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The second way of thinking about Karski involves the category of the Righteous Among the Nations, that is people who were of help to the Jews and who saved at least some of them. From this point of view, the role that Karski played is exceptionally intriguing. Although personally Karski did not save anyone, thanks to his talks with the leaders of Jews in Warsaw, his infiltration into the concentration camp, his dangerous mission to the West, and the smuggling of the report on the mass murder of Jews, I can hazard a guess that he saved the reputation of Christians and, generally speaking, Europeans. It was the greatest possible gesture of solidarity with the nation, which was being annihilated.
Professor Andrzej Żbikowski, Jewish Historical Institute