Life: June 24, 1914 - July 13, 2000
Why you should know him: Jan Karski was a member of the Polish Resistance during World War II whose reports on the Warsaw Ghetto and other Nazi atrocities brought news of the Holocaust to the world.
Born Jan Kozielewski in Lodz, Poland, he grew up in a largely Jewish neighborhood. Jan’s first taste of battle came while fighting the Nazi invasion as a member of Poland's Krakow Calvary Brigade. His regiment was captured, while trying to reach Hungary, by the Soviet Red Army. Jan, however, was able to escape the infamous Katyn Massacre, where more than 20,000 Poles were executed by the Soviets in Katyn Forest.
Jan then managed to escape a POW train and made his way to Warsaw, where he joined the Polish Resistance. It was at this time that Jan adopted the nom de guerre Jan Karski, which he would later make his legal name.
His missions were often to act as a courier, carrying news of the Nazi occupation to the exiled Polish government. In 1940, Jan was arrested by the Gestapo during one such mission and severely tortured. But this incident did not stop Jan Karski from undertaking such important missions. At different times, he had himself smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto, in order to better report on the horrific atrocities being carried out there by the Nazis. Because of the things he saw, and because of his overall caring, Jan not only made it his mission to spread news of what the Jewish people were experiencing, but to act as their voice to the outside world.
While, unlike so many heroes who arose during the Holocaust, Jan Karski didn't save individual Jews, himself, Yad Vashem honored him for risking his life in order to give the Jewish people a voice during their darkest moment - he was named Righteous Among the Nations in 1982. A year before this honor, while speaking to a gathering of former American military officers who had liberated Nazi concentration camps, Jan - who after the war became a respected professor at Georgetown University - said:
“And thus I myself became a Jew. And just as my wife’s entire family was wiped out in the ghettos of Poland, in its concentration camps and crematoria – so have all the Jews who were slaughtered become my family. But I am a Christian Jew…This sin will haunt humanity to the end of time. And I want it to be so.”