The Law Firm of Piacentile, Stefanowski & Malherbe LLP

Jan Karski: Blowing the Whistle on the Holocaust


Jan Karski was a Polish soldier, diplomat, professor, activist, and resistance fighter. Among his many life experiences and achievements, during World War II he personally witnessed the horrors occurring in Nazi-occupied Poland. Not only did he witness what was happening in his homeland the Nazi's occupied, he also witnessed the atrocities happening in extermination camps and ghettos. He successfully reported what he saw to the Polish government-in-exile and to the Allies. In doing so, Karski effectively blew the whistle and brought to light what Germany was doing to Poland and its inhabitants: the Nazi Holocaust. He did this despite the dangers he endured. On many occasions, he put his own life at risk to report the horrors of the Holocaust to the world.

Who was Jan Karski?

Jan Karski was born in 1914 in the Polish city of Lodz, a large city in the center of this country. His birthname was Jan Kozielewski, although he later adopted the war name of Jan Karski. Karski completed military training and later a diplomatic apprenticeship in the mid to late 1930s. During this apprenticeship, he served at various posts throughout Europe, including Switzerland, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Romania. He later went on to work in the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

When Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939, Karski was part of the 5th regiment. Karski was eventually captured by the Soviet Red Army. He successfully hid his rank of second lieutenant, by exchanging military uniforms, leading to him being identified as a private. This deception probably saved his life, as many Polish officers were executed by the Soviet army at the Katyn massacre. The Katyn massacre was a series of mass killings carried out by the Soviet Union against Polish prisoners of war, including many Polish military officers. Having escaped these massacres, Karski was eventually transferred to the Germans, given his birth in the city of Lodz which by then had been incorporated into the German Third Reich. Although then a prisoner of war, Karski was eventually able to escape. He then made it to the city of Warsaw, where he joined a resistance group. Around that time, he took the alias of Jan Karski, which he eventually adopted as his legal name.

Karski’s Whistleblowing Activities

Once he became a member of the resistance forces in Poland, Karski worked to organize courier missions. These sought to convey information from within Poland to the Polish government-in-exile, then located in Paris, France. As a courier himself, he personally made secret trips between Poland, France, and the United Kingdom. As an example of the dangers he was exposed to, on one occasion Karski was captured and arrested by the German Gestapo, later to be tortured. Given the torture he suffered, he was transferred to a hospital to recover. He was eventually smuggled out of the hospital, after which he continued to work for the Polish resistance.

Karski did not only act as a courier, but he also personally witnessed the atrocities occurring in Poland. He was smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto on two occasions by the Jewish underground, directly witnessing what was happening to Polish Jews. After personally seeing these atrocities, he was able to directly relay what he saw to the Polish authorities in exile. He also shed light on what was happening in Poland to the British and American governments. Like many whistleblowers, he had difficulties convincing people to believe what he had witnessed. Many of the people he spoke to had trouble comprehending the scale of what he described.

Karski’s Legacy

As described above, Jan Karski put his life on the line to shed light on the atrocities occurring in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II. Despite the dangers he put himself in by doing so, Karski made every effort to personally witness what was happening in Poland and then carried out covert operations to convey what he witnessed to the rest of the world. Even though not everyone was receptive to his message, many times disbelieving the scale of the horrors he recounted, he continued to tirelessly diffuse his message. He persevered nonetheless to expose the truth he witnessed to the world. After World War II, Karski obtained a PhD in the United States. He eventually became a naturalized citizen of the United States and taught at Georgetown University in Washington, DC for several decades.