Remembering the Man who Tried to Stop the Holocaust
From 1952-1992, Georgetown University and the SFS were enriched by Jan Karski, Professor of Government. At great personal risk, Karksi escaped from occupied Poland during World War II to tell the Allied powers about the plight of Jews in Europe. After the war he stayed in the United States, enrolling in Georgetown University in his late 30s and completing his PhD in two and half years. He spent the next 40 years as a scholar, teacher, and advocate for human rights in communist Poland and elsewhere.
Karski embodied many of the Jesuit values taught today at Georgetown: justice and human rights; inter-religious understanding; and academic excellence.
Karski died in 2000, but his memory lives on just inside the campus gates at 37th and P Street. A modest bronze statue dedicated in September 2002 celebrates this selfless man who embodied many of the Jesuit values taught today at Georgetown: justice and human rights; inter-religious understanding; and academic excellence. Among his many other roles, Karski was a practitioner of international affairs. He earned a master’s degree in law and diplomatic science in 1935 at the University of Lwów, Poland, and served in Germany, Switzerland and Britain for the Polish diplomatic service.
At the outset of World War II, Karski became a Polish military officer and subsequently a prisoner of the Soviet Army. Sent to a Nazi labor camp, he jumped off the train en route. Fluent in French, German, and English, Karski escaped to Warsaw to courier secret messages for the Polish underground. On a mission to Slovakia in 1940, he was captured and tortured by the Gestapo. Fearing he would reveal his secrets, he attempted suicide but failed and was hospitalized. With the help of an agent disguised as a nun, he escaped to Warsaw and became a clandestine diplomat, running messages between Poland and the exiled Polish government in England. In 1944, Karski detailed his ordeal in Story of a Secret State, which sold over 400,000 copies.
In 1952, Karski began teaching at SFS and like many war veterans, became all but silent about his experiences; most of his students had no idea of their professor's past. Amazingly, his silence lasted until 1978, when he was interviewed for the epic holocaust documentary, Shoah (1985). Realizing he had important lessons to teach outside of the classroom, Karski began to give lectures and interviews. In 1994 his biography, Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust, was published. Today, he is often referred to as “the man who tried to stop the holocaust", and the lessons from his life are taught at Georgetown.