By Thomas F. Schwartz
History, some argue, is the study of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. It is also the study of extraordinary people doing seemingly impossible things. Jan Karski is an example of the latter. A Polish diplomat, Karski was taken prisoner by Soviet military forces during the 1939 invasion by both Nazi Germany from the East and Stalin’s Soviet Army from the West. Disguising himself as a private, Karski was released in a prisoner exchange escaping his certain death with other Polish officers by the Soviets in the Katyn massacre. Karski joined the Polish underground. In this capacity, he served as a courier of information to the Allies on what was transpiring in Poland. He was captured and tortured by the German Gestapo. Fearing he would break under continued torture, Karski slit his wrists in an attempted suicide. While recovering in a hospital the underground helped him escape and assisted in his recovery. Karski continued his activity with the resistance. Twice he disguised himself to witness the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto firsthand as well as entering the Belzec/Izbica transit camp disguised as a guard to witness the horrors of the Nazi extermination of Jews. This was done to provide impeccable credibility to the information he would covey to the Allies for he witnessed the atrocities himself at great personal danger.
Raised in a Roman Catholic family, Karski became a passionate spokesperson on the plight of Polish Jews suffering in the Warsaw Ghetto and the Nazi extermination policies practiced at Belzec and other camps. He smuggled out microfilm made by the resistance documenting the Nazi atrocities against Jews. Meeting with high government and policy influencers in Britain, Karski related his first-hand accounts of the Holocaust. He met with Franklin Roosevelt on July 28, 1943 in an hour and a half conference. Karski indicated afterward that Roosevelt did not ask one question about the Jews. His 1944 memoirs, Story of a Secret State, sold over 400,000 copies but in spite of his efforts to prod the Allies to do something to alleviate the plight of European Jews, nothing happened during the war.
As an expatriate living in America, Karski was approached by former diplomat Hugh Wilson, a close associate of Herbert Hoover. Wilson set up a meeting with Hoover in which the two men discussed how Karski might secure official records of Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Estonia that documented the activities of these governments in exile as well as resistance efforts before Soviet authorities destroyed them. The documents would be housed at the Hoover Institution located at Stanford University. Throughout the summer of 1945, Karski served as an acquisitions agent for the Hoover Institution able to secure the necessary documents from all but Estonia. The long history of animosity between Estonia and Poland made the transfer of materials to a former Polish diplomat unpalatable. The Polish archive became the largest assemblage of documents on Poland in the United States. Karski’s own papers found a home at the Hoover Institution. Soon, Soviet dominance of the region forced the United States to withdraw recognition of these governments-in-exile in favor the puppet governments established by Stalin.