WASHINGTON (CNS) — Jan Karski, the late Polish-American professor who tried to alert the world to the horrors of the Holocaust, will be honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, President Barack Obama announced April 23 during an event at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Karski was an officer in the Polish underground during World War II when he witnessed some of the atrocities being committed under Nazi occupation. A Catholic, Karski has long been honored in the Jewish community for his efforts to bring attention to the horrors he witnessed.
After being captured by Soviet and then Nazi forces and escaping both times, Karski tried to warn President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden about what was happening to Europe’s Jews under the Nazis, but he was not believed.
In a tribute at the Holocaust Museum the year after Karski died in 2000, then-president of Georgetown University Jesuit Father Leo O’Donovan said that Karski would say of his mission that “it was a failure,” but his story “is not a story of failure.”
Karski published “Story of a Secret State,” about what he saw and went on to earn a doctorate at Georgetown. He became a professor at its School of Foreign Service and taught government and East European history for nearly 40 years. He became a U.S. citizen in 1954.
“His courage speaks to us still,” Father O’Donovan said at the 2001 memorial service. “Like all great heroes, he challenges us to accept its mantle.”
In his remarks April 23 at the Holocaust Museum, Obama said honoring Karski is a part of making sure such atrocities never happen again.
“We must tell our children about how this evil was allowed to happen — because so many people succumbed to their darkest instincts; because so many others stood silent,” he said. “But let us also tell our children about the Righteous Among the Nations. Among them was Jan Karski — a young Polish Catholic — who witnessed Jews being put on cattle cars, who saw the killings, and who told the truth, all the way to President Roosevelt himself.”
Karski will be honored along with other recipients of the Medal of Freedom at a ceremony later in the spring, according to the White House.