In a poignant memorial tribute to Holocaust remembrance advocate Jan Karski (SFS ’52), University President Leo J. O’Donovan, S.J., commemorated the former Georgetown history professor’s strength of character.

In his speech at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, O’Donovan praised not only Karski’s bravery and heroism, but also his tireless dedication to the battle against anti-Semitism and racism.

“Jan Karski, in his honesty, in his compassion, in his prevailing commitment to justice, in his sense of moral duty, in his faith, lived at the testing point,” O’Donovan said Wednesday evening. Karski’s life, in addition to demonstrating great moral responsibility, forces us to realize the connection between past and present, O’Donovan said.

“This Catholic who called himself a Jew challenges each of us to witness the darkest pages of our shared human history, to understand it, and to answer the call of faith,” he said.

A Roman Catholic who enlisted in the Polish Army in 1939, Karski became one of his country’s finest underground couriers. With a remarkable knowledge of foreign languages and a near photographic memory, he regularly delivered secret information between underground authorities and the Polish government-in-exile in London during World War II.

After being captured by the Gestapo in 1940, Karski made it his mission to deliver the truth about the brutal situation against Jews in his home country.

“Preparing for [his mission], Jan was smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto on two occasions,” O’Donovan said. Posing as a Ukranian guard, Karski voluntarily risked his life to experience the Nazi’s carnage firsthand.

“Karski reported . Hitler . hunting Jewish citizens in a Ghetto square for sport; the naked bodies of Ghetto residents, once-beloved family members . Nazi soldiers herding Jews into a railcar lined with quick lime that would burn the skin and lungs,” O’Donovan said.

As a witness to human brutality, the young courier accepted that it was his obligation to present a case against Hitler to the West. Yet, neither Karski’s distinguishing enthusiasm, nor his personal accounts were enough to gain the support of world leaders.

“With courage he saw and with courage he spoke,” O’Donovan said, “but neither Anthony Eden, nor Franklin Roosevelt nor Felix Frankfurter in 1943 could really believe the young witness to unspeakable horror.” Thus while Karski failed to gain immediate support from the Allied powers, he continued his crusade for justice by moving to America and joining the academic world at Georgetown University in 1952.

As a history professor, specializing in the theory of communism and comparative politics for nearly half a century, O’Donovan called attention to Karski’s popularity with students and the impact that he made on the university community until he retired in 1984.

“At Georgetown, generations of students marveled at his searching intellect, his passion for liberty, his love of America and his ardent desire to understand even the most unfathomable aspects of history,” O’Donovan said. “His classes were enormously popular and enormously effective.”

Miles Lerman, Chair Emeritus of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council also spoke at the Museum’s memorial tribute to Karski. “[Karski] has shown the world that one man can make a difference, and that one man must make a difference,” he said.

O’Donovan and Lerman were two of several guests to speak at the tribute. His Excellency Przemyslaw Grudzinski, Ambassador of the Republic of Poland, Deputy Chief of the Mission of the Embasssy of Israel Rafael Barak and Chair of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council Rabbi Irving Greenberg were among a few of the other distinguished presenters who celebrated the activist’s influential life. Never before shown interview excerpts from Claude Lanzmann’s Outtakes Collection film were additionally shown to commemorate the advocate’s enduring devotion.

Chair of the Jewish Student Association, Sarah Goldstein (COL ’03) said that O’Donovan’s speech, as well as the film, were the highlights of the presentation. “[O’Donovan’s speech] and the video showed the courage and faith of Jan Karski that are rare to find today,” Goldstein said. “The video really portrayed his character and humanity.”

She said that university students, in particular, should be aware of Karski’s dedication and affiliation with the school.

“Karski was obviously a notable figure but he was also a part of Georgetown for 50 years,” Goldstein said. “Because he was at our university, we should see him as relevant to our lives.”

In addition to receiving Poland’s highest military and civilian decorations, Karski wrote a best-selling novel entitled The Story of a Secret State in 1944. A dedicated advocate and educator his entire life, Karski died in July, 2000.

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