Professor Awarded Medal of Freedom
Published: Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, April 24, 2012 02:04
President Barack Obama announced Monday that World War II Polish resistance fighter and Georgetown scholar Jan Karski (GRD ’52) will be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom this spring.
Karski served in the Polish underground during World War Two, reporting the atrocities committed during the Holocaust to the British and American governments.
In 1944, Karski published his book, “Courier from Poland: The Story of a Secret State,” in an attempt to reveal the situation in Nazi-occupied Poland to the public.
After the war, Karski moved to the United States and matriculated at Georgetown, where he studied and taught for the next 40 years and received an honorary degree in 1983. He died in 2000.
The Jan Karski U.S. Centennial Campaign was established in April 2011 to advocate for Karski to receive the Medal of Freedom in the leadup to his 100th birthday in 2014.
Bob Billingsley (CAS ’68), who serves on the campaign’s steering committee, took Karski’s course on Eastern European government in 1966.
“He chain-smoked cigarettes and never sat down. He never had notes,” Billingsley said. “He was a great teacher, very original and passionate about the issue … and [the] responsibility of freedom.”
Billingsley remembered Karski as a uniquely dynamic professor.
“Georgetown’s been around since 1789, for [almost] 225 years, and when you walk around campus, there are three statues — one of the Virgin Mary, one of John Carroll and one of Karski,” he said. “He speaks so much of our Jesuit and American traditions, because he was such a compassionate man. … It was in his profession to enlighten people.”
Billingsley said that any student who came across Karski at Georgetown would undoubtedly remember him.
Former President Bill Clinton (SFS ’68), who was a student at Georgetown during Karski’s career, recently wrote a personal letter to President Obama recommending him for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, according to Billingsley.
That recommendation came to fruition with Obama’s announcement at the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum.
“Jan Karski … witnessed Jews’ being put on cattle cars … [and] told the truth, all the way to President Roosevelt himself,” Obama said. “Jan Karski passed away more than a decade ago. But today, I’m proud to announce that this spring I will honor him with America’s highest civilian honor.”