The First Annual Jan Karski Celebration was held at the Consulate of Poland in New York on April 24th. In the midst of World War II, Jan Karski worked as a courier, entering the Warsaw ghetto and the Nazi Izbica transit camp, where he saw first-hand the atrocities occurring under Nazi occupation.
He was dispatched by the Polish Underground to inform the West about the atrocities being committed by the Nazis in occupied Poland – including the ongoing slaughter of the entire Jewish population and to seek their intervention. Karski traveled to London to meet with the Polish government-in-exile and with British government officials. He subsequently traveled to the United States and met with President Roosevelt. His eyewitness account of the Holocaust was not taken seriously.
Karski published the book Story of a Secret State; earned a Ph.D at Georgetown University, and became a professor at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service - educating generations of students about the dangers of staying silent in the face of tyranny and danger. Born in 1914, Karski became a U.S. citizen in 1954 and died in 2000
The program began with a film clip of President Barack Obama’s announcement at the US Memorial Holocaust Museum in Washington that the late Dr. Karski will posthumously be awarded America’s highest honor – the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The Medal is the Nation's highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.
"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,” said President Obama. “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.”
Remarks were made by Wanda Urbanska of West Virginia, the Campaign director of The Jan Karski Centennial Campaign – an initiative of the Polish History Museum in Warsaw. “This highest of civilian honors in our great land validates the principles that Jan Karski stood for: tolerance and understanding among people of all faiths and the courage to speak the truth in the worst of times,” said Urbanska.
Through a very thick Polish accent, with eyes glued to the text, Marcin Lapiński delivered an impassioned dramatic reading from Karski’s memoir Story of a Secret State.
During the event, Consul General Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka awarded Simon Bergson of the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation with the Knight's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland and was herself distinguished with the first ever Jan Karski Spirit Award. Presented by David Harris, Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee, the award embodies the nature of Karski – a person with a combination of “moral, physical, intellectual and courage” traits and one who leads from the “head, heart, soul and spine.”
It was announced that 1944 bestseller and “Book of the Month” classic - Story of a Secret State was in the process of being reprinted in a new release for a new generation. One of the initiatives of the Centennial Campaign was to have the book made as required reading in US schools.