Obama honors former Georgetown professor and Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski

Ever wondered who the man was behind the pensive, chess-playing statue in front of White Gravenor?

Yesterday, President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to this war hero, the late Jan Karski, a Polish World War II resistance movement fighter who later became a professor at Georgetown University. The Medal of Freedom is the nation’s highest civilian honor. Karski died in 2000 and spent 40 years as a Georgetown professor.

During the early 1940s, Karski reported to the Polish government-in-exile, the American, and British allies on the atrocities committed in German-occupied Poland. “Jan took that information to President Franklin Roosevelt, it being one of the first accounts of the Holocaust, imploring the world to take action. It was decades before Jan was ready to tell his story, and by then he said, ‘I don’t need courage anymore, so I teach with passion,'” Obama said during the awards ceremony.

Karski was a part of ZWZ, Union of Armed Struggle, which was an underground army formed in Poland to resist German occupation. “When Karski told Jewish Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter what was happening, Frankfurter replied, ‘I do not believe you.’ Winston Churchill refused to meet with Karski to discuss saving the Jews. Had the allies acted when Karski spoke up, millions could have been saved,” the Huffington Post writes about Karski.

Unfortunately, Obama referred to the German death camps in Poland as “Polish death camps” during his speech to award Karski. This gaffe prompted immediate outrage from Poles and Polish Americans. Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski tweeted last night: “It’s a pity that such a dignified ceremony was overshadowed by ignorance and incompetence.” Later yesterday, the National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor apologized on behalf of Obama and the White House, saying, “The president misspoke. He was referring to Nazi death camps in Poland. We regret this misstatement, which should not detract from the clear intention to honor Mr. Karski and those brave citizens who stood on the side of human dignity in the face of tyranny.”

The incident prompted The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Associated Press to change their stylebooks to ban the use of this phrase, according to ABC News journalist Jake Tapper.

Among other twelve other recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom were musician Bob Dylan, former Secretary of State and Georgetown professor Madeleine Albright, novelist Toni Morrison, American civil rights lawyer John Doar, and current President of Israel Shimon Peres. Posthumously, American youth leader and founder of Girl Scouts Juliette Gordon Low and Japanese internment camps resistor and American sociologist Gordon Hirabayashi were also awarded alongside Karski for the work they did while alive.

Vox apologizes for the initial error. Albright is a professor, not a graduate of Georgetown.

Photo: Flickr user John Weiss

4 Comments on “Obama honors former Georgetown professor and Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski

  1. Jan Karski was incredible. It’s a shame that Georgetown still hasn’t fixed that statue.

  2. “Georgetown graduate Madeleine Albright”

    She’s a professor, not an alumna. Come on Vox

  3. Yeah, come on Vox, don’t pull a Barack Obama. Mistakes are for the weak.

  4. Karski was more than just a “resistance movement fighter,” he was a defender of the Jews in Poland – he is a “Righteous among the Nations.” He didn’t simply fight the Nazis, he exposed them for their heinous, murderous acts. The word “jewish” or “Jew” only appear twice in this post, and one of those times is to expose the irony in Franfurter’s reply. Vox, I’m worried about you

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