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Obama Awards Albright, Karski Presidential Medal of Freedom

Madeleine Albright  

President Barack Obama bestows the Presidential Medal of Freedom upon Madeleine Albright, the first female United States Secretary of State, during a White House ceremony May 29. Photo by AP.

May 30, 2012 – President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom yesterday to Madeleine Albright and Jan Karski, the late professor and alumnus who risked his life to bring the first reports of the Holocaust to the free world.

The awards, presented to individuals who have made 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, were awarded during a White House ceremony May 29.

Albright, the former Secretary of State who is now the Mortara Distinguished Professor of Diplomacy at Georgetown, and Karski were honored with 11 others, including John Glenn, Toni Morrison and Bob Dylan.

"It is a great honor for Georgetown and the School of Foreign Service to have two professors, one of whom is no longer with us, receive the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom," said Carol Lancaster, dean of the school. "The fact that both of them were heroes in their own right and both from Eastern Europe and both in the United States as the result of war, is even more remarkable."

Inspiring Actions

“What sets these men and women apart is the incredible impact they have had on so many people, not in short blinding bursts but steadily over the course of a lifetime,” Obama said. “Together the honorees on this stage and the ones who couldn’t be here have moved us with their words, they have inspired us with their actions.”

Albright, who escaped Czechoslovakia as a child during World War II, served as the first female United States Secretary of State from 1997 to 2001 under former President Bill Clinton.

During her tenure, she worked to increase membership in NATO and helped lead campaigns against terror and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.

Pursuit of Freedom

Jan Karski  

Jan Karski, who traveled across enemy lines as a courier for the Polish Underground during World War II, provided the first reports of the Holocaust to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“With unwavering leadership and continuing engagement with the global community, she continues her noble pursuit of freedom and dignity for all people,” read her Medal of Freedom proclamation.

Karski, who joined the Polish Underground during World War II after escaping from Soviet capture, traveled back and forth across Nazi-dominated Europe as a courier during World War II.

Aided by his mastery of four languages and a photographic memory, he was among the first to provide eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust to Allied leaders, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Teaching Compassion

“Jan Karski illuminated one of the darkest chapters of history and his heroic intervention on behalf of the innocent will never be forgotten,” his Medal of Freedom proclamation says.

Adam Daniel Rotfeld, former minister of foreign affairs for Poland, accepted the award for Karski, who died in 2000 at the age of 86.

"It was decades before Jan was ready to tell his story,” Obama said. “By then he said 'I don't need courage anymore, so I teach compassion.' "

Related Information

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