The reading list was brutal, and I had to trudge many a dawn to the Library of Congress, because a lot of the stuff comprised unpublished papers by NATO diplomats.
But had I not elected the course, I might never have met the professor, Jan Karski.
Karski had been a young army lieutenant when the Soviets invaded his native Poland at the outbreak of World War II.
Captured near Ukraine, Karski managed to conceal his rank from his captors by swapping uniforms with a private. Uninterested in privates (they executed officers), the Soviets put Karski on a train bound west for Nazi territory; but he escaped, and made his way to Warsaw.
Before long, Karski joined Poland's Resistance, couriering dispatches to the country's government, exiled in Paris. On one trip, he was arrested by the Gestapo and tortured. Afraid he'd betray his fellows, Karski cut his own throat; but Nazi doctors stitched the wound before Karski bled to death. Members of the Resistance secreted him out of the hospital.
Karski immediately resumed his role as a courier. Ordered next to gather evidence of Nazi atrocities, he was twice smuggled by Jewish resistance fighters into the Warsaw Ghetto, to see first hand what was happening to its citizens. Karski witnessed Nazi soldiers hunt down and kill Jewish children for sport, and saw Jews herded into boxcars heading for the death camps. So sickened was he by the sights in the railroad yard, Karski vomited.
After his final mission in Poland, Karski was ordered to England and the US, to spread word of the Nazis' atrocities among the Allies. He met in 1943 with the British Foreign Secretary in London, and with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the White House. Karski pleaded with both men to intervene. His stories were met with disbelief.
Undaunted, Karski wrote Story of a Secret State, published in 1944 as a Book of the Month Club selection. Over 400,000 copies were sold. Unable to sway their leaders, Karski helped open the eyes of Brits and Americans to the Holocaust.
After the war, Karski remained in the US, earned a doctorate, and joined the faculty of Georgetown University, where he taught for 40 years.
In 1994, Karski was made an honorary citizen of Israel, in recognition of his efforts on behalf Holocaust victims. He was also nominated for a Nobel Prize shortly before his death in 2000.
There are public memorials to him today in Washington, New York City, Warsaw, Lodz, Tel Aviv and elsewhere.