Posts tagged Jan Karski

November 1, 1943: Moscow Declaration Issued–and Ignored

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The Moscow Conference of Foreign Secretaries (10/19/43—11/1/43) was the first high level meeting of the three major allies during World War II, and formed the prelude to the first in-person meeting of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin in Teheran less than one month later.

The ministers dealt with a variety of issues: reaffirming the principle of unconditional surrender, and expressing a unified desire to establish an international organization for the preservation of the forthcoming peace.  Another topic was the treatment of German war criminals. By the fall of 1943 the genocidal aims of the Nazis were clear beyond a doubt.  Jan Karski, a member of the Polish resistance, had been smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto and a subcamp of Belzec, and personally relayed his findings to British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, and, on July 28, 1943, to President Roosevelt.  Even Odd Nansen knew what was happening.  On December 6, 1942, he noted in his diary: “Himmler has decided that all Jews are to be wiped out.”

Moscow Conference

Prior to the start of the conference, Churchill drafted a proposed declaration on the subject of war crimes, and it was adopted at the Conference and publicly issued over the names of the three leaders on November 1, 1943.

The text of what became known as the Moscow Declaration on German Atrocities is worth quoting in full:

“The United Kingdom, the United States and the Soviet Union have received from many quarters evidence of atrocities, massacres and cold-blooded mass executions which are being perpetrated by the Hitlerite forces in the many countries they have overrun and from which they are now being expelled.  The brutalities of Hitlerite domination are no new thing and all the peoples or territories in their grip have suffered from the worst form of government by terror.  What is new is that many of these territories are now being redeemed by the advancing armies of the liberating Powers and that in their desperation, the recoiling Hitlerite Huns are redoubling their ruthless cruelties. This is now evidenced with particular clearness by monstrous crimes of the Hitlerites on the territory of the Soviet Union which is being liberated from the Hitlerites, and on French and Italian territory.

Accordingly, the aforesaid three allied Powers, speaking in the interests of the thirty-two United Nations, hereby solemnly declare and give full warning of their declaration as follows:

At the time of the granting of any armistice to any government which may be set up in Germany, those German officers and men and members of the Nazi party who have been responsible for, or have taken a consenting part in the above atrocities, massacres and executions, will be sent back to the countries in which their abominable deeds were done in order that they may be judged and punished according to the laws of those liberated countries and of the free governments which will be created therein.  Lists will be compiled in all possible detail from these countries having regard especially to the invaded parts of the Soviet Union, to Poland and Czechoslovakia, to Yugoslavia and Greece, including Crete and other islands, to Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, France and Italy.

Thus, the Germans who take part in wholesale shootings of Italian officers or in the execution of French, Dutch, Belgium or Norwegian hostages or of Cretan peasants, or who have shared in the slaughters inflicted on the people of Poland or in the territories of the Soviet Union which are being swept clear of the enemy, will know that they will be brought back to the scene of their crimes and judged on the spot by the peoples whom they have outraged.  Let those who have hitherto not imbrued their hands with innocent blood beware lest they join the ranks of the guilty, for most assuredly the three allied Powers will pursue them to the uttermost ends of the earth and will deliver them in order that justice may be done.

The above declaration is without prejudice to the case of the major criminals, whose offenses have no particular geographical localisation (sic) and who will be punished by the joint decision of the Governments of the Allies.”  (my emphasis added)

Churchill was hopeful that such an unmistakable declaration would “make some of these villains shy of being mixed up in the butcheries now that they know they are going to be beat. . . .   Lots of Germans may develop moral scruples if they know they are going to be brought back and judged in the country, and perhaps the very place, where their cruel deeds we done.”

The Moscow Conference and its deliberations were no secret.  Even newly arrived Sachsenhausen prisoner no. 72060 (Odd Nansen), could record in his diary as soon as November 4, 1943: “The news is still brilliant.  The Moscow Conference is over, and according to report they’ve ‘decided’ that the war is to be finished this year.  Goodness—if only that could happen!”

So, did the Nazis develop moral scruples? Did they shy away from their butcheries when the writing was on the wall for all to see? Hardly.  In fact, the same developments that Churchill alluded to led the Nazis to exactly the opposite conclusion.

According to historian Martin Gilbert, “the spectre (sic) of defeat, and the reality of daily losses of territory in the east, led to an intensification of the murder of Jews, in order to ensure the completion of the ‘final solution.’” Around this time Heinrich Himmler ordered Aktion Erntefest (Operation Harvest Festival), targeting Jews in the Lublin, Poland district, many of them survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Starting at 5:00AM on November 3, 1943, a mere 48 hours after the issuance of the Moscow Declaration, Jews in Majdanek Concentration Camp were led in groups of 100 to trenches (which they had previously dug), and ordered to strip and lie down, where they were shot.  Loudspeakers played music to drown out the gunfire and the cries of the victims.  By 5:00PM the shooting was over, and 18,400 Jews were dead—the largest single-day killing of the Holocaust.

Majdanek Concentration Camp–only Auschwitz was larger

But Operation Harvest Festival wasn’t over.  Also on November 3, over 6,000 Jews were shot at Trawniki, a nearby forced labor camp.  German SS and police units involved in the Majdanek killings moved on to nearby Poniatowa, another forced labor camp, and shot an additional 14,000 Jewish prisoners on November 4.

With at least 39,000, and possibly up to 43,000 victims murdered in two days, Harvest Festival was the largest single massacre of Jews by German forces during World War II.

So much for the development of moral scruples.

One of the ongoing controversies of World War II is whether the Allies could have and should have done more to prevent the full extent of the Holocaust.  Specifically, should the Allies have bombed the rail lines leading to camps such as Auschwitz.  The attitude of Roosevelt, and the U.S. Government in general, was that ending the war as quickly as possible offered the best hope for the Jews, and thus all decisions were based on that criteria alone.  Others have since argued that interdicting the rail lines might have saved lives otherwise lost, with negligible impact on the overall war effort.

If nothing else, Operation Harvest Festival underscores that so long as the Nazis had an adequate supply of bullets, they could and would remain murderously effective in single-mindedly carrying out their cruel butcheries.

If the Nazis failed to develop any moral scruples in response to the Moscow Declaration, did the Allies pursue their quarry to the uttermost ends of the earth in order that justice might be done?

>Heinrich Himmler committed suicide following his capture by British troops on May 21, 1945.

>SS Obergruppenführer Friedrich-Wilhelm Krüger, entrusted by Himmler with carrying out Harvest Festival, committed suicide on May 10, 1945.

>SS and Police Leader Jakob Sporrenberg, who directed Harvest Festival (and who observed the killings from a plane overhead) was captured in Norway, tried by a Polish court after the war, convicted and executed in 1952.

>Martin Gottfried Weiss, Commandant of Majdanek at the time of Harvest Festival, was tried and executed in 1946.

>The Commander of Poniatowa, Gottlieb Hering, died on October 9, 1945 under mysterious circumstances.

>The Commander of Trawniki, Karl Streiber, was tried in 1975 and acquitted.

According to legal scholars Michael Bazyler and Frank Turkheimer, “Over the past seventy years, tens of thousands of individuals who were part of the German regime and their local collaborators . . . have been prosecuted for crimes committed during the years of German rule . . . .  In somewhat sporadic and unorganized fashion, many of these trials dealt either directly or indirectly with the genocide of the Jews.”

Tens of thousands prosecuted (not convicted) for the deaths of millions of Jews and others, leaving millions more families destroyed.

Has justice truly been served? Can it ever be?

Remains of the mass graves/trenches at Majdanek (Source: Bronislaw Wesolowski)

9/1/39: WWII Starts in Gleiwitz

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As the long, hot, summer of 1939 drew to a close, Adolf Hitler, Chancellor of Germany, was determined to have his war.

True, he had accomplished his previous exploits—the re-militarization of the Rhineland; the annexation of Austria; the absorption of the Sudetenland; and the occupation of Czechoslovakia—all without firing a single shot.

But Poland, Hitler’s next target, backed by France and Great Britain (which had pledged their support), had by now learned that Hitler’s promises were worthless.  Poland resisted his demands for concessions and ignored his professed desire for “peaceful coexistence.”

For his part, Hitler was not daunted by the prospect of war. In fact, far from it; he welcomed the chance to show what his army, navy and air force, built with so much national effort and sacrifice, could do.

Hitler had just one scruple, however.  He could not simply invade Poland without a casus belli—a justification. [By the following year even this scruple disappeared when Germany, without cause, invaded Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands, all of which were neutral, as well as Denmark, with which Germany had recently signed a nonaggression pact.]

Hitler had already ordered his armed forces to be ready to invade Poland by September 1, but Poland was stubbornly refusing to play along.  Accordingly, Hitler decided to manufacture his own casus belli.  As he told his generals on August 22: “The victor will not be asked whether he told the truth.”  The SS were instructed to make it appear that Poland was attacking Germany.  Not taking any chances, the SS planned more than one provocation.  For example, SS men, dressed in Polish uniforms, attacked a German customs post, firing shots in the air and leaving behind six corpses—all prisoners taken from Dachau—also dressed in Polish uniforms.

Another provocation was chosen for Gleiwitz, a German town located four miles from the Polish border.  Gleiwitz did not have much going for it, except good railroad connections, and a 365-foot wooden radio transmitting tower—the tallest wooden structure in all of Europe.

Gleiwitz Tower

At 8:00pm on Thursday, August 31, the SS struck.  As historian Roger Moorhouse writes in his latest work, Poland 1939, the time had been chosen 1) to provide the cover of darkness, and 2) because many people would be listening to their radios at that hour. The SS team quickly overran the radio station, herded everyone into the basement, seized the microphone, and broadcast the following message in Polish:

Uwaga!  Tu Gliwice!  Radiostacja Znajduje Się W Polskich Rękach!” [Attention!  This is Gleiwitz!  The radio station is in Polish hands!]

To add verisimilitude to their “attack” the SS had the day before picked up Franciszek Honiok, an ethnic Pole who was nevertheless a German citizen.  Not only was Honiok ethnically Polish, he was widely known for his Polish sympathies.  The unsuspecting Honiok was brought to Gleiwitz, and on the evening of August 31, his drugged body was delivered to the radio station, and there he was executed in cold blood and left behind as “evidence.”

For unknown reasons, a much longer message was not broadcast as planned that evening, and even what was announced could barely be heard over the radio.

Nevertheless, the German press, which was no longer free and independent, no longer able or willing to speak truth to power, but merely served as a propaganda arm of the Nazis, was already primed to flood German streets the morning of September 1 with headlines castigating Poland for its dastardly acts.  In a 5:45am proclamation to his troops as they headed east, Hitler concluded: “there remains no other recourse for me but to meet force with force.”

Poland invaded

Hitler now had his war, or more precisely, as William L. Shirer noted, his “counter-attack.” And what a counter-attack it was, involving 1.5—2 million men, over 2,000 planes, and nearly 3,000 tanks.  Jan Karski, a Polish Mounted Artillery officer (and future professor of mine at Georgetown), recounts in his memoir: “[On that first morning] the extent of the death, destruction and disorganization this combined fire caused in three short hours was incredible.  By the time our wits were sufficiently collected to even survey the situation, it was apparent that we were in no position to offer any serious resistance.”

On that same hot sunny morning of September 1, Thomas Buergenthal and his parents were less than 20 miles away from Gleiwitz, having just boarded a train in Katowice, Poland en route to England.  But as Moorhouse notes, the Luftwaffe launched over 2,000 sorties on the first day alone, “strafing . . . at will.”  Tommy’s train was attacked and disabled, and his family’s dreams of freedom were, in his words, “not to be.”

Refugees on the move

Young Tommy would ultimately have another, closer, encounter with Gleiwitz nearly five and a half years later.  In late January, 1945, Tom and his column of prisoners marched—shuffled really—out of the front gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau and onto the backroads of Poland.  Their goal: Gleiwitz, 42 miles away.  Even now, it is impossible to adequately describe the agony of that three-day trek.  According to Odd Nansen, the temperatures hovered around 10° F. and many froze to death along the way, or were shot if unable to continue.

Somehow, Tom made it to Gleiwitz, but that merely meant that the second stage of his terrible odyssey was to about begin: ten more days in an open cattle car headed for Sachsenhausen.

History offers many unexpected twists and turns, often heavily laden with irony.  But perhaps none so ironic as this: Germany’s Gleiwitz is today Poland’s Gliwice.  Millions of deaths later, at the Potsdam Conference of 1945, the postwar boundaries of eastern Europe were redrawn, and Gliwice found itself for the first time located within Poland.

Truly, Radiostacja Znajduje Się W Polskich Rękach; the radio station is in Polish hands.

The Holocaust and Historical Truth

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Today, one day following International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Washington Post published a news story about the Polish government’s passage of a law “making it a criminal offense to mention Polish complicity in crimes committed during the Holocaust.”  According to Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, the law is intended, not to “whitewash history, but to safeguard it and safeguard the truth about the Holocaust and prevent its distortion.”  Poles particularly object to the use of the term “Polish death camps,” which are Polish only insofar as the Nazis established the so-called Reinhard camps (Treblinka, Sobibór and Bełźec), and Auschwitz-Birkenau, on Polish soil.  The full text of the article is here.

The law still needs final approval from Poland’s Senate and president to become effective, which is expected.

Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Center, said the law was “liable to blur the historical truths regarding the assistance the Germans received from the Polish population during the Holocaust.”

History, unfortunately, is never completely black and white.  Poland, as the epicenter of the Holocaust in many ways, has the largest number of individuals (6,706) recognized by Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among the Nations.”  This honor is bestowed only on those who, after rigorous investigation, are proven to have taken “great risks to save Jews during the Holocaust.”

These 6,706 represent fully over 25% of all individuals recognized by Yad Vashem.  By comparison, the second highest is the Netherlands, with 5,595 (including Jan and Miep Gies—mentioned here and here—who helped Anne Frank).  Norway has 67, including Sigrid Hellisen-Lund, a friend of Odd Nansen’s who worked closely with him in Nansenhjelpen, the organization he established to help refugees during the interwar period.  The United States has 5.

On the other hand, as Laurence Rees points out in his latest work, The Holocaust: A New History (PublicAffairs 2017):

“Poland, Hungary and Romania all enacted anti-Semitic legislation during the 1930s. . . .   In August 1936, for example, all Polish shops were required to display the name of the owner on their signs.  As a consequence it was obvious which shops belonged to Jews.  The following year Jews were forbidden from entering the medical profession, and restrictions were placed on their ability to practise [sic] law. . ..

The Polish government was also contemplating removing Jews from Poland altogether.  In early 1937 the Poles opened discussions with the French about the possibility of sending large numbers of Polish Jews to the island of Madagascar off the south-east coast of Africa . . ..

The Polish Madagascar initiative acted as a powerful reminder . . . that anti-Semitic initiatives were not just the preserve of the government of the Third Reich.  The desire of other European countries in the 1930s to persecute and even remove their Jews has largely been forgotten in the public consciousness today—dwarfed by the scale and ferocity of the subsequent Nazi Holocaust.”

The final word goes to my old Georgetown professor, Jan Karski (mentioned here), who is described in the article as a “famed resistance fighter” and who nevertheless acknowledged that the Poles’ attitude toward fellow Polish Jews was “ruthless, often without pity.”

While references to “Polish death camps” should more accurately refer instead to “death camps located by the Nazis in Poland,” to outlaw any mention of Polish complicity in the Holocaust is indeed to “whitewash history.”

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