Posts tagged Jan Karski

Postscript(s)

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My recent blogs about Jan Karski and Otto Frank generated an unusual amount of feedback from my readers, and I appreciate hearing from so many of you.

It has been a while since I mentioned serendipity, but it seems that it has been hard at work again!

Bep Voskuijl 

No sooner had I posted my blog about Otto Frank and his desperate attempts to learn the fates of his wife and daughters than I came across, in the August 16, 2021 issue of Publishers Weekly, a news item about Simon & Schuster purchasing the English rights to a forthcoming book called The Last Secret of the Secret Annex.  It is written by Belgian journalist Jeroen De Bruyn and Joop van Wijk-Voskuijl.  Joop is the son of Elisabeth “Bep” Voskuijl, who was one of Anne Frank’s friends and protectors.  Bep, given the pseudonym “Elli Vossen” by Anne in the diary, was eighteen years-old when she was hired by Otto Frank in 1937 to work for his business, Opekta.  Later Bep’s father also worked in the Opekta warehouse, and built the famous bookcase which concealed the entrance to the secret annex.  Along with Miep Gies and a few other trusted employees, Bep helped the occupants of the Secret Annex by supplying food, clothing, etc. According to the website of the Anne Frank House, “For the next two years her life was completely governed by her care for the people in hiding.”  Anne even once convinced her to spend an overnight in the Annex, and shared with Bep some of her writings.

Bep remained in close touch with Otto Frank throughout her life, visiting him in Switzerland, and he in turn helped her financially when he could.  In a letter she once wrote Otto she observed: “I would do everything in my power to uphold the idealized Anne, which for me . . .  is combined with always thinking about what has happened, what I witnessed.  This great pain never leaves my heart.”

Bep married in May 1946 and had three sons and one daughter, which she named after Anne.  She died in 1983, age 63.

The book, for which no release date has been set, purportedly reveals “insights on who may have betrayed the Frank family to the Germans.”

Front row, left to right: Miep Gies, Otto Frank, Bep Voskuijl

Lien Brilleslijper

Within days of reading about Bep, I came across a book review in the New York Times of The Sisters of Auschwitz, written by Roxane van Iperen.  It is a biography of two Dutch sisters who aided dozens of people during World War II.  Those two sisters: Lien Brilleslijper and Janny Brilleslijper.  As mentioned in my earlier blog, the Brilleslijper sisters were among the last to see Anne and Margot Frank alive in Bergen-Belsen, and it was Lien who filed the report of Anne’s death that first alerted Otto Frank.

In 2012, van Iperen, like me an attorney by profession, moved into ‘T Hoog Nest (the High Nest), the very house occupied by the Brilleslijper sisters during the war.  She soon discovered secret hiding places, trap doors, old candle stubs, etc.  Intrigued, she began to delve into the history of the High Nest and its occupants.  The Sisters of Auschwitz is the result.  Another case of serendipity!

Like the Frank family, the occupants of the High Nest, including the Brilleslijper sisters, were betrayed in 1944.  Like the Frank family, the residents were sent, first, to Westerbork, then to Auschwitz, and finally to Bergen-Belsen. Unlike the Frank sisters, Lien and Janny were able to stay alive until April 15, 1945, when Bergen-Belsen was liberated.  Lien died in 1988, age 75; Janny in 2003, age 86.

The full review can be read here.

Janny and Lien Brilleslijper

Jan Karski

For those of you lucky enough to live in either the greater DC area or the greater Chicago area, the Shakespeare Theater Company of DC (October 6—17) and the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (November 3-14) are hosting a one-man review of Jan Karski’s life, starring David Strathairn.

Appropriately titled “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski” the play is described as follows:

“In a tour-de-force solo performance, Academy Award nominee David Strathairn (Good Night and Good Luck; Nomadland) portrays World War II hero and Holocaust witness Jan Karski, a messenger of truth who risked his life to carry his harrowing report from war-torn Poland to the Oval Office only to be disbelieved.  Standing tall in the halls of power, Strathairn captures the remarkable life of the self-described “insignificant, little man” whose forgotten story of moral courage can still shake the conscience of the world.”

I have seen a small snippet from an earlier production, as well as an interview with Christiane  Amanpour, and Strathairn amazingly channels Karski’s mannerisms and spirit in a performance that is utterly compelling.  Do not pass up this opportunity if you have a chance to see it.  You will not regret your decision.

Jan Karski: Hero of the Holocaust (Part II)

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Jan Karski

After Jan Karski escaped from the hospital in Poland in mid-1941, he spent the next seven months recuperating and in “quarantine” in a remote country estate.  In the cat and mouse moves of the Gestapo and the Underground, the Underground had no way of knowing if Karski’s escape was indeed legitimate, or had been “staged” by the Gestapo in hopes that he would lead them to more Underground members.  Only enforced isolation until the trail went cold could ensure that that did not happen.  Karski’s successful escape came at a steep price, however.  Thirty-two Poles, some connected with the getaway, others wholly innocent, were executed by the Gestapo in retribution.

By mid-1942 Karski was well enough to resume his role as courier.  In late August, prior to his next departure, prominent Jewish leaders, living outside the Warsaw Ghetto and passing as Gentiles, learned of Karski’s impending mission.  They implored him to carry their story—the story of the Jewish genocide—to the Polish government-in-exile as well.

Both Karski and these leaders had no illusions that stories based on mere hearsay would have any impact on skeptical minds.  Only as an eyewitness could Karski hope to be a convincing messenger.  Accordingly, they offered to smuggle him, first, into the Warsaw Ghetto, and then smuggle him into a death camp as well.  But they offered two warnings.  First, he would be risking his life in these attempts.  Second, and equally important, he was warned that, as long as he lived, he “would be haunted by the memory of the ghastly scenes [he] would witness.” Karski agreed without hesitation: “Unless I had first-hand acquaintance with what I had to report I did not feel equal to the task.”

Karski and his Jewish guide entered the Warsaw Ghetto—the largest Jewish ghetto in occupied Europe—via a secret tunnel.   What Karski saw there unnerved him.  “These were still living people, if you could call them such.  For apart from their skin, eyes and voice there was nothing human left in these palpitating figures.  Everywhere there was hunger, misery, and the atrocious stench of decomposing bodies, the pitiful moans of dying children, the desperate cries and gasps of a people struggling for life against impossible odds.”

As Karski’s guide pointed out atrocity after atrocity, he would intone over and over: “Remember this.  Remember this.”

Warsaw Ghetto

On Karski’s second, and more dangerous, trip, he dressed in the uniform of a Ukrainian guard (in his memoir Karski calls it an Estonian uniform; because the memoir was published while the war was still ongoing, he chose to alter certain facts).  Thus disguised, Karski brazenly walked into what he believed was a death camp.  Instead, it was “merely” a holding/transit camp located near Bełżec.  This is to say the camp was “merely” the Eighth Circle of Hell, rather than the Ninth and final circle of Dante’s Inferno.

“We passed an old Jew, a man of about sixty, sitting on the ground without a stitch of clothing on him. . . .  Silent, motionless, he sat on the ground, no one paying him the slightest attention. . . .  He might have been dead or petrified except for his preternaturally animated eyes, which blinked rapidly and incessantly. Not far from him a small child, clad in a few rags, was lying on the ground.  He was all alone and crouched quivering on the ground, staring up with the large, frightened eyes of a rabbit.  No one paid any attention to him, either.

The Jewish mass vibrated, trembled, and moved to and fro as if united in a single, insane, rhythmic trance. . . . Hunger, thirst, fear and exhaustion had driven them all insane.  I had been told that they were usually left in the camp for three or four days without a drop of water or food.”

Karski watched as the entire population of the camp—thousands of men, women and children—were herded into boxcars—up to 130 per car, goaded along with shouts, clubs, bayonets, and gunshots where necessary.  Soon, “all that was left was the stench of excrement and rotting straw and a queer, sickening, acidulous odor which, I thought, may have come from the quantities of blood that had been let, and with which the ground was stained.”

By early October 1942, Karski was ready to leave on his mission to the government-in-exile in London.  He fully expected to give his report, including his explosive first-hand testimony, and return for another mission.  In fact, he would not return to his native land for another 32 years.

After debriefing his fellow Poles, Karski shared his story with British officialdom and intelligentsia, including Foreign Minister Anthony Eden and writers H.G. Wells and Arthur Koestler.  Then General Sikorski, head of the government-in-exile, unexpectedly ordered him to the United States, to share his experience yet again.

When Karski arrived in New York City on June 16, 1943, his ultimate goal was an audience with President Franklin Roosevelt.  But getting the attention of the world’s most powerful man and the Commander-in-Chief of all U.S. forces in the midst of a global war seemed almost impossible for a lowly courier. Karski had one important asset at his disposal however—Poland’s Ambassador to the U.S., Jan Ciechanowski.  Well-connected, Ciechanowski was able line up crucial meetings with people close to and influential with the President.

On July 5, Karski met with several prominent Jews in the Roosevelt Administration, including Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.  This meeting produced a memorable exchange that highlights Karski’s dilemma.  Lingering at a dinner which lasted until 1:00 am, and after the other guests had departed, Frankfurter asked Karski: “Please tell me exactly what you have seen.”  Karski spent the next 30 minutes telling all.  Finally, Frankfurter replied: “Mr. Karski, a man like me talking to a man like you must be totally frank.  So I must say: I am unable to believe you.”  The Polish Ambassador, astonished, asked how Frankfurter could call Karski a liar to his face? “Mr. Ambassador,” Frankfurter replied, “I did not say this young man is lying.  I said I am unable to believe him.  There is a difference.”

Karski continued to meet with prominent government and academic figures, including a Jesuit priest, Fr. Edmund Walsh.  Walsh had helped found Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in 1919.  Another government official was William Bullitt, former U.S. Ambassador to both France and the Soviet Union.  Bullitt encouraged FDR to meet the unknown courier with “bloodcurdling” stories to tell.

Seventy-eight years ago today, on July 28, 1943, Ambassador Ciechanowski received a call at 8:00 am, informing him that President Roosevelt expected to see him and Karski at the White House at 10:30 am.

What followed was a 75-minute meeting with the President.  According to Karski, “He was amazingly well-informed about Poland and wanted still more information.  His questions were minute, detailed, and directed squarely at important points.”  What Karski did not get, however, was a promise—to aid the Jews, to alter policy, to end the Holocaust.  The Allied position at the time can be summarized thus: 1) the best way to help the Jews was to defeat Germany as quickly as possible; 2) in the meantime, threats of future retribution against the perpetrators would have to suffice.  [The Moscow Declaration on Atrocities, warning the Nazis that their war crimes would not go unpunished, was finally issued on November 1, 1943.]

Accordingly, Karski concluded that his mission to save the Jews was a failure.  “I wanted to save millions, and I was not able to save one man,” he once lamented.  On the other hand, Karski’s biographers cite John Pehle, the head of the War Refugee Board, to the contrary—that Karski had made a difference, that Roosevelt’s encounter with Karski had moved the President deeply, deeply enough to set up the War Refugee Board in early 1944.

Karski returned to London in November 1943, only to be informed that he had been unmasked by the Nazis, and was now a marked man in Poland.  Even London was too dangerous.  Accordingly, Karski was ordered back to the U.S. in February 1944, where he remained for the duration of the war.  He used the time to write his memoir, Story of a Secret State.  The book was published in November 1944 to favorable reviews (it was Book of the Month Club’s primary selection for January 1945), and a print run of 400,000 copies.

When the war ended, Karski was “consumed with bitterness over the futility of his wartime efforts.”  Not only had he not saved a single life, Poland, which had suffered so much at the hands of the Germans, simply switched totalitarian masters, with Stalin’s communists now in charge.  “I imposed on myself a pledge never to mention the war to anybody,” Karski stated—a promise, as we know, he kept for many years.

When possible careers at the U.S. State Department and the United Nations proved unavailable, Karski once again contacted Fr. Walsh at Georgetown University.  Walsh offered him a full scholarship to pursue a PhD.  Once it was awarded, in 1953, Karski was offered a teaching post at Georgetown, a position he would hold for more than 40 years.

Karski’s vow of silence lasted until 1978, when he finally agreed to a series of interviews totaling eight hours with Claude Lanzmann for Lanzmann’s documentary film about the Holocaust, Shoah.  Three years later, in 1981, but before Shoah had been released, Karski accepted Eli Wiesel’s invitation to attend the International Liberators’ Conference in DC.  There he spoke publicly for the first time since the end of the war of his experiences.  The following year he was recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations for his work.

These events were the cracks in the dike which soon became a flood of remembrance and public speaking, and a long-deferred public recognition.  Honorary degrees (including one from Georgetown), awards, and citations all followed.  Among the more notable:

  • Order Virtuti Militari, Poland’s highest military award (twice)
  • Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest civilian honor
  • Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor
  • Honorary citizenship from the State of Israel (Karski called it “the proudest and most meaningful day in my life”)

But it was a triumph mixed with tragedy.  Jan’s eldest brother, Marian, who was a major figure in the Underground and whom Karski had once helped emigrate to America, died by suicide in Washington, DC in 1964, a victim of the same bitterness over Poland’s fate that Karski shared. Karski’s wife of 27 years, Pola, who lost most of her brothers and sisters in the Holocaust, also died by suicide, in 1992.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Karski’s life, however, were the memories he could never forget, and was fated to be haunted by, as long as he lived.  In his memoir he wrote:

“The images of what I saw in the death camp are, I am afraid, my permanent possessions.  I would like nothing better than to purge my mind of these memories. For one thing, the recollection of those events invariably brings on a recurrence of the nausea [I felt that day].  But more than that, I would like simply to be free of them, to obliterate the very thought that such things ever occurred.”

Anyone who has seen the tears on Karski’s face during his Lanzmann interview understands the pain these memories caused.

When Karski’s courier mission finally reached London in late 1942, he was quickly summoned to meet with General Sikorski.  At their meeting Sikorski asked to see Karski’s wrists. He remarked: “I see that the Gestapo gave you a decoration too.  You have things to remember.”  Karski responded: “I shall never forget . . . nor will my children and their children.” Professor Karski never had any biological children.  But the generations of his students, together with the students of his life, are, in a sense, his spiritual children so long as they adhere to his admonition: Never Forget.

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Postscript.  Years ago while vacationing on Cape Cod I happened upon a sidewalk book sale.  Never one to pass something like this by, I waded through the offerings, finding little of interest, until I came across a biography of Karski entitled Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust.  I was excited to discover that Karski had personally inscribed the copy.  As a young undergraduate I knew little about how special Jan Karski was.  With the aid of his 1944 memoir and this 1994 biography, that deficiency has been rectified.  And what is more, I sense Karski’s inspiring presence every time I look upon his inscription. 

Jan Karski: Hero of the Holocaust (Part I)

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Jan Karski as a young man

There are some people whose experiences during World War II are so fantastical, so filled with drama and danger, that one wonders how they managed to simply keep going.  Jan Karski is one such man.

Karski, described by British historian Michael Burleigh as “one of the bravest men of the war,” and whose life was summarized by Elie Wiesel as “a masterpiece of courage, integrity and humanism,” died twenty-one years ago today, age 86.

Born Jan Kozielewski in 1914 in the city of Łódź, in what was then part of the Russian Empire, Karski (an alias he adopted during the war and kept thereafter) was the youngest of eight children from an educated, upper middle class Polish Catholic family.  A scholastic standout, he trained in his youth to serve in the diplomatic corps. Like all Poles, he performed mandatory military service, and was a reserve lieutenant in the mounted artillery.

In late August 1939, as Hitler’s agitation over the Danzig Corridor escalated, Karski’s unit was mobilized and ordered to a military installation in Oświęcim on the Polish-German border.  Oświęcim is better known by the name the Germans later gave it: Auschwitz, the very symbol of the Holocaust.

The Poles were quite confident they could handle the Germans.  “England and France are not needed this time.  We can finish this alone,” Karski’s commanding officer confided.  In fact, they had no answer for Germany’s blitzkrieg tactics.  Within hours on September 1, Karski’s unit was overwhelmed, leading to a long, disorganized and demoralized retreat.  The retreat lasted for weeks, until Karski reached Tarnopol.  There he and his comrades surrendered—to the invading Russians, who previously agreed to partition Poland pursuant to a secret protocol with Germany.

Karski, who hadn’t even fired a single shot in anger, soon found himself on a cattle car headed to a Soviet POW camp in what is now Ukraine.  The camp was highly stratified, but not in the way one might expect. It was the common soldier who had the best accommodations (such as they were), and the officers, considered by the Soviets to be the oppressors of the proletariat, who had the worst housing and the hardest tasks.

Looking to escape, but resigned to the fact that any escape under the circumstances was well nigh impossible, Karski was thrilled to learn of a proposed prisoner swap with the Germans.  Polish POWs in German custody would be exchanged for Poles held in Soviet custody of Germanic descent and Poles born in the territories now incorporated into the Reich.  There was only one catch: the Russians were only willing to exchange Polish soldiers of the rank of private—no officers need apply.

Karski convinced a Polish private with no desire to participate in the exchange to switch uniforms with him (the Russians weren’t paying particularly close attention anyway).  Karski’s decision was prescient.  The world would later learn that shortly after the swap, Polish officers remaining in Soviet custody were segregated.  Stalin, desirous of eliminating any possible future source of resistance among the intelligentsia and officer corps, personally ordered the slaughter of 22,000 Polish officers and government officials in the Katyn Forest in April and May 1940.

Once the POW swap was effected, Karski found himself out of the frying pan, but now in the proverbial fire.  The Germans promised their captives “work” and “food” but it was all a ruse, Karski suspected, and he wasn’t about to give the Germans a chance to prove him right.  En route to Germany, Karski jumped from a moving train at night, notwithstanding guards posted on the train with machine guns.

World War II was not even three months old and Karski had effected not one but two daring escapes.  His sole focus: to join the Underground and continue the fight for Poland’s freedom.  His goal was Warsaw, and the first stop on his trek was the city of Kielce.  [About this same time Tom Buergenthal and his parents were living as refugees in the part of Kielce which would shortly become the Kielce Ghetto.]

In a memoir Karski published in 1944, Story of the Secret State, Karski details his life in the Polish resistance. It was a choice fraught with danger.  Perhaps no country, with the possible exception of Russia, suffered so much at the hands of its German occupiers.  The country simply ceased to exist as a sovereign state—part absorbed into Germany, part absorbed into Russia, and the rest—the Generalgouvernement—treated as occupied territory. Karski is at pains throughout his memoir to explain that there was no Quisling, no serious collaboration with the Nazis on any level at any time.

Karski’s memoir graphically depicts the incredibly dangerous life of a resistance fighter.  In Chapter 5 he describes how his close friend Dziepatowski initiated him into the Underground.  Dziepatowski’s fate: “[H]e was caught and subjected to appalling tortures, but did not reveal a single secret.  Finally he was executed.”  Three chapters later Karski meets with Marian Borzeçki (called Borecki in the memoir), a former high ranking government official.  His fate: “Toward the end of February, 1940, Borecki was caught by the Gestapo. . . .  He was dragged off to jail and submitted to the most atrocious Nazi tortures.  He was beaten for days on end.  Nearly every bone in his body was systematically and scientifically broken. . . .   In the end he was shot.”  Karski describes in detail the elaborate mechanisms the Underground employed to prevent a betrayal or arrest from jeopardizing the larger operation.  “Liaison women” had the task of connecting one Underground member with another; since members were constantly adopting new identities and new domiciles, only the appropriate liaison woman knew how to reach the appropriate person and arrange a meeting.  Karski observes: “The average ‘life’ of a liaison woman did not exceed a few months.”

Even for those who had no involvement with the Underground, life in occupied Poland was one of privation.  The diet of those who fared worst consisted “exclusively of black bread mixed with sawdust.  A plate of cereal a day was considered a luxury.”  During all of 1942, Karski never once tasted butter or sugar.

Karski’s own brush with the Gestapo wasn’t long in coming.  Because of his language skills, extensive travels across Europe and retentive memory, Karski was chosen to be a courier—carrying vital information (in his head) from the Underground’s various factions to the Polish government-in-exile in France.

Karski’s first courier mission, over the Tatra Mountains into Slovakia with the help of an experienced mountain guide, then to Hungary, Yugoslavia, Italy and France, went without a hitch.

A subsequent courier trip was less successful.  Unbeknownst to Karski on this mission, a previous mountain guide had fallen into the hands of the Gestapo, and told everything he knew—the routes used, the safe houses along the way, etc.  It was only a matter of time before Karski fell into a trap.  Captured, along with his guide, in Slovakia, he was quickly subjected to harsh interrogations.  Fearing, after one particularly brutal session that resulted in four lost teeth and several broken ribs, that he would be unable to hold in his secrets much longer, Karski decided to kill himself with a razor he had surreptitiously stolen from the washroom.

Waiting until the watchman completed his rounds, Karski slashed both his wrists.  (I have previously written about incredible courage it takes to end one’s life just to protect the lives of others here).  As the blood poured out of his arms,

“I thought of my mother.  My childhood, my career, my hopes.  I felt a bottomless sorrow that I had to die a wretched, inglorious death, like a crushed insect, miserable and anonymous.  Neither my family nor my friends would ever learn what had happened to me and where my body would lie.  I had assumed so many aliases that even if the Nazis wished to inform anyone of my death they probably could not track down my real identity.”

Ironically, it was the very act of trying to kill himself that ultimately saved his life.  Remaining in the Gestapo prison—with or without revealing any of the secrets he held—would have undoubtedly ended with his execution.  Instead, the night watchman heard his groans, and Karski was rushed to a nearby hospital.  There sympathetic Slovakian doctors and nurses protected him.  Later he was inexplicably transferred to another hospital just over the border, in Poland. (Karski speculates that he was brought there to give away the Underground in the vicinity.)

Once in Poland, word of Karski’s predicament was communicated to the local Underground.  With a well-placed bribe to the hospital guard, Karski was able to make good an escape into the arms of the local resistance fighters.  Responding to his gushing expressions of gratitude, his saviors were a bit more business-like: “Don’t be too grateful to us.  We had two orders about you.  The first was to do everything in our power to help you escape.  The second was to shoot you if we failed.”

Karski’s tale, while remarkable, is hardly unique.  Millions of such escapes, captures, and tortures occurred throughout occupied Europe during the war.  What makes the story special for me, however, is first, the fact that Jan Karski was my professor as an undergraduate at Georgetown University, and second, that I never knew anything about his incredible experiences while I was his student.  In fact, it was not until his death in 2000 that I learned for the first time in an alumni magazine about Karski’s earlier life.  I wondered: had I been so obtuse that I missed any references—direct or oblique—to these matters during his classes?  Was I really that clueless at the time?

It was not until I later read his biography that I was comforted to learn that “most of Professor Karski’s students probably knew little or nothing about his past.  Story of a Secret State was out of print, he would not voluntarily bring up his wartime exploits, and even his faculty colleagues generally had only a dim knowledge of what he had done during the war.”

The Professor Karski I did meet in the fall of 1973 was still the “tall . . . man of striking appearance” noted by the Polish Ambassador to the U.S., Jan Ciechanowski, in 1943, whose “burning eyes reflected a keen intelligence.”  He was still “too thin” as Martha Gellhorn (Hemingway) once observed when she interviewed him around the same time.  He always did have “his omnipresent cigarette” in the words of his biographers (even in class—that was a different era after all).  Add it all up, and Professor Karski was one intimidating presence.  Even if I had known something of his background, I’m sure I would never have been able to bring myself to ask him about it.

Only now do I wish I could travel back in time and engage Professor Karski in person and learn what a truly inspiring human being he really was.  And this is only the beginning of Karski’s remarkable story.

Karski as I remember him

[Coming in Part II: Karski sees Hell up close and personal; a meeting with President Roosevelt; years of triumph and tragedy.]

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.”

Upcoming Events

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