Reading 17

Speaking Out “In the Face of Murder”

In the ghettos of eastern Europe, Jews heard rumors and firsthand accounts of the concentration camps, mass graves, and killing centers that awaited them after deportation (see reading, What Did Jews in the Ghettos Know?). Many non-Jews also knew about Nazi persecution and murder of Jews. Some could see ghettos from their homes. Others witnessed round-ups and watched as trains crowded with Jews headed east day after day. Still others could smell the smoke from the crematoria. 

They knew, but few dared to speak out. Zofia Kossak-Szczucka was an exception. She was an unlikely protestor—a well-known author of historical novels, a devout Catholic from a prominent family, and a strong Polish nationalist who was known as an antisemite. And yet in August 1942, after she witnessed mass deportations from the Warsaw ghetto, Kossak-Szczucka composed and secretly published a pamphlet titled “Protest.”1 She wrote: 

In the Warsaw ghetto, behind a wall that is cutting them off from the world, several hundred thousand condemned people await death. No hope of survival exists for them, and no help is coming from anywhere . . .     

Just as in the Warsaw ghetto, since six months ago in larger and smaller Polish towns and cities, the same is happening. The total number of Jews killed is over one million, and this number is growing daily. All perish: the rich and poor, the old, the women, the men, the youth, the babies. . . .

The world looks upon this murder more horrible than anything that history has ever seen, and stays silent. The slaughter of millions of defenseless people is being carried out amid general sinister silence . . .

This silence can no longer be tolerated. Whatever the reason for it, it is vile. In the face of murder it is wrong to remain passive. Whoever is silent witnessing murder becomes a partner to the murder. Whoever does not condemn, consents.

Therefore we—Catholics, Poles—raise our voices. Our feeling toward the Jews has not changed. We continue to deem them political, economic, and ideological enemies of Poland. Moreover, we realize that they hate us more than they hate the Germans, and that they make us responsible for their misfortune. Why, and on what basis, remains a mystery of the Jewish soul. Nevertheless this is a decided fact. Awareness of fact, however, does not release us of the duty of damnation of murder.

. . . We have no means actively to counteract the German murders; we cannot help, nor can we rescue anybody. But we protest from the bottom of our hearts filled with pity, indignation, and horror. This protest is demanded of us by God, who does not allow us to kill. It is demanded by our Christian conscience. Every being calling itself human has the right to love his fellow man. The blood of the defenseless victims is calling for revenge. Who does not protest with us, is not a Catholic.2

Despite her feeling about Jews, Kossak-Szczucka helped to organize Zegota, a Polish resistance group that found places for Jews to hide from the Nazis, forged identity papers for them, paid off blackmailers, and provided medical assistance to Jews in hiding. Her underground work eventually led to her arrest; she was held in Auschwitz for a year. After her release, she continued to rescue Jews, particularly Jewish children.

Citations

  • 1 : Michael Phayer, The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930–1965 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 127.
  • 2 : Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, “The Protest,” quoted in Nechama Tec, When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 111–12.

Connection Questions

  1. Why do you think Kossak-Szczucka spoke out against the deportation and murder of Jews despite seeing Jews as the “political, economic, and ideological enemies of Poland”? What moved her to risk her life on their behalf? 
  2. Kossak-Szczucka writes in the pamphlet, “Whoever is silent witnessing murder becomes a partner to the murder. Whoever does not condemn, consents.” What is she suggesting about the responsibility of those who witness? Do you think her judgment of other people’s responses to what was happening is a fair one?
  3. Does a protest like Kossak-Szczucka’s make a difference? To whom?

Related Content

Reading
Holocaust

Vitka Kempner’s Biography

Learn the story of Vitka Kempner, who as a teenager became a leading figure of the Jewish partisan resistance in Vilna.

Print book,
PDF
Holocaust

I Promised I Would Tell

Survivor Sonia Schreiber Weitz bears witness to the Holocaust through poetry and testimony in this powerful memoir.

Reading
Holocaust

Let the World Know!

Jan Karski describes the disbelief he encounters as he bears witness to the desparate situation in the Warsaw Ghetto. 

Reading
Holocaust

The Jewish Ghettos: Separated from the World

Read diary entries from a girl who lived in the Łódź ghetto, and learn the history of Jewish ghettos in Poland.

Search Our Global Collection

Everything you need to get started teaching your students about racism, antisemitism and prejudice.