This reading comes from the Facing History and Ourselves resource The Jews of Poland.
The Great or Grosse Aktion began on July 22, 1942 and continued with occasional pauses until September 12, 1942. In August, during one of those “pauses,” two prominent Jews met with a courier for the Polish underground and begged him to alert the world to what was happening to the Jews of Poland.
Jan Karski was a young Pole who carried information to and from the Polish government-in-exile in London and the Polish resistance movement in Nazi-occupied territory. Just before he left Poland on a mission to the West, he met secretly with two Jews, one a Zionist leader and the other a Bundist. In a book written just two years later, in 1944, Karski described that secret meeting and its outcome:
It was an evening of nightmare, but with a painful, oppressive kind of reality that no nightmare ever had. I sat in an old, rickety armchair as if I had been pinned there, barely able to utter a word while the torrents of their emotion broke over me. They paced the floor violently, their shadows dancing weirdly in the dim light cast by the single candle we could allow ourselves. It was as though they were unable even to think of their dying people and remain seated. . .
.. . . The Bund leader spoke first, resting his hands on the table as though it helped him to concentrate on what he was about to say.
“We want you to tell the Polish and Allied governments and the great leaders of the Allies that we are helpless in the face of the German criminals. We cannot defend ourselves and no one in Poland can defend us. The Polish underground authorities can save some of us but they cannot save masses. The Germans are not trying to enslave us as they have other people; we are being systematically murdered.”
The Zionist broke in.
“This is what people do not understand. That is what is so difficult to make clear.”
I nodded my assent. The Bund leader continued:
“Our entire people will be destroyed. A few may be saved, perhaps, but three million Polish Jews are doomed. This cannot be prevented by any force in Poland, neither the Polish nor the Jewish Underground. Place this responsibility on the shoulders of the Allies. Let not a single leader of the United Nations be able to say that they did not know that we were being murdered in Poland and could not be helped except from the outside.”
This was the solemn message I carried to the world. They impressed it upon me so that it could not be forgotten. They added to it, for they saw their position with the clarity of despair. At this time more than 1,800,000 Jews had been murdered. These two men refused to delude themselves and foresaw how the United Nations might react to this information. The truth might not be believed. It might be said that this figure was exaggerated, not authentic. I was to argue, convince, do anything I could, use every available proof and testimonial, shout the truth till it could not be denied. . . .
They offered to take me to the Warsaw ghetto so that I could literally see the spectacle of people expiring, breathing its last before my eyes. They would take me into one of the many death camps where Jews were tortured and murdered by the thousands. As an eye-witness I would be much more convincing than a mere mouthpiece. At the same time they warned me that if I accepted their offer I would have to risk my life to carry it out. They told me, too, that as long as I lived I would be haunted by the memory of the ghastly scenes I would witness. . . .
Two days later I went to the Warsaw ghetto with the Bund leader and another member of the Jewish Underground....1
At one point during Karski’s visit to the Ghetto, his two escorts rushed him into an apartment building so that he could witness an “event” that he would not have believed had he not seen it for himself. They called it “the hunt.” From an upper-story window that faced the street, he saw two boys dressed in the uniform of the Hitler Youth.
They wore no caps and their blond hair shone in the sun. With their round, rosycheeked faces and their blue eyes they were like images of health and life. They chattered, laughed, pushed each other in spasms of merriment. At that moment, the younger one pulled a gun out of his hip pocket and then I first realized what I was witnessing. His eyes roamed about, seeking something. A target. He was looking for a target with the casual, gay absorption of a boy at a carnival.
I followed his glance. For the first time I noticed that all the pavements about them were absolutely deserted. Nowhere within the scope of those blue eyes, in no place from which those cheerful, healthy faces could be seen was there a single human being. The gaze of the boy with the gun came to rest on a spot out of my line of vision. He raised his arm and took careful aim. The shot rang out, followed by the noise of breaking glass and then the terrible cry of a man in agony.
The boy who had fired the shot shouted with joy. The other clapped him on the shoulder and said something to him, obviously complimentary. They smiled at each other and stood there for a moment, gay and insolent, as though aware of their invisible audience. Then they linked their arms and walked off gracefully toward the exit of the ghetto, chatting cheerfully as if they were returning from a sporting event.
I stood there, my face glued to the window. In the room behind me there was a complete silence. No one even stirred. I remained where I was, afraid to change the position of my body, to move my hand or relax my cramped legs. I was seized with such panic that I could not make the effort of will to take a single step or force a word out of my throat. It seemed to me that if I made the slightest movement, if a single muscle in my body so much as trembled, I might precipitate another scene such as I had just witnessed.
I do not know how long I remained there. Any interval could have passed, I was so completely unconscious of time. At length I felt someone’s hand on my shoulder. Repressing a nervous start, I turned around. A woman, the tenant of the apartment, was standing there, her gaunt face the color of chalk in the dim light. She gestured at me.
“You came to see us? It won’t do any good. Go back, run away. Don’t torture yourself any more.”2
Karski left the Ghetto soon after the incident but returned a few days later. He also paid a similar visit to what he thought was Belzec, a death camp. Historians later discovered that he was actually at Izbeica Lubelska, northwest of Lublin. It was a holding camp for Jews destined for Belzec which lay forty miles to the southeast. Just a few days later Karski left the country to report what he had seen and heard to the Polish government-in-exile, officials in the British and American governments, and Jewish leaders in the United States and England. He also related his experiences to some of the world’s most famous writers including H.G. Wells and Arthur Koestler. He hoped to convince them to tell the story with “greater force and talent” than he possessed. Yet everywhere, he encountered disbelief. Karski recalled:
No one was prepared to grasp what was going on. It is not true, as sometimes has been written, that I was the first one to present to the West the whole truth of the fate of the Jews in occupied Poland. There were others. . . . The tragedy was that these testimonies were not believed. Not because of ill will, but simply because the facts were beyond human imagination.
I experienced this myself. When I was in the United States and told [Supreme Court] Justice Felix Frankfurter the story of the Polish Jews, he said, at the end of our conversation, “I cannot believe you.” We were with the Polish ambassador to the US, Jan Ciechanowski. Hearing the justice’s comments, he was indignant. “Lieutenant Karski is on an official mission. My government’s authority stands behind him. You cannot say to his face that he is lying.” Frankfurter’s answer was, “I am not saying that he is lying. I only said that I cannot believe him, and there is a difference.”3
- 1 : Jan Karski, Story of a Secret State (Houghton Mifflin, 1944), 322-325.
- 2 : Ibid., 332-333.
- 3 : Quoted in Macief Kozlowski, “The Mission That Failed: A Polish Courier Who Tried to Help the Jews,” in My Brother’s Keeper? Recent Polish Debates on the Holocaust, 87-88.