Reading

Let the World Know!

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

Citations

  • 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.

Audio Version

Two Jews meet with a Polish courier during the Grossaktion Warsaw in summer 1942, imploring him to tell the world what was happening to Jews.

Connection Questions

  1. Write a working definition of the word bystander. What responsibilities do bystanders have to the victims? In 1942, were the Allies—Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union— bystanders to mass murder? Can a nation be a bystander?
  2. What is the significance of the “hunt”? Why did it paralyze Karski for a few moments? How did the incident underscore the message he had received from the two leaders?
  3. Think about Frankfurter’s statement. What is the difference between saying that someone is lying and saying that you cannot believe what he or she is saying? Why do you think he chose not to believe?
  4. Historian Leni Yahil divides knowledge into three parts: receipt of information, acknowledgment of that information, and action based on the information. What facts would have been hardest for a Polish Catholic like Karski to accept? What facts would be hardest for an American Jew of German descent like Frankfurter to accept? What do you think you personally would have had the most difficulty acknowledging: laws that set Jews and others apart as the “enemy,” the creation of the Warsaw Ghetto, the mass deportations, or the death camps? How does Yahil’s division of knowledge apply to the way people in recent years responded to the murders in Bosnia or Rwanda? How does it apply to catastrophes in other parts of the world? Do people know? Have they acknowledged the information? Have they acted on that knowledge?
  5. Many people did hear what Jan Karski and others had to say. And some wanted to help but thought it was impossible to do so in time of war. Elie Wiesel has long disagreed. How would you answer the questions he raises? To what extent was the failure to act a failure of “the human imagination”?
    I know that many will say: “It was impossible to send anything from outside. . .” Impossible? No one even tried! Had there been a hundred attempts, one might have succeeded. Can it be argued it was less dangerous for the ghetto-couriers to travel from one ghetto to another (to warn, to organize resistance, to bring assistance) than it would have been to travel to Budapest from Istanbul, and from there to Warsaw?1
  6. After the war, a Polish woman recalled two occasions when she turned away rather than help someone from the Warsaw Ghetto. Wondering if the outcome would have been different if she and others had followed their conscience, she concludes, “Possibly, even if more of us had turned out to be more Christian, it would have made no difference in the statistics of extermination, but maybe it would not have been such a lonely death.” Every major religion teaches that we are indeed “our brothers’ keepers” and yet much of history describes the way neighbors have turned against or simply away from their neighbors in times of trouble. What can history teach us about the value of our neighbors? About the way people everywhere are linked?
  1. Citations

    • 1 Elie Wiesel, Introduction to On Both Sides of the Wall by Vladka Meed, 5-6.

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