Literature of the Holocaust
maintained by Al Filreis
From The Warsaw Ghetto pp. 42-50.
"Jan Karski's Account"
[Quoted after Righteous among Nations, ed. by Zofia Lewin and Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, Earlscourt 42 Publications Ltd., London 1969.]
Before I was due to leave Poland a meeting was arranged for me ั- on the order of the Delegate of the Polish Government in London and of the Commander of the Underground Army [AK] ั- with two men who, formerly eminent in the Jewish community, were now directing the work of the Jewish Underground. One was the head of the Zionist organization, the other was the leader of the Jewish Socialist Alliance, the Bund. The latter also had the dangerous and arduous task of directing the work of a special department of the Delegate [Office] of the Polish Government which organized relief for the Jewish population and attempted to smuggle the most valuable inhabitants out of the ghetto.
We met at twilight in a huge, empty and half-ruined house in the suburbs. The fact that they were both present at the same time was significant. It meant that the material I was to be given to transmit to the Polish and Allied governments contained nothing of a political nature and was not limited to either group. It constituted the expression and contained the information, sentiments, requests, and instructions of the entire Jewish population of Poland as a unit, a population that was at the moment dying as a unit.
What I learned at the meetings we held in that house and later when I was taken to see the facts for myself, was horrible beyond description. I know history. I have learned a great deal about the evolution of nations, political systems, social doctrines, methods of conquest, persecution and extermination and I know, too, that never in the history of mankind, never anywhere in the realm of human relations did anything occur to compare with what was inflicted on the Jewish population of Poland.
The two men were unforgettable, less like men than incarnations of mass suffering and nerves strained in hopeless effort. Both lived outside the ghetto but were able, by secret means, to enter and leave it as they pleased and carry on their work there. Inside the ghetto they looked, talked and acted like other inhabitants. To carry on their tasks outside they succeeded in changing their appearance so completely as to go absolutely undetected by the keenest scrutiny. The Bund leader in particular, with his distinguished grey hair and whiskers, ruddy complexion, erect carriage, and general air of good health and refinement, passed easily as a Polish "nobleman".
Before the war he had been a well-known lawyer with an excellent reputation as an expert in criminal law. Now he appeared before the German authorities as the owner of a large store, prosperous, dignified and unruffled. How great an effort of will this pose must have necessitated I realized later when he accompanied me to the ghetto. The air of well-being and savoir-faire seemed to vanish instantly. The well-groomed Polish merchant underwent a sudden transformation and became a Jew, one of the thousands of wretched, exhausted, starving Jews that the pitiless Nazis tormented and hunted with inhuman vindictiveness.
The first thing that became clear to me as I sat there talking to them in the silence of the darkening Warsaw suburbs was the complete hopelessness of their predicament. For them, for the suffering Polish Jews, this was the end of the world. There was no possible escape for them or their fellows. This, too, was only part of the tragedy, only partially the cause of their despair and agony. They were not afraid of death itself, and, indeed, accepted it as something almost inevitable. Added to this realization was the bitter knowledge that in this war, for them, there could be no hope of any victory whatsoever, none of the satisfaction which sometimes softens the prospect of death. The Zionist leader made it clear to me at once.
"You other Poles are fortunate," he began. "You are suffering too. Many of you will die, but at least your nation goes on living. After the war Poland will be resurrected. Your cities will be rebuilt and your wounds will slowly heal. From this ocean of tears, pain, rage and humiliation your country will emerge again, but the Polish Jews will no longer exist. We will be dead. Hitler will lose his war against the human, the just, and the good, but he will win his war against the Polish Jews. No -- it will not be a victory; the Jewish people will be murdered....
"What's the good of talking? What reason do I have to go on living? I ought to go to the Germans and tell them who I am. If all the Jews are killed they won't need any leaders... But it's no use telling you all this. No one in the outside world can possibly understand. You don't understand. Even I don't understand, for my people are dying and I am alive."
The older man tried to calm him, laying one hand on his shoulder, while the other clenched and unclenched nervously at his side.
"We have work to do," he said, "and very little time to do it. We have to talk to the point."
There was a pause while the Zionist leader struggled to regain his self-control. At length he smiled wistfully and apologized.
I told him that his apology was needless and that there was no need to worry about offending me by being over-emotional. I understood how things were. "I am here to help, if I can," I added. "I will be in London soon and in a position to obtain audiences with Allied authorities."
"Will you really?" The Zionist leader interjected hopefully. "Do you think you will get to see Roosevelt and Churchill?"
"Perhaps. Or if not, then certainly someone close to them. I am going on an official mission on behalf on the Polish Underground, I will be accredited by the Polish Government in London. My status will be official and you must give me your official message to the outside world. You are the leaders of the Jewish Underground. What do you want me to say?"
They hesitated for a moment as if to consider all that they had to say and to select their phrases that were closest to their true feelings, that expressed their plight and their desires most significantly. 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 so enslave us as they have other peoples; we are being systematically murdered."
The Zionist broke in:
"That is what people do not understand. That is what is so difficult to make clear."
I nodded my assent. The Bund leader continued: I
"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 that 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 had prepared me an exact statistical account of the Jewish mortality in Poland. I needed some particulars.
"Could you give me," I asked, "the approximate figures of the murder of the ghetto population?"
"The exact figure can be very nearly computed from the German deportation orders," the Zionist leader informed me.
"You mean that every one of those who were presumably deported was actually killed?"
"Every single one," the Bund leader asserted. "Of course, the Germans kept up a pretense that this was not so. Even now, when there can be no doubt, letters are received from people whom we know to be dead, cheerful letters in which they inform their families and friends that they are healthy, working and living on meat and white bread. But we know the truth, and we can put you in a position to confirm it with your own eyes."
"When did these deportations begin?"
"The first deportation order came in July. The German authorities demanded five thousand persons a day. They were supposed to be sent out of Warsaw to work. They were sent to the death camps. It was then raised to six, seven and finally to ten thousand a day. When Czerniakow, an engineer who was Chairman of the Jewish Council, received the Germans' demand for ten thousand people daily to report for 'work', he committed suicide. He knew what it meant."
"How many were 'deported' altogether?"
"Over three hundred thousand. More than one hundred thousand are left and the deportations are still going on."
I turned pale. It was now the beginning of October 1942. In two and a half months, in one district in Poland, the Nazis had committed three hundred thousand murders. It was, indeed, the report of an unprecedented species of criminality that I had to bring to the outside world. But my report was not merely to be based on their uncorroborated word-of-mouth stories.
They offered to take me to the Warsaw ghetto so that I could literally see the spectacle of a 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.
I told them that I had to see these things for myself. I hoped to reach the other side of the barricade and to have an opportunity to convince what was left of the civilized world of the facts. Unless I had first-hand acquaintance with what I had to report, I did not feel equal to the task.
It was settled, then, that as soon as possible, arrangements should be made for these visits to take place. I was to return to this house again to continue our discussion of how l could most effectively present their case to the rest of the world. I left them still standing in the nebulous, wavering light, two dejected shadows that wished me good night with a feeble warmth that denoted a trust in my person rather than any confidence in our enterprise.
When I returned again the scene and their persons had altered as little as the circumstances they described. No more fitting place for our conversation could have been imagined -- the desolate ruin of a house, the dismal silence interrupted only by our voices and the moaning wind that seemed constantly on the verge of extinguishing the candle that cast wan, irregular patches of light into the blackness.
For a while we discussed my forthcoming trip to the ghetto, disposing mechanically of details like my attire and behaviour as though we were pushing them out of the way of more important topics. Finally I asked them what they wanted me to say to the British and American authorities if they asked me how they could help. The answer I got was bitter and realistic. They talked like men who knew that most of the proposals they had to make could not be put into execution, who did not even hope they would be executed, but who had to offer them as the only possible means of putting an end to the suffering of their people.
The Zionist leader spoke first:
"Germany can be impressed only by power and violence. The cities of Germany ought to be bombed mercilessly and with every bombing leaflets should be dropped informing the Germans fully of the fate of the Polish Jews, and we ought to threaten the entire German nation with a similar fate both during and after the war. We do not believe in and do not aim at a slaughter of the German people, but such a threat is the only possible way to check the German atrocities. Such a warning backed up by force might frighten the German people into putting enough pressure on their leaders to make them change their practices. Nothing else will."
"'We know," the Bund leader added, "that possibly this plan cannot be carried out, that it cannot fit into Allied military strategy, but we can't help that. The Jews and those who wish to help them cannot afford to approach this war from a purely military standpoint. Tell the Allied Governments if they want to help us to issue official declarations to the German Government and people telling them that the consequences of continued persecution will be mass reprisals, the systematic destruction of the entire German nation."
"I understand," I said, "I will do my best to tell them and make them understand what you have told me."
We demand still more, said the Zionist leader. "Hitler has said that all Germans wherever they live or whatever they think, are one compact racial group. He is conducting a total war against civilization and his avowed purpose is to destroy the Jews completely. It is an unprecedented situation in history and can be dealt with only by unprecedented methods. Let the Allied Governments, wherever their hand can reach, in America, England and Africa, begin public executions of Germans, any they can get hold of. That is what we demand."
"But that is utterly fantastic." I said. "A demand like that will only confuse and horrify all those who are sympathetic with you."
"Of course," the Zionist answered. "Do you think I don't know it? We ask it because it is the only rebuttal to what is being done to us. We do not dream of its being fulfilled, but nevertheless we demand it. We demand it so people will know how we feel about what is being done tous, how helpless we are, how desperate our plight is, how little we stand to gain from an Allied victory as things are now."
They paused for a moment as if to let the knowledge of their true condition sink into me. I felt tired and feverish. More and more these two frantic figures pacing the floor in the shadowy room, their steps echoing in the hollow silence, seemed like apparitions, their glances filled with a burden of despair, pain and hopelessness they could never completely express. Their voices were pitched very low, they hissed, they whispered, and yet I continually had the illusion that they were roaring. It seemed to me that I was listening to an earthquake, that was hearing cracking, tearing sounds of the earth opening to swallow a portion of humanity. One could hear the cries and shouts of the frantic people falling into the chasm.
"It is impossible," they hissed, raising their fists as if threatening all those who were on the other side of the barricade. "The democracies cannot calmly put up with the assertion that the Jewish people in Europe cannot be saved. If American and British citizens can be saved, why can't evacuation of even the Jewish children be arranged on a large scale, of Jewish women, of the sick, the old? Offer the Germans an exchange. Offer them money. Why can't the lives of a few thousand Polish Jews be bought by the Allies?"
"How? How can this be done?" I asked, bewildered by these turbulent, desperate suggestions. "It is contrary to all war strategy. Can we give our enemies money, can we give them back their soldiers to use against us in the front line?"
"That's just it. That's what we're up against; Everybody tells us, 'This is contrary to the strategy of this war,' but strategy can be changed, strategy can be adjusted. Let's adjust it to include the rescue of a fraction of the unhappy Jewish people. Why does the world let us all die? Haven't we contributed our share to culture, to civilization? Haven't we worked and fought and bled? Why do they fight for all the others?. Why was it never said that strategy and tactics would be changed to correspond to the methods applied by the Germans to the Jewish population?'"
I stood up suddenly.
"What plan of action do you want me to suggest to the Jewish leaders in England and America? They have something to say about the course of this war. They can act for you."
The Bund leader came up to me in silence. He gripped my arm with such violence that it ached. I looked into his wild, staring eyes with awe, moved by the deep, unbearable pain in them.
"Tell the Jewish leaders that this is no case for politics or tactics. Tell them that the earth must be shaken to its foundation, the world must be aroused. Perhaps then it will wake up, understand, perceive. Tell them that they must find the strength and courage to make sacrifices no other statesmen have ever had to make, sacrifices as painful as the fate of my dying people, and as unique. This is what they do not understand. German aims and methods are without precedent in history. The democracies must react in a way that is also without precedent, choose unheard-of methods as an answer. If not, their victory will be only partial, only a military victory. Their methods will not preserve what the enemy includes in his programme of destruction. Their methods will not preserve us."
He paused, and for the first time released my arm from his grip. He paced about for a moment nervously and then came to a halt in front of me. He spoke slowly and with great deliberation as though each word were costing him an effort.
You ask me what plan of action I suggest to the Jewish leaders. Tell them to go to all the important English and American offices and agencies. Tell them not to leave until they obtain guarantees that a way has been decided upon to save the Jews. Let them accept no food or drink, let them die a slow death while the world is looking on. Let them die. This may shake the conscience of the world."
I sank into my arm-chair. My whole body felt chilled and sore. I was shivering and I felt the pulse in my temples pounding. I rose to go.
"One moment more," the Zionist leader said. "This we did not intend to tell you, but I want you to know it. We do not demand such sacrifices from our leaders abroad out of cruelty. We expect to make them here ourselves. The ghetto is going to go up in flames. We are not going to die in slow torment, but fighting. We will declare war on Germany -- the most hopeless declaration of war that has ever been made."
The Bund leader appeared startled at first and then bent towards me to add his confirmation. He whispered delicately as if afraid that someone was lurking behind the wall or that the wind might take up his words and scatter them so that the plan would come prematurely to the ears of the Gestapo.
"We are organizing a defense of the ghetto," the words trickled slowly from his pursed lips, "not because we think it can be defended, but to let the world see the hopelessness of our battle -- as a demonstration and a reproach. We are even now negotiating with your commander for the arms we need. If we get them, then one of these days, the deportation squad is going to get a bloody surprise."
"We shall see," the Zionist concluded, "whether we Jews can still obtain the right to die fighting and not -- as Hitler has ordered -- to die suffering."
Story of an expedition to the ghetto taken from Claude Lanzmann's film Shoah (retranslated from the Polish script).
Suddenly he [the Bund leader] had an idea: "Pan Witold, I know the West. You will be negotiating with the British, you'll pass on to them your oral report. I'm sure it's going to sound more convincing if you can tell them, 'I saw it.' We can arrange a visit to the ghetto for you. Is that all right? If so, I shall go with you and take care of your safety."...
There was a tunnel dug under that building the back wall of which formed part of the ghetto wall and with its facade looking onto the Aryan side; we negotiated it with no trouble. And suddenly we found ourselves in a completely different world. The Bund leader who until recently had looked like a Polish nobleman suddenly stooped like a ghetto Jew, as if he had been there for ever. This was his nature, his world. We were passing the streets, him on my left, and we did not talk much. There were naked, corpses lying in the streets. I asked: "Why are they lying there?" He answered: "That's a problem. When a Jew dies and the family want to bury him, they have to pay. They have no money and so they throw their dead out into the street. Every bit of rag has its value and that's why they strip them of their clothes. When the naked bodies are in the street, they become the business of the Jewish Council."
Women breast-feeding infants in full view of everyone. Only they have no breasts... their chests are completely flat there. Infants with eyes of madmen are looking at us. This was not this world, this was not mankind.
The streets are crowded, filled, as if everybody lived outdoors. They are displaying their poor riches, everyone is trying to sell whatever he or she has: three onions, two onions,' a couple of tacks. Everybody is selling something, everybody is begging. Hunger. Terrible children. Children running by themselves, children sitting by their mothers. This was not mankind, it was a kind of hell.
Through this part of the central ghetto German officers used to pass. Off duty German officers made a shortcut walking across the ghetto. So uniformed Germans were walking. Dead silence fell. Everybody was watching them passing, frozen with fear, with no movement, not a word. The Germans were contemptuous, you could sense that they did not regard those dirty subhumans as human beings. Suddenly panic broke out. Jews were fleeing from the streets we were walking along. We were rushing towards one of the houses, my companion murmured, "The door -- open the door' -- someone opened it and we entered. We were hurrying to the windows facing the street. Then we were going back to the door and the woman standing by it. He said, "Don't be afraid, we're Jews." He pushed me towards the window, "Look." Two boys with nice faces and wearing Hitlerjugend uniforms were passing. They were talking. With each step they made, the Jews scattered, vanished. And they continued talking. Suddenly one of them reached into his pocket and without a moment's hesitation fired a shot. The sound of broken glass, the howling of a man. The other one congratulated him and they went away.
I was standing stock-still. And then the Jewish woman who must have realized that I was not Jewish embraced me, "Go away, it's not for you. go away."
We left the house and we left the ghetto. He told me, "You didn't see all. Do you want to come back? I shall come with you, I want you to see everything."
We returned the following day through the same building. This time the shock was not so great and I noticed other things. Stench, dirt. Suffocating stench. Dirty streets. The atmosphere of excitement, tension, frenzy. This was Muranowski Square. In one corner children were playing with rags. They were throwing rags at each other. He said. "Look, children are playing. Life goes on." I answered, "They are not playing, they are only pretending." Nearby there were several sickly trees. We were walking farther talking to no one. We walked like that for about an hour. Occasionally he stopped me, "Look at this Jew," a man standing motionless. I asked, "Is he still alive?" -- "Oh yes, he's alive all right," he replied. "Pan Witold, please remember, he is in the process of dying. He is just dying. Look at him, please, and tell them over there. You saw, him, please remember." We went on. Horror! From time to time he whispered, "You must remember this, and this, and that. And this woman." Often I asked him, "What is happening to these people?" He answered, "They're dying. Don't forget. Please remember."
This went on for about half an hour, and then we turned back. I could not stand it any longer. "Please take me out." I did not see him any more. I was ill. Even now I do not want any more. I can understand what you are doing and therefore I am here. But I had not gone back to my memories. I couldn't any longer.
I conveyed my report and I told them what I had seen. It had not been the world that I had seen. It had not been mankind. I wasn't there, I didn't belong there. I had never before seen anything like that. And no one had described such reality. Nor shown it in a drama or a film.
This was not the world. I was told they were human beings but they did not recall human beings any longer. . |
We left, he embraced me. "Good luck." I answered, "Good luck." I never saw him again.
I reported my experiences to outstanding members of the British and American governments, and to the Jewish leaders of both continents. I told what I had seen in the ghetto to some of the world's greatest writers -- to H.G. Wells, Arthur Koestler, members of the P.E.N. Club -- as they could describe it with greater force and talent than I. I told it to others, too less well-known and to one in particular, who will never be heard from again.
In London, five weeks later, a meeting was arranged for me. To me, it was one of innumerable such meetings and not the most important. Since my arrival in London I had been swamped with literally hundreds of conferences, conversations, contacts, and reports. I had been involved in them from 9 a.m. to midnight every day, with hardly a respite or an intermission except for absolute necessities. This time I expected one of the leaders of the Jewish Bund. His name was Szmul Zygelbojm. He had been in Poland until 1940, had worked in the Jewish Underground, had been a member of the Council of the Warsaw ghetto and had, I believe, even been held for a time as a hostage by the Nazis.
We were to meet in the Stratton House, near Piccadilly, a noisy beehive of a building in the street of the same name, the seat of the Polish Ministry of the Interior. When I entered one of the small rooms Zygelbojm was already there, sitting in an office chair and waiting quietly. I was tired and studied him casually while we introduced ourselves. Since the war I had had to deal, without exaggeration, with thousands of people and always with an insufficient amount of time. Consequently, I had had to learn to size up character at a glance. It had become a fixed habit with me to define quickly the mentality and habits of anyone I met so as to do my work most effectively in the shortest possible time.
To me, Zygelbojm looked like a type I had often encountered among Jewish leaders. He had the hard, suspicious glance of the proletarian, the self-made man who could not be cajoled, and was constantly on the alert for falsehood. His early life had probably been severe -- he may have started out by running errands for a tailor or perhaps had been a street cleaner, I shall have to be careful and exact, I thought.
"What do you want to hear about?" I asked.
"About Jews, my dear man. I am a Jew. Tell me what you know about the Jews in Poland."
"Are you entitled to see the material I received at the joint conferences with the leaders of the Jewish Bund and the Zionists?"
"Yes, I am. I represent the Jewish Bund in the Polish National Council and I was one of the leaders of the Bund in Poland." | I began my story in a cut-and-dried fashion. I had finally, after much experience, mastered a kind of formula for these situations. I had found that, on the whole, the most effective way of getting my material across was not to soften or interpret it, but to convey it as directly as possible, reproducing not merely ideas and instructions but the language, gestures and nuances of those from whom the material came. That was my job -- faithful, concrete reproduction.
Zygelbojm listened intently, thirstily, with an avid desire for information it was impossible to satisfy. He sat rigidly with his legs apart and braced, his body inclined forward, a hand on each knee. His dark, wide-open eyes were staring fixedly at a point on the ceiling far behind me. They never blinked. The expression on his face hardly varied, not a muscle of it moving except for the occasional contortion of his cheek in a nervous tic.
Conditions are horrible. The people in the ghetto live in constant agony, a lingering, tormenting death," I was reciting almost by rote. "The instructions their leaders gave me cannot be carried out for political and tactical reasons. I spoke to the British authorities. The answer was the one your leaders in Poland told me to expect -- 'No, it is impossible, it can't be done'."
Zygelbojm rose abruptly and advanced a step or two toward me. His eyes snapped with anger and contempt. He dismissed what I had just told him with a sharp wave of his hand that made me feel as though I had been slapped in rebuke.
"Listen," he almost shouted. "I didn't come here to talk to you about what is happening here. Don't tell me what is said and done here. I know that myself. I came to you to hear about what is happening there, what they want there, what they say there!"
I answered with brutal simplicity and directness.
"Very well, then. This is what they want from their leaders in the free countries of the world, this is what they told me to say: 'Let them go to all the important English and American offices and agencies. Tell them not to leave until they obtain guarantees that a way has been decided upon to save the Jews. Let them accept no food or drink, let them die a slow death while the world is looking on. Let them die. This may shake the conscience of the world'."
Zygelbojm started as though he had been bitten and began to pace around the room agitatedly, almost breaking into a run. Worried lines formed between his contracted eyebrows and he held one hand to his head as though it ached.
"It is impossible," he finally said, "utterly impossible. You know what would happen. They would simply bring in two policemen and have me dragged away to an institution. Do you think they will let me die a slow, lingering death? Never... they would never let me."
We talked at great length. I gave him all the details of my instructions. I told him all I knew about the Jews in Poland and all I had seen. He asked innumerable questions, wanted more and more concrete and even trivial details. Possibly he felt that if the picture I gave him was clear and minute enough, he could suffer together with them, be united with them...
I did my best to satisfy his thirst for facts and details, emptying my memory of everything that it had stored up for just such an occasion. At the end of the interview I was utterly fatigued, my powers of response, completely sapped. He looked even more tired, his eyes nearly starting out of their sockets and the tic occurring with increasing frequency. We shook hands, Zygelbojm gazing directly into my eyes, intent and questioning.
"Mr. Karski, I'll do everything I can to help them. Everything! I'll do everything they demand -- if only I am given a chance. You believe me, don't you?"
My answer was rather cold and impatient. I felt tired, frustrated, strained. So many interviews, so many meetings...
"Of course I believe you. I feel certain you will do all you can and all they demand. My God, every single one of us tries to do his best."
At the bottom, I think, I felt that Zygelboim was boasting or, at least, thoughtlessly promising more than he could perform. I felt nettled, harassed. He asked so many needless questions which had no place in the interview. "Do I believe?" What difference did it make if I did or did not? I no longer knew what I believed and what I did not believe. He had no right to perplex me further. I had enough of my own troubles...
Some weeks later I had all but forgotten Zygelbojm in the endless grind of interviews and meetings. I was sitting in my room in Dolphin Square during a brief respite, resting, when the telephone rang. I deliberately let it ring three or four times and then picked up the receiver reluctantly. It was an employee of the Stratton House.
"Mr. Karski, I was told to inform you that Szmul Zygelbojm, a member of the Polish National Council and representative of the Bund in London, committed suicide yesterday. He left some notes, saying that he did all he could to help the Jews in Poland but failed, that all his brothers will perish and that he is joining them. He turned on the gas in his apartment."
I hung up.
At first I felt nothing at all, then a wave of mingled shock, grief and guilt. I felt as though I had personally handed Zygelbojm his death warrant, even though I had been only the instrument. Painfully, it occurred to me that he might have found my answer to his last question cold and unsympathetic. I had become, I thought to myself, so cynical, so quick and harsh in my judgment that I could no longer estimate the degree of self-sacrifice possible to a man like Zygelbojm. For days afterwards I felt all my confidence in myself and in my work vanishing and I deliberately forced myself to work twice as hard in order to avoid these intolerable reflections.
Since then I have often thought about Szmul Zygelbojm, one of the most tragic victims of this war and its horrors. For Zygelbojm's death did not have a shadow of conclusion. It was self-imposed and utterly hopeless. I wonder now how many people can understand what it means to die as he did for a cause that would be victorious, yet with the certain knowledge that victory would not stave off the sacrifice of his people, the annihilation of all that was most meaningful to him. Of all the deaths that have taken place in the war, surely Zygelbojm's is one of the most frightening, the sharpest revelation of the extent to which the world has become cold and unfriendly, nations and individuals separated by immense gulfs of indifference, selfishness and convenience. All too plainly, it marks the fact that the domination of mutual suspicion, estrangement, and lack of sympathy has progressed so far that even those who wish and strive for a remedy by every possible means are powerless and able to accomplish pitifully little.
Szmul [Arthur] Zyg[i]elbojm (1895ั1943) -- a worker, leader of the Bund and a member of its central authorities, from 1927 to 1935 councillor of the City of Warsaw (1938ัof the City of Lodz) on behalf of the Bund, voluntary participant in the defense of the capital in September 1939. Following the entry of the Germans into Warsaw, he tried to carry on overt social work among the Jews but, persuaded by the Bund, he left illegally for London at the end of 1939 where he represented the Bund in the Polish National Council until his death. He explained the motives for his suicide in a letter addressed to President Raczkiewicz and General Sikorski:
"I take the liberty of sending you my last words and through your intermediary to the Polish Government and to the Polish people, to the governments and peoples of all Allied States and to the conscience of the world. From the latest reports received from Poland it is clear that the Germans are now destroying with terrible ferocity the remaining Jews still living there.
"Within the ghetto walls the last act of tragedy, unprecedented in history, is now being played: The responsibility for the crime of murdering the whole Jewish population of Poland rests in the first place upon the murderers themselves but indirectly it rests also upon all humanity, the governments and peoples of the Allied States which have not yet undertaken any concrete action to stop this crime. By passively watching the extermination of millions of defenseless children, women and men being tortured to death, those countries become accomplices of the murderers.
"I also wish to declare that although the Polish Government has contributed to a large extent towards influencing world opinion, it has done nothing commensurate with the scale of the drama now taking place in Poland. Out of some 3,500,000 Polish Jews and 700,000 Jews deported to Poland from other countries, only 300,000 remained alive in April 1943, according to information from the leader of the underground Bund organization transmitted to us by the Government's Delegates. And the extermination continues without pause.
"I cannot remain silent. I cannot go on living when the remnants of the Jewish people in Poland of whom I am a representative are being eliminated. My comrades in the Warsaw ghetto died with arms in hand in their last heroic stand. It was not my destiny to perish as they did and with them. But I belong to them and to their mass graves.
"By my death I want to express my strongest protest against the passivity with which the world looks on and permits the extermination of the Jewish people. I know how little human life means in our times but since I could do nothing when alive, perhaps by my death I can help destroy the indifference of those who could save, perhaps at the last moment, those Polish Jews who are still alive.
"My life belongs to the Jewish people in Poland and that is why I am giving it to them. My wish is that the remnants of the several million Polish Jews may live to see liberation in a world of freedom and socialist justice, together with the Polish people. I believe that there will be such a Poland and that such a world will come.
"I am certain that you, Mr. President and Mr. Prime Minister, will transmit my words to all to whom they are addressed and that the Polish Government will immediately take appropriate action in the diplomatic field for the sake of those who are still alive. I send my farewell to everyone and everything that I hold dear and that I have loved.
London, May 1943"
Jan Karski is the pseudonym of Jan Kozielewski, an official of the pre-war Ministry of Foreign Affairs, now a professor at Georgetown University in Washington. During the occupation, Kozielewski served as liaison officer of the Command of the Home Army and the Delegate's Office in Poland to the Government-in-Exile. In the autumn of 1942, that is after the first large-scale deportation from the Warsaw ghetto, he went to London as a courier of the Home Army in order to report on the situation in Poland. The effects of his account can be gathered from an official note of the BIP on a conversation on March 24th, 1943 with Jerzy Lerski (pseudonym "Jur"), a parachutist sent from England to Poland: "The documents brought by W. ["Witold"ั one of the pseudonyms used by Kozielewski in the Home Army] caused a great sensation, the international effects of which are known as the 'Campaign for the Jews'."
In 1944 Karski published in Boston (Houghton Mifflin Co.) his book Story of a Secret State written in 1943, which figured on the list of best-sellers for a long time. In 1948 a French translation was published in Paris under the title Mon temoignage devant le monde.
The younger of Karski's two collocutors was most probably Menachem Kirszenbaum, the president of the Underground Jewish National Committee; the older was Leon Fajner (Feiner; "Mikotaj", "Berezowski"; 1888-1945), a Cracow lawyer, during the occupation the representative of the Bund to the civilian authorities of the Polish Underground collaborating with the Polish Government in London, member of the Council for Aid to Jews.
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