Thursday, April 18, 2024

How Poles tried to stop the Holocaust

Hungarian Jews in Auschwitz-Birkenau before being sent to gas chambers. May or June 1944. (Source: Public Domain/Wikipedia)

Detailed reports from German “death factories” and harrowing witness accounts – Poles tried to convince the Allies to stop the Holocaust but it was all in vain.

Piotr Włoczyk

Recent reports bring a horrifying picture of the situation in which Polish Jews found themselves. The new methods of mass slaughter implemented in the last few months confirm the fact that the German authorities intend to systematically exterminate the Jewish population of Poland, as well as the many thousands of Jews whom the German authorities have deported to Poland from the western and central regions of Europe, including from the German Reich itself” – Edward Raczynski, Polish Foreign Minister, wrote in December 1942 to the governments of the signatory states of the United Nations Declaration. “The Polish government considers it its duty to transmit to the governments of all civilized countries the following, fully documented, information received from Poland in recent weeks, which clearly shows the new extermination methods used by the German authorities.”

Raczynski’s Note” was the first official report on the Holocaust being carried out by the Germans. The Polish government-in-exile was anxious not only to report on the Holocaust, but also to trigger a determined reaction. As Minister Raczynski emphasized in the note, in addition to condemning the crime, the Poles expected the Allies “to find effective measures that would deter Germany from continuing its methods of mass extermination.”

The Polish government-in-exile created the note based on materials provided to London by the courier and emissary of the Polish Underground State – Jan Karski (actually Jan Kozielewski – “Karski” was only an alias). Karski’s report on the Holocaust was commissioned by Prof. Cyril Ratajski, the Government Delegate for Poland. It was an account of a visit to the Warsaw Ghetto, as well as the transit camp in Izbica, which Karski entered disguised in the uniform of a guard of the Ukrainian SS auxiliary formation.

Auschwitz I Concentration Camp (Source:

I saw terrible things. The railroad ramp, the deportation from the camp,” Jan Karski described that day years later. “Military officers, SS men, masses of Jews. I don’t know – a thousand, a thousand and a half. Children, women, old people. Stench, despair, screams: ‘Raus, rau.’ Pushing with butts into the train, if someone stumbled, they beat them with butts. Terror. A picture not from this world, people don’t even treat cattle like this (…). The last ones were forced to climb on the heads of those who had entered earlier.”

Indifferent as Roosevelt

The Polish authorities then sent Karski from London to the US. The emissary then met with the most important people in Washington. He told them not only about the situation of the Polish Underground State and the threat from the Soviet Union, but also explained the scale of the murder of the Jewish people. Almost every time, however, he was met with complete incomprehension. “Mr. Karski, a man like me, who talks to a man like you, must be totally,” said Felix Frankfurter, a U.S. Supreme Court justice in a conversation with Jan Karski. “And I’m telling you: I do not believe you.” Frankfurter – a man of Jewish descent himself – was just one of many members of the American elite who refused to give credence to Karski’s account of the Holocaust.

In late July 1943, Jan Karski finally met with Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Their conversation lasted an hour and a half. According to Karski’s account, Roosevelt was to interrupt his account of the Holocaust by saying: “We will settle the score with the Germans after the war. Mr. Karski, please correct me if I am wrong, but is Poland an agricultural country? Don’t you need horses to cultivate your land?”

Before Karski left the occupied country, Jewish activists told him that they knew it would be very difficult to prevent the Germans from carrying out the Holocaust. However, they wanted the West to make any attempt: “Let none of the leaders of the United Nations be able to say that they have not seen that we are being murdered in Poland and that only from outside can we come to our aid.”

Karski himself left no doubt about the future of the Jews living in areas occupied by the Third Reich. “If the Germans do not change their methods towards the Jewish population, if there is no Allied intervention, within a year and a half the Jewish population will cease to exist.” – he alarmed the Allies.

Arrival of Hungarian Jews in the German Nazi death camp Auschwitz, Summer 1944.(Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-N0827-318 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Throughout the occupation, the Polish Underground State sent reports to the West on the situation of the Jews. They were compiled on the basis of information provided by thousands of Poles, who often risked their own lives to reach the places of execution and pass these accounts into the hands of Home Army intelligence. Among the flood of reports on the Holocaust that reached from Poland to the government in exile and from there to the Allies, special attention should be given to the material prepared by Rotamaster Witold Pilecki. A Polish soldier who volunteered to carry out an intelligence mission at Auschwitz. One of his tasks was to organize resistance structures there. Rotamaster Pilecki allowed himself to be arrested during a round-up on the streets of Warsaw. On September 21st, 1940, he was taken to Auschwitz, where he was given the number 4859. He was imprisoned in that camp until April 27th, 1943, when he – along with two other Polish prisoners – escaped from there. While still imprisoned, Pilecki smuggled out information about the situation in the camp. After getting out, he proceeded to write an extensive report on Auschwitz.


Bombs 90 kilometers from Auschwitz

Unfortunately, Polish appeals on the Holocaust mostly met with indifference from London and Washington. This issue was thoroughly researched by American Holocaust historian David S. Wyman. The result of his work was the book The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-1945.

German control over most of Europe meant that even the most decisive Allied action would have failed to save more than one-third of those condemned to extermination,” Wyman wrote in his book. “But a serious commitment to rescue the victims would certainly have saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of these people, and without compromising the Allied countries’ wartime capabilities. The documents clearly prove that such a campaign could only be undertaken if the United States initiated it. America, on the other hand, did nothing in this regard until the final phase of the war, and even when such measures were successfully undertaken, the results were exceedingly limited.”

One of the most frequently raised issues in the debate about the possibility of influencing the scale of the Holocaust is the bombing of the railroad tracks leading to Auschwitz and the gas chambers themselves. The Allies never decided to do so.

In 1944, the U.S. War Department rejected several calls to bomb the gas chambers at Auschwitz and the railroads leading to the camp, explaining that such actions would disable much of the air force from operations in other areas critical to the course of the war,” Wyman wrote in his book. “But just a few months after this excuse, several massive bombing raids were carried out against industrial targets less than 90 kilometers from Auschwitz.”

This article was published in 2021 in “Do Rzeczy” weekly magazine