Unless correspondents ask us not to, this Website will post selected letters that it receives and invite open debate.
writes from Canberra, Australia, Monday, July 31, 2000
More problems with believing Jan Karski
I would like to comment on the correspondence concerning the veracity of the late Jan Karski's claim to have witnessed the extermination camp Belzec in the Autumn of 1942, and to have brought a message from from two Jewish leaders in Poland to Polish-Jewish leaders in exile in Britain.
It is certain that Karski was a courier for the Polish underground, and that he did come to London from Poland at the end of 1942 bearing messages from the underground to the Polish Government-in-Exile.
However, the questions that are still open are:-
Investigation of the background to Karski's account given in his 1944 book "Story of a Secret State" raises doubts about his claims. His 1944 account seems to have its origin in a report written in late 1942 by the two Jewish members of the Polish National Council in London, Zygielbojm and Schwarzbart. This report was sent by diplomatic pouch to the Polish embassy in Washington, which passed it on to the Jewish Labor Committee.
The report purports to be an eye-witness account written in the first person, by an unnamed narrator. It was published in the 1 March 1943 edition of "The Ghetto Speaks", a newsletter produced by the US branch of the General Jewish Workers Union of Poland affiliated with the Bund, and again in the 1943 book "The Black Book of Polish Jewry".
The narrator of the Zygielboim/Schwarzbart account states that only a small number of Jews remain alive out of the three and one half million Jews of Poland and the five to seven hundred thousand who had been brought there from other German-occupied countries, and that "it is not any longer a question of oppressing Jews, but of their complete extermination by all kinds of especially devised and perfected methods of pain and torture".
The narrator continues: "In Warsaw I saw the first part [of the deportations].and later on the outskirts of Belzec the second and last part." He says that the first lap of the journey of the deportees lasts from two to eight days, and ends at a "sorting point" ("oboz rozdzielczy") "located about fifty kilometers from the city of Belzec".
The narrator then states: "In the uniform of a Polish policeman I visited the sorting camp near Belzec. It is a huge barracks, only about half of which is covered with a roof. When I was there about five thousand men and women were in the camp. However every few hours new transports of Jews, men and women, young and old, would arrive for the last journey toward death."
After describing how the guards keep shooting at the throng, the narrator states that the Jews are crammed into cattle cars and either left to die there or taken to nearby Belzec, where they are killed by poison gas or electric currents. They are only taken to Belzec "because there are not enough cars to kill the Jews in this relatively inexpensive manner". The corpses are said to be burned near Belzec; "thus, within an area of fifty kilometres huge stakes are burning Jewish corpses day and night".
The question that immediately arises is whether the narrator of the Zygielbojm/Schwarzbart account actually was Karski, or perhaps some other person, or perhaps was entirely fictional.
One scholar, David Engel, has questioned whether Karski did meet with Jewish leaders so soon after his arrival in London ("The Western Allies and the Holocaust: Jan Karski's Mission to the West, 1942-44", Holocaust and Genocide Studies 5, no. 4 , 1990, pp. 363-380). He believes that Karski did not meet the Jewish leaders until months after his arrival in Britain, since the emphasis of his mission was on the Polish underground, not on carrying messages for the Jews.
If Engel is correct, then Karski cannot have been the narrator of the Zygielbojm/Schwarzbart account, and the likelihood is that the narrator is fictional, a device used by the two Jewish leaders to lend urgency and credence to their account which they may have concocted from a variety of sources.
Engel's opinion is important, since he discovered and published an earlier report by Karski, made early in 1940 to the Polish Government-in-Exile in Angers. This report details an underground mission to Poland in late 1939, to determine how the Poles were reacting to both German and Soviet occupation. It is quite anti-Semitic in some ways, as it accuses a portion of the Jews in the Soviet-occupied zone of having betrayed Poland by welcoming the Soviet invader. In fact, it predicts an eventual bloody revenge against the Jews by Polish patriots.
Interestingly, in this 1940 report Karski claimed to have visited a camp at Belzec in December 1939. This was a transit camp for Jews trying to cross the demarcation line into the Soviet-occupied zone. He describes the Jews slowly freezing in the bitter winter weather, as "red" and "blue".
If Engel is right, and Karski was not the narrator of the Zygielbojm / Schwarzbart account of December 1942, then it is entirely possible that the self-promoting account Karski published in "Story of a Secret State" is entirely fictional. It may well be that he took on the role of the narrator, as part of a propaganda ploy by the Polish Government-in-Exile, and based his story on the above account, except that he located the camp supposedly visited in Belzec itself, for dramatic effect. He may have been led to do so because he had been, or claimed to have been, in Belzec in December 1939.
It has long been obvious that Karski's account of "Belzec" differs markedly from that given in establishment history. Wood and Jankowski try to resolve the anomalies by claiming that Karski was indeed the mysterious narrator of the Zygielbojm / Schwarzbart account, and that he did really visit the "sorting camp" described, which they locate at Izbica Lubelska, some 40 kilometres from Belzec, on the railway from Lublin.
The only problem with this identification is that if Karski had indeed visited Belzec in December 1939, he would have known that the place he visited in 1942 was not Belzec. Therefore his location of the camp in Belzec in "Story of a Secret State" would not have been merely a mistake, but rather a deliberate lie. However, one mystery is why Karski, in developing his story of penetrating the Belzec death camp as used in his book, entirely omitted any reference to gas-chambers, which had been mentioned in the Zygielbojm / Schwarzbart account; after all, by 1944 descriptions of gas-chambers had become quite widespread.
It should be noted that the Polish Commission's 1946 report on Belzec, published in "German Crimes in Poland", does refer to a transit camp at Izbica. It states (Vol. II, p. 94): "A transit camp was organised in the town of Izbica, from where the Jews were also sent to Belzec" . However, it does not give any evidence for the conclusion that Jews from that transit camp were sent to Belzec, rather than to other destinations.
The above-mentioned 1943 book "The Black Book of Polish Jewry" contains a second eye-witness report (pp 331-2) of a death camp stated to be near Belzec. Wood and Jankowski follow their usual line in claiming that this eyewitness report is also by Karski; however, the "Black Book" states that the account was by a Pole who escaped from Poland in February 1943, so it cannot be Karski who arrived in London at the end of 1942. The unnamed Pole states that he visited the Warsaw Ghetto twice, the first time in October 1942 and the second in January 1943; obviously inconsistent with Karski's claim. He also says he had "occasion to be in the Concentration Camp for Jews 12 miles outside of Belzec near Lublin".
This account by an unnamed Polish observer gives a description of the Belzec camp that replicates many of the features of the Zygielbojm / Schwarzbart account and also Karski's account in "Secret State"; most likely it is based on Zygielbojm / Schwarzbart. The most interesting feature of this account is that it states that the Jews in the camp were loaded into trains which headed "north"; the observer does not know where. He surmises that the cars were shunted off into a field somewhere and the human freight perished, their bodies being used for the manufacture of fertiliser.
Now, if these trains were heading from the camp "12 miles outside of Belzec" to an extermination camp in Belzec itself, then the camp outside Belzec must have lain to the south, since the trains were heading "north". Accordingly, that camp from which trains carrying Jews departed cannot have been Izbica Lubelska, which lies to the north of Belzec, on the railway line leading to Lublin. Conversely, if this camp lay to the north of Belzec, i.e. near Izbica, then the trains were moving away from Belzec, toward Lublin; a train travelling from Izbica to Belzec moves southward, not northward. It is unlikely that the northward-moving trains went all the way to Lublin; it is more likely that they branched off to the east and crossed the Bug River into the Occupied Eastern Territories, either on the west-east line leading through Zamosc or on the west-east line further to the north leading through Chelm.
In any case, the camp outside Belzec, if it is the same one appearing in the Zygielbojm / Schwarzbart account, cannot be Izbica-Lubelska since it is in the wrong position. Accordingly, the Wood / Jankowski attempt to rescue Karski's reputation by claiming that he was describing a camp at Izbica Lubelska simply does not hold water.
Finally, it seems to me that although the Zygielbojm / Schwarzbart account contains a massive historical error in that it claims that the Jews deported from the Warsaw Ghetto travelled via Lublin toward Belzec (they actually travelled north-eastward on the line leading to Bialystok), it nevertheless has some historical value in that it demonstrates the existence of largish "Durchgangslager" in the Generalgouvernment through which Polish Jews were channelled as part of the process of deportation to the east. The description as a "sorting camp" is significant; that implies a place where some sort of selection was made, perhaps into the 40% of employables, who would continue their journey to the east, and the 60% of unemployables who would be taken somewhere to be liquidated, as described in the Goebbels diary entry of 27 March 1942.
My own opinion is that the Durchgangslager described in the Zygielbojm/Schwarzbart account was actually located at Malkinia, the railway junction through which Jews deported from Warsaw were channelled. That would be consistent with the map in Wiernik's 1944 pamphlet "A Year in Treblinka", showing a camp labelled Treblinka (perhaps mistakenly) situated on the Warsaw-Bialystok mainline.
Mr Mills is an Australian civil servant and an expert on the Holocaust.
Related items on this website:
In Defence of Jan Karski | Ted O'Keefe adds his two ha'porth | Heath replies to O'Keefe | Jan Karski Dies: Pole who brought word of Holocaust | O'Keefe responds to Heath on Belzec | Lowdown on the late Jan Karski | Ted O'Keefe adds more