How did the free world stand idly by during the Holocaust? This question is one that continues to echo today.
For many years it was commonly thought that the "Final Solution" was shrouded in secrecy, as it was indeed planned to be by Nazi Germany. Yet Information regarding the mass murder of Jews in Europe began to reach the free world soon after these actions began.
What did this information entail and how did it reach the "outside world"? In this episode of "On the Holocaust", Yad Vashem's podcast, Dr. David Silberklang will discuss these issues, as well as present the unique story of - Jan Karski who made it his mission to change that. He walked into Hell and back to tell the world what was happening to the Jewish people.
And the World Remained Silent: the Allies and the Holocaust- Part I
[00:08] Nate Nelson: “For long, long months, we tormented ourselves in the midst of our suffering with the questions: Does the world know about our suffering? And if it knows, why is it silent? Why is the world not stirred when tens of thousands of Jews are shot in Ponary? Why is the world silent when tens of thousands of Jews are poisoned in Chelmno? Why is the world silent when hundreds of thousands of Jews are massacred in Galicia and in other newly occupied areas?”
These words I just quoted were written on June 27th 1942, in the Warsaw Ghetto, by historian and community leader Dr. Emmanuel Ringelblum, who was the founder and director of the ghetto’s clandestine “Oneg Shabbat” archives. In them, Ringelblum expresses the question that tormented him and others at the time: Why, faced with the atrocities being committed against the Jews of Europe, did the world remain silent? The question plagued many throughout the war and it has continued to echo ever since, particularly as it became known that Allied government leaders, led by the United States, Great Britain, and the USSR, were receiving reliable information that the Germans were not just killing Jews, but systematically killing Jews en masse at a relatively early stage in the war. Yet the Holocaust continued for years after, largely uninterrupted.
Why did the free world stand by, as an entire people were being exterminated? The reasons are, as one might expect, quite complicated. We’ll need two podcast episodes to even just scratch the surface.
Hi, I’m Nate Nelson. Welcome to “On the Holocaust” from Yad Vashem. For this, and the following episode of our program, Dr. David Silberklang, Senior Historian at the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, will be explaining why the Allies acted as they did in response to the Holocaust. In Part I, we’ll be hearing what the Allies knew, when they knew it, but even more importantly, when they knew what was going on, versus when they understood the gravity of it. To illustrate the point, we’ll focus on the story of one man, one of the most remarkable men of the 20th century. A man who willingly, willingly - stepped through the gates of hell, in order to tell the story of what was happening to the Jews.
[2:45] Nelson: To what extent did the Allies know what was happening to the Jews of Europe at the beginning of the war?
[2:52] Dr. Silberklang: First we have to clarify what we’re talking about when we say, “the Allies.” At the beginning of World War II, in September 1939, the Allies were basically the British, and the French soon after dropped out. The British had information about what was happening to the Jews in the first couple of years of the war. The main source of information at that time was neutral powers, particularly the United States and of course other countries that remained neutral throughout the war. Their sources were people who were travelling around in occupied areas, whether it was American diplomats, or American business people, or American journalists, as well as others from Sweden or Switzerland, but especially the Americans. And a lot of information was out there, about murder, about deportations - not deportations to the death camps because that hadn’t happened yet - but just the Germans picking up huge numbers of people from one place to another, moving them, exiling them from their homes, lots of murder, ghettos, conditions in ghettos, all this kind of thing was out there and being reported in the press and known to the governments.
[4:06] Nelson: When did the Allies receive information about the actual killing of the Jews?
[4:10] Dr. Silberklang: Well, here too, regarding the murder of the Jews of Europe, we have to put ourselves in the time frame. The murder of the Jews began systematically - there had been lots of murder, but the systematic murder that became the “Final Solution,” as the Nazis called it, “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” - that began with the invasion of the Soviet Union, what the Nazis called “Operation Barbarrosa”, their code name, in June of 1941. June 22, 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and alongside the invading German army troops went special murder units. There were various kinds of murder units, but special murder units whose main job, when they entered the Soviet Union, was to kill Jews, began that job immediately on June 22nd-June 23rd of 1941, in the first places that were occupied. That murder became total, that is wiping out entire communities including the women, the children, elderly and ill, and everybody, later on in the summer; where initially, in most localities in the Soviet Union, they were killing mainly leaders of communities and a limited number of able-bodied young men, which added up to many, many many thousands in the first few weeks. By the second half of the summer they’re wiping out entire communities.
This information began to reach the Allies - and I’m including the United States in this picture even though they’re not technically the Allies yet until December 1941 with Pearl Harbor, but - this information began to reach the Allies almost as the murder began. It was reaching the Allies initially from sources on the ground: eye witnesses - Jewish and not Jewish - soldiers from the Red Army who evaded capture but did not succeed in fully retreating from the oncoming German forces and somehow reported by radio, sources like that. There were also sources that the British had, that they didn’t share with the Americans or with the Soviets at that time, and that was the well known “Enigma,” about which of course there is a very good film, and so on. Enigma, we won’t go into all the details, but they were assisted by Polish military intelligence which had begun to figure out this coding mechanism that the German armed forces, and police and SS, all were using, and the Poles had begun figuring that out before World War II. When Polish leaders fled from Poland, as Germany was occupying Poland in 1939, they took it with them and brought this all to Britain. And then British military intelligence, along with Polish military intelligence figured out, eventually, how to decode much of the German military and police coding apparatus. They also, the British, developed the ability to intercept German military and police radio traffic, so by intercepting of a significant fraction of that radio traffic already in the summer of 1941, particularly from the German police, who had also sent in murder units into the Soviet Union - organized, mechanized, systematic murder units that were operating in the Soviet Union - among the intercepts that they were able to get were also messages about murder, where a murder unit of the police would report, “We went to this place, and we killed so and so many Jews, and so and so many others.” And when we read these reports - they’ve survived; not just the British intercepts but the original reports, many of them have survived, and historians have been able to look at them and read what those reports were - the overwhelming majority of the people that these units were killing were Jews. They might report on a thousand Jews killed, for example, and twenty-five Communists, and twelve resistors and things like that, and overwhelmingly it’s Jews.
So the British were busy intercepting that, and it was being reported up the chain of command all the way to Winston Churchill. And he was horrified by this, and even made a public statement about it in a speech to the people, I think it was August 23rd* of 1941 where he condemned the German police for killing thousands of civilians who fell into their hands. Of course the Germans heard this, listening to British radio, and realized that the British were intercepting and also decoding, so they changed their codes. And then the decoders in Britain went to the Prime Minister and said, “Please, be careful what you say.” Churchill and the British didn’t share their source of information with the Americans, but they did share the information with the Americans, that is the Americans also knew that there were police killing Jews, knowing this from the British. They also knew it from the Soviets and their sources on the ground that I mentioned.
Parallel to that, the American had contact, until the spring of 1942, with the Hungarian army. The Hungarian army had invaded the Soviet Union alongside the Germans, as had other allies of Germany, but the Americans had diplomatic relations with Hungary. And therefore there were Americans in Hungary who heard about murder in the areas where Hungarians were operating, which was the southern fighting zone inside of the Soviet Union. When a Hungarian soldier got a furlough to go home for the weekend or something like that, sometimes these soldiers talk, and Americans, particularly representatives of Jewish organizations, were looking for these soldiers in order to interview them and get information out of them. And they got that information from them. So that the Americans had their own sources, and all this gradually built up until the Allies actually had quite a lot of details about Jews being killed in lots of places in the Soviet Union, within a short period of time.
[11:04] Nelson: When exactly in this timeline did they get accurate information that these weren’t just killings in the general context of an ongoing war, but a systematic killing of Europe’s Jews?
[11:17] Dr. Silberklang: The question we have about the Allies is not only a question of information they got. Because the idea that the Germans had embarked, somewhere during the fall or just after the fall of 1941, on a continent-wide and - looking ahead, they hoped it would be a world-wide - plan to murder every single Jew that they could find, leaving none alive, what they called the “Final Solution” - that idea was unprecedented, and literally unbelievable. I mean, no one had ever done anything like that before. You kill your enemies, you kill the ones who are threatening you. You don’t kill every single member of the group, leaving no one alive. It just hadn’t happened before.
The first piece of information or report of that sort that reached the Allies, was actually sent out by Jews. In the Warsaw ghetto there was a well known, well organized unarmed underground that was operating since almost the very beginning of World War II in the German occupation of Poland. It was code named “Oneg Shabbat,” and it was a coalition of, almost across the board - of various political, and religious persuasions among Jews in Warsaw - who were actively collecting information not only about what was happening to Polish Jews, but what was happening to all Jews everywhere. They were trying to figure out, what are the Germans doing here? And also wanted to leave a record behind, and they did; it’s the most important Jewish archive to survive the Holocaust. In May of 1942, one of partners in this coalition, the Jewish political party in eastern Europe known as the Bund, who were Socialist, Yiddishist, secularist - they took a report that was written in this archive, and through their close contacts with the Polish Socialist Party, which was also in the underground in Poland, they managed to get a report out that the Socialist Party of Poland took from the Bund, delivered to Swedish businessmen, who were neutral, those businessmen took it to Stockholm, they gave the report to the Polish embassy in Stockholm, that then sent it to the Polish Government-in-Exile. It was a long, detailed report, typed, single-spaced, seven pages in Polish, and I’ll just relate two sentences from it. They opened the report, I’m reading, of course, an English translation, that says that “From the day the Russo-German war broke out, the Germans embarked on the physical extermination of the Jewish Population on Polish soil.” And then, near the end of the report, they estimate, they say, “It is estimated that the Germans have already killed 700,000 Polish Jews.” And that’s not counting - they’re talking about Polish Jews, right? Because they’re reporting to the Polish government - that’s not counting all the other Jews that have been killed - in the Soviet Union, in other parts of Europe, western Europe and so on. So their report actually is remarkably accurate and goes into details: In this place so many were killed, in that place so many were killed. They knew about mass shootings, they knew about the Chelmno death camp - and they talk about it - which used gas vehicles to kill Jews, and so on.
This report reached the Polish Government-in-Exile on May 31st of 1942, and the Polish government was taken aback by this. They weren’t known, the Polish Government-in-Exile, for bending over backwards to publicize the plight of the Jews, but they also were not known to be very happy about the plight of the Jews, certainly not. And they were shocked, they didn’t want to see their country becoming the basis, or the headquarters for a genocidal murder. So they went to the British government - “look what we just found out. We need to go public with this.” The British government allowed them to go to the BBC. The BBC allowed them to broadcast, but only over what was called the “European Service,” which today we would call, or they call, the “World Service,” and not over the “Home Service.” In other words, the BBC was telling them, “You can talk about this to the rest of the world, but you can’t talk about it among ourselves.” And they did that, they got air time a couple of times in June of 1942, but they pressured the British, “We need to do something more with this, it’s not enough to go on the BBC.” And finally the British relented, and the two governments had a joint press conference on July 9th of 1942, when they brought the information based on this report, and additional reports that had come through in the meantime, to the knowledge of the public - to the press and through them the public.
It’s interesting to look at, if you want to understand how Allied leaders were relating to this kind of information at the time, it’s interesting to look at who each government sent to this particular press conference. The Poles sent their Deputy Prime Minister, who was also the Interior Minister. The Interior Minister in their government is responsible for what’s happening on the soil of Poland - so their number two man, who is also the relevant minister for this matter. They also sent two Jews who were members of the Polish National Council; there’s no longer a parliament so the government created a kind of advisory board with representatives of the prewar parties that were members of the parliament. So there were two Jews, a Zionist and a Bundist.
Who do the British government send? They sent a man named Brendan Bracken, who was the Minister of Information. He’s a cabinet minister, not some low-level flunky in some ministry, but the Minister of Information gave a message to whoever was present at the press conference, or heard it over the radio or read about it the next day in the paper. The Minister of Information of course gives important information - where do you go when there’s a bombing, where’s the nearest first aid station, the nearest bomb shelter and so on. But he’s also the Minister of Propaganda during the war. So the message was clear - not the Foreign Minister, not the War Minister, not the Air Minister, not the Prime Minister - but the one who’s responsible for propaganda. And the message was clear: They send a minister, but which minister? And there’s this ambivalence that’s being expressed in that. “We believe it but we don’t believe it.” Which was common among leaders and the general public at the time, and even among Jews, who were looking for information about what’s happening to the Jews out there in Europe; they’re constantly looking for information - the British Jews, the American Jews, other Jews - yet they, too, had this difficulty grasping what was happening, and they believe it, and pressure their governments to do something about it at that moment in time, summer of 1942. At the same time that - they believe that, as one article put it, one Jewish magazine in the United States, “life goes on behind the ghetto walls.” That particular magazine, the Jewish Frontier, actually had two articles in the same issue, one about the systematic annihilation of the Jews and the other about, “life goes on behind the ghetto walls.” And clearly, if the Jews are being systematically annihilated, there are no Jews left living their lives behind the ghetto walls. And that reflects that ambivalence, in the sense of inability to grasp it. I don’t mean an ambivalence, certainly not regarding the Jews, of indifference, but rather this inability to grasp what really is going on.
[18:57] Nelson: At this point, Dr. Silberklang, I would like us to focus on the story of one man, who made an enormous effort to really make the Allies and the world grasp what was going on. Tell us about Jan Karski.
[19:11] Dr. Silberklang: Jan Karski’s a fascinating person, fascinating character from that period. He was a young Polish lawyer, he was born in 1914, so when the war broke out he’s all of 25 years old. He had two university degrees, a degree in law and a degree in government, which we might today call political science. He was also a lieutenant in the Polish reserves. As such he was drafted on August 31st 1941, the day before the German invasion, but the Polish government sensed that the Germans might invade at any moment, so they’re calling up all of their reserves. He was called up. He actually was sent to fight on the eastern front. He fell prisoner to the Soviets, he escaped from the Soviets to the German side where his family was. He managed to get out of a POW camp. And then, as soon as he got out of the POW camp he began looking for the Polish underground in order to be able to continue serving his country and trying to liberate his country from occupation.
He found the nascent Polish underground that was just organizing - he joined the political underground that would be constantly reporting to the Government-in-Exile. He became a courier for them. He was a valuable member of the underground, and particularly as a courier because of a number of traits he has. We already said - his military training, his academic training, he also, though, spoke many languages. He was brilliant at languages. In addition to Polish he was fluent in Russian and Ukranian. And because of that he could get by in various other Slavic languages. He was fluent in English, he was fluent in German, he was fluent in French. Because of the French he could get by in some other Romance languages, and with that ability, what that meant was if he was sent on a mission to hear or see what’s going on, to talk to people, to listen to what people are talking about, he could go to many different places and interact with many different people, understand what they’re saying, and work with other undergrounds. He also had a photographic memory. Which was very important because what it meant is if he’s sent on a mission, he didn’t have to carry paper with him. They’d tell him, “here are your messages,” and if he has enough time to read them, he could commit them to memory and deliver them, verbatim, from his memory, when he arrived at whatever place he’s supposed to arrive at. Of course, if they were to tell him today, “You’re leaving tomorrow, here’s a thousand pages,” he couldn’t possibly do that. And for that they had another method, which was microfilms inserted into his teeth. This is really stuff that kind of beggars the imagination.
So the Polish Government-in-Exile was sending him to London to give two kinds of reports. A general report about Poland, and also specific detailed reports from each political party that was in the coalition in Poland, to their representatives in the government coalition in London. Jewish underground people in the Warsaw ghetto, the very same people that I was talking about before, with the Bund report, these people in the “Oneg Shabbat” underground - through their connections with the Polish underground learned of this upcoming mission, and they requested of the Polish underground permission to meet with the courier so that they could send a Jewish message as well. And the underground agreed, on condition that the courier would agree, in the very fact of the meeting he was risking his life.
Of course he agreed, and somewhere in the latter part of September of 1942, Jan Karski met with two representatives of the underground groups in the Warsaw ghetto, in a safe house on the outskirts of Warsaw. No one identified themselves, of course, by their real names. Karski came with the code name, Witold, and the two Jews came with only their party affiliation: one said, “I represent the Zionists,” the other said, “I represent the Bundists.” Karski, who knew Jews very well before the war, and knew Jewish politics very well, understood immediately - if a Bundist and a Zionist came together, that means that something really enormous is going on, because they were bitter political rivals in the Jewish world, who agreed on nothing. And here they came together. And of course, because of all the information that they had, they had a lot to tell him, especially when we put ourselves in the context of that moment in history. Because in August-September 1942, by that time, more than three million Jews had already been killed. By the end of 1942 we would hit about four million Jews. In the central part of Poland, the area that the Germans called the “General Government,” at that moment, more than ten thousand Jews are being murdered every single day. And again, that’s only in that area. We could add in all the other areas of Europe. And in Warsaw in particular, what was known as the “Great Deportation” had just ended. It began July 22nd, 1942, it went on until September 21, 1942, and in that time nearly three hundred thousand Jews had been deported from the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka. And all of them, except for a handful that were used as forced laborers, and a few, very few, who had escaped and come back to the ghetto to report what had happened - all the rest had been murdered within an hour or two of arrival. And these people reporting to Karski knew all of this, and that’s what they’re telling them, as they meet.
As they approached the end of their meeting, they had to break it up under the cover of darkness, Karski asked them, “OK, what’s your message? You came to give me a message to take to the Government-in-Exile.” And they hadn’t thought of that, apparently. Because the story speaks for itself, perhaps. But then, as he remembered it, the Bundist, after a moment of thinking, said, “We want that after the war, no one should be able to say he did not know.” They then ask Karski if he would agree to be an eye witness to the ghetto, and not only a hearsay witness, and he agreed. They snuck him into the ghetto, one day, and he spent an entire day in the ghetto, and he was horrified by what he saw. By the conditions in the ghetto. By Germans walking in the ghetto and, just for fun, young Germans who were still minors, still teenagers, pulling out guns and shooting Jews just for the fun of it. He was horrified by what he saw, and then he agreed to go in a second time the next day, and spend more time in the ghetto to see more. And he was even further horrified by what he saw the second time.
[26:03] Nelson: And can you convey to us what he saw? I know we have some account of it from his later writings.
[26:10] Dr. Silberklang: He says, the second day he went in, he says, “Next day we went again. The same house, the same way. So then again I was more conditioned. So I felt other things. The stench, the stench, the dirt, stench – everywhere, suffocating. Dirty streets, nervousness, tension. Bedlam. This was Platz Muranowski. In a corner of it some children were playing something with rags – throwing the rags to one another. He says,” that’s Karski’s guide, “ ‘They are playing, you see. Life goes on. Life goes on.’ So then I said: ‘They’re not playing. They’re only pretending to play. They are simulating play.’ ”
He was then asked if he would agree to be smuggled into one of the death camps, and he agreed. And as he reported it, he was smuggled into the death camp of Belzec. Now in fact he was smuggled into one of the satellite camps of Belzec, a place in a town that was a little north of Belzec, where if there was a backlog and there were too many trains that needed to come into the camp and there was no room for them, then a train would be held there, the Jews offloaded and wait, under the open the sky and under armed guard, behind a fence, until space opened opened up in Belzec. And just so we understand what Belzec was: Belzec was a camp that operated from mid-March to mid-December 1942, nine months as a death camp. Five hundred thousand Jews, approximately, were sent there - one lived to tell the story. And the one who lived to tell the story is the only one of the many escapees who survived to the end of the war and then survived survival. One other one survived, but was killed by antisemites after the war before he told the story. So it’s a place of no return, it’s an absolute murder camp. That’s where he’s going, to a satellite camp of that camp. He was horrified by what he saw there to such an extent, he said, that he fainted, he passed out within less than an hour. He called it a nervous breakdown, within less than an hour of being in the camp. From there, he went back to meet these two Jews in Warsaw, now they came with specific messages to give him, and then he went out on his mission. He left somewhere in the middle of October of 1942. He arrived through a long, circuitous route through Germany, through France, into Spain, into Portugal, until he finally got to Scotland and there in the UK, he began reporting to the Polish Government-in-Exile.
[28:47] Nelson: Before we get to that, though, I’m curious what we know, technically speaking, of how they snuck him into a death camp. You know, it seems to me to be, a rather difficult thing to accomplish.
[29:00] Dr. Silberklang: You’re absolutely right, it’s difficult to mind-boggling. We don’t know the whole story, because of all these people, the only one who survived to tell us the story is Jan Karski. The Zionist was killed during the war, apparently in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The Bundist survived, but died of a heart attack shortly after the war, we know his identity, and he never got to tell the story. And Jan Karski could tell only what he knew. And apparently what happened was that the underground groups in the Warsaw ghetto operated this kind of chain of underground contacts that each needed to be given a bribe. We don’t know how many links there were in this chain, but there were several links at least. What we know is something about - a lot about - the last link in the chain, and the last link in the chain were two people who worked in Belzec. One was a German SS sergeant, and the other was a Ukranian guard. If you read what Karski wrote in a book he published during the war about all of his experienced, a book called “The Story of the Secret State,” he identifies that guard as an Estonian, and he did that in order to protect the Ukranian, because there were no Estonian guards in Belzec. So even so much afterwards, he has this sense - “I need to protect that guy, because after all he did work with me.”
The agreement was that Karski would go to some point that was about a mile or two away from the camp. the Ukranian guard, his job was to be the same size as Jan Karski, and to leave his uniform at the agreed meeting point. Karski put on the uniform - Karski was a tall man, he stood about 6 foot 1 [1.85m], which in those days in eastern Europe is quite tall. He had to find a Ukranian the same size. The German met him, not knowing who Jan Karski was. Jan Karski sold him some kind of a cockamamie story about what he’s really doing, and the German apparently didn’t want to ask too many questions because he’s getting a nice bribe. The German escorted Jan Karski into the camp, took him to a point where there was a slight incline, so Karski could look down towards the camp and see what’s going on. He was, as I said, horrified by what he saw. The German was meant to come back a few hours later, and then escort Karski out, but he kept an eye on Karski because he was nervous. And when Karski passed out, the German ran towards him, grabbed him by the collar, and began screaming at him as though he was disciplining a drunken guard, who had come to his job drunk that day. And in that way marched him out of the camp and saved both of them. When I say he saved both of them, I don’t mean to say this German guy is some kind of a nice guy. This German man is an SS man who was involved in genocidal murder, so too was the Ukranian. He was saving his own skin, realizing that if Karski is caught, he might give him away, so he drags him out and in that way saves himself. But all that Karski saw, both in the ghetto and in the camp, left an indelible mark in his memory, and he could relate what he had seen there in fine detail, almost to the very end of his life. He died in the summer of 2000 at the age of 86, and almost to the last moment, he could relay all of this in fine detail as though he had been there yesterday.
Karski, when he finally went out on his mission somewhere in the second half of October 1942, went through Germany into France. In France, a French member of the Maquis - the underground - met him, and in classic, like a hollywood film, they have to say a coded sentence to each other and then a second sentence and so on; back and forth - of course Karski speaks fluent French, so he could do it in French - that’s how they identify each other. And the French guy is escorting him from northern France, which is under German occupation, to the southern zone which was known as the “Free Zone” - unoccupied France, which was run by a collaborationist regime, the Vichy regime. He’s supposed to go through there, to the Pyrenees mountains and cross into Spain - not at a border crossing, but cross at some other point into Spain - where he was met by a Polish diplomat.
However, on the way, while he’s on this mission, two things happen that endangered the mission and endangered him personally. One was that the Gestapo in Warsaw had arrested a number of Polish underground people, and one of them had detailed information about Jan Karski on his person. He had a picture, where he was going, and also his code name for this trip. His code name, I should say, was Jan Karski. His real name is Jan Kozielewski, but he changed his name legally at the end of the war because of this experience. He lived out the rest of his life as Jan Karski because of this experience, specifically about the Jews.
So now there’s an all-points bulletin out to get this guy. All the police, all German police everywhere along his route are looking for him. He didn’t know that. Along with that, the western Allies, the Americans and the British, landed in North Africa on November 8th of 1942. Algeria and Morocco were French colonies. So the Americans and the British are taking this away from the French. The Germans, in reaction to that, occupied southern France. So now he’s walking around, hiking in the Pyrenees mountains, in the middle of a German occupation, with the police looking for him, and he doesn’t know this. He crossed over into Spain, a Polish diplomat met him, gave him a diplomatic passport, from there he went into Portugal - both these countries are neutral. In Portugal he went to a fishing village outside of Lisbon, and boarded a fishing boat that took him out to international waters. A sea plane landed and flew him to Scotland. He landed on November 14th. In Scotland, as he landed, he met representatives of the Polish government, they debriefed him already on the way from Scotland to London. He met with leaders of the Polish government, he met with the two representatives of the Jewish parties that were in the Polish National Council that we’ve mentioned. He met with British leaders, including Anthony Eden, who was the Foreign Secretary. He met with the ambassador of the United States to the Government-in-Exile and with various American and British generals. So he met with lots of people right away. This led his eye witness report, as an official - not as a traumatized survivor who got out; which is how Allies would look at such a person, a Jewish person who got out, or some other eye witness - nor as a Soviet official, who’s suspect - they’re Soviets, they’re Communists. This is “one of our guys,” in the eyes of the British and the Americans, who’s coming as an official of the Polish government and telling them, “Here’s what I saw and here’s what I’ve heard.” And that really had an impact. And I should add to that, that while he was reporting, similar reports reached the Allies from other sources, saying more or less the same kind of things he was saying.
That pushed the Allies, on December 17th, 1942, to issue a joint declaration, to which they lent very high profile. On that day, the three foreign ministers of the major allies - Molotov for the Soviets, Eden for the British, and the Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles for the Americans, the number two man in the State Department because the Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, was ill and so in the hospital, so his number two man - they all read this report out, this declaration out, simultaneously. The two westerners to their parliaments and the congress, and Molotov over Radio Moscow. Because they gave it such high profile, the Foreign Ministers - not the Minister of Information, this time - what that meant was, that all of this was reported on the first pages of all the major newspapers of all the major Allied countries the next day. And now, whatever people might not have grasped until this point, they read this and say, “Our governments tell us they’re killing all the Jews” - they used the word “annihilation” in the announcement - then, all of a sudden people are saying, “Oh, they’re annihilating the Jews!” and people are horrified by all of this.
[37:32] Nelson: So this brings us to the question of knowledge versus understanding. Dr. Silberklang, do you believe that this is the point at which people began to truly understand what they were hearing?
[37:45] Dr. Silberklang: When people really understood is a good question. And it would seem, on the one hand, that at this point if not sooner, they had finally gotten the critical mass of information, from what they would look at as reliable sources, to really get what’s going on. However, at the same time, if you look at how Allied leaders related to subsequent information, including a request to intervene that came after December 1942, what we see is that they behaved as though they didn’t quite get it, and they kept saying things that reflected not quite getting it. So I would say that, to a degree yes, by this point they got it, they certainly understood that the Germans are killing huge numbers of people and are targeting the Jews in particular - but did they get the “Final Solution”? Did they get all of that? I would leave that as an open question, and maybe in our second conversation, I’ll get back to that, in closing Karski’s story.
[39:04] Nelson: Thank you, Dr. Silberklang, for telling the story of Jan Karski, and describing what the Allies knew and understood about the Holocaust. In the next episode of our show, we’ll be exploring what the Allies did to try and stop the Holocaust. What they were willing to do, what they were able to do, and of course what they did not do. I’m Nate Nelson, this has been “On the Holocaust” from Yad Vashem, thanks for listening.
* The speech was delivered on August 24, 1941.