On December 10, 1942, the Polish government-in-exile sent an official diplomatic note, signed by Minister of Foreign Affairs Edward Raczynski, to the governments of the United Nations informing the Allies and the West of the Holocaust in German-occupied Poland – Raczynski’s Note.
Following the 1939 invasion and subsequent occupation of Poland by Germany and the Soviet Union, which brought an end to the newly-formed Polish Republic, the country’s legal authorities formed a government-in-exile and continued to function from Paris and later, from London.
Despite the occupation of Poland, the government-in-exile exerted considerable influence in the country during World War II through the structures of the Polish Underground State and its military arm, the Home Army. Abroad, Polish military units that had escaped the occupation fought under their own commanders as part of Allied forces in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.
In Poland, persecution of Polish Jews by the German occupation authorities began immediately after the invasion, particularly in major urban areas. In the first year and a half, the Nazis confined themselves to stripping the Jews of their valuables and property for profit, herding them into makeshift ghettos, and forcing them into slave labor.
The Holocaust in occupied Poland
But the segregation of Jews in ghettos culminated in the policy of extermination the Nazis called the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question”, discussed by senior Nazi officials at the Wannsee Conference in Berlin in January 1942. All anti-Jewish measures were radicalized and, under the coordination of the SS and with directions from the highest leadership of the Nazi Party, killings were committed in Poland, Germany and throughout occupied Europe.
By mid-1942, victims were being deported from ghettos across Europe in sealed freight trains to the extermination camps of German-occupied Poland (Chełmno, Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau), designed exclusively for the rapid and secretive elimination of Polish and foreign Jews, but also of ethnic Poles, Soviet civilians and prisoners of war, the Roma, the handicapped, political and religious dissidents, and gay men.
Reports of the Holocaust eventually reached the Polish government-in-exile when the young courier Jan Karski, who had fought during the German invasion of Poland and subsequently escaped from a prisoner-of-war transport, carried out of Poland a microfilm with information from the underground movement on the extermination of European Jews in German-occupied Poland.
On behalf of the Polish government, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Edward Raczyński sent an official diplomatic note, based on the microfilm transported by Karski, addressed to the governments of the United Nations which informed the Allies about the unfolding genocide being carried out by the Nazis, and called upon members of the anti-German coalition to take joint action.
“The Polish Government consider it their duty to address themselves to the Governments of the United Nations, in the confident belief that they will share their opinion as to the necessity not only of condemning the crimes committed by the Germans and punishing the criminals, but also of finding means offering the hope that Germany might be effectively restrained from continuing to apply her methods of mass extermination,” reads Raczyński’s note.
Dated December 10, 1942, the document provided one of the earliest and most accurate accounts of the Holocaust. It identified Treblinka, Bełżec and Sobibór by name as extermination camps, revealed the use of poison gas and estimated that one in three Jews in Poland were already dead. Published in the form of a brochure entitled ‘The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland’, Raczyński’s Note was disseminated by Polish diplomatic missions.
In response to Raczynski’s Note, the American and British governments quickly issued the so-called Joint Declaration by Members of the United Nations on behalf of the Allied Powers, which was read to the British House of Commons by Foreign secretary Anthony Eden, and published on the front page of the New York Times and many other newspapers, in which they revealed the ongoing events of the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Europe.
“From all the occupied countries Jews are being transported in conditions of appalling horror and brutality to Eastern Europe. In Poland, which has been made the principal Nazi slaughterhouse, the ghettos established by the German invader are being systematically emptied of all Jews except a few highly skilled workers required for war industries. None of those taken away are ever heard of again,” reads the statement.
But although Raczynski’s Note contained extensive information on the Holocaust, its effect was limited because many people outside German-occupied Europe found it difficult to believe the Germans were systematically exterminating Jews. Crucially, Raczynski’s Note did not result in any on-the-ground action by Allied nations to either stop the ongoing slaughter of millions, or to save and absorb refugees. Rather, the Allies focused their efforts exclusively on the military campaign to defeat the Third Reich.
Two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population
The mass murder continued nevertheless, reaching a “frenetic” pace in 1944 when Auschwitz gassed nearly 500,000 people. As the Soviet armed forces advanced, the SS closed down the camps in eastern Poland and made efforts to conceal what had happened. The gas chambers were dismantled, the crematoria dynamited, the mass graves dug up and corpses cremated. The SS sent the remaining inmates westward on “death marches” to camps in Germany and Austria.
But despite the Nazis’ best efforts to either dismantle the extermination camps, Majdanek was captured nearly intact in July 1944 due to the rapid advance of the Soviet forces. Auschwitz was liberated six months later in January 1945.
After the war, the Nuremberg trials prosecuted the prominent members of the Nazi leadership, who planned, carried out, or otherwise participated in the Holocaust, which resulted in the death of six million Jews, around two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population.
The death camps in occupied Poland accounted for half the Jews killed. At Auschwitz the Jewish death toll was 960,000; Treblinka 870,000; Bełżec 600,000; Chełmno 320,000; Sobibór 250,000; and Majdanek 79,000.
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