This excerpt from Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust by E.Thomas Wood recounts the events that followed Jan Karski’s arrival from occupied Europe to London.
On the night of November 25, 1942, Jan Karski arrived at a Royal Air Force base outside London. The flight on a military transport had lasted more than four hours. Together with Jan in the frigid, unpressurized cargo bay were five other men in civilian clothes, none of whom ever spoke during the trip. After his transit through Spain was handled so efficiently, Jan gave no thought to any formalities that might be necessary upon arrival. He expected that he would be able to begin carrying his various messages to their intended recipients immediately.
Jan was in for a surprise. Not only were no Polish officials waiting for him as he stepped off the airplane, but the British authorities who led him from the aircraft refused his request to telephone the Poles in London. As a matter of standard procedure, they told him, he would remain in quarantine until his case had been resolved. Jan was being treated as an ordinary refugee.
At the Polish government’s headquarters near Buckingham Palace, an irate Gen. Sikorski ordered his foreign ministry to lodge a formal protest with the British government over its treatment of the newly arrived envoy from Poland. A British diplomat noted that “the Poles are more concerned with the person of their ‘emissary’ rather than with any documents that he may have been carrying.” But concern over the detention of the messenger was overshadowed by alarm over the message he carried. The microfilm in the key had reached London by November 17, and Polish officials had condensed its information on the Jews’ persecution into a two-page report in English.
“News is reaching the Polish Government in London about the liquidation of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw,” the text began. It told of Himmler’s order to exterminate half of the Jewish population in Poland by the end of 1942. It told of the first phase of the “re-settlement” that commenced on July 22 and of the suicide the next day of Adam Czerniakow, the Nazi-appointed Jewish leader of the Ghetto. It told how the Germans had printed fewer and fewer ration cards as the months went by—proof that the number of ghetto residents was diminishing. It told of a “digging machine” operating “ceaselessly” to bury the dead at Treblinka. And, borrowing details from the protest issued by the Front for the Rebirth of Poland (and thus, in turn, from Jan’s experiences), the document described the cramming of Jews into overloaded boxcars lined with quicklime. It told how the trains would either transport the victims to extermination camps or simply sit in oblivion as those trapped within died in agony. Over a million Jews, the report concluded, had perished at the hands of Hitler’s forces in Poland.
The Jewish Agency made its findings public on November 23. On November 24, after learning that the U.S. State Department had independently confirmed the essence of Riegner’s report, Rabbi Stephen Wise of the World Jewish Congress in New York called a press conference to release the Riegner telegram. Wise said that of the five million Jews in Nazi-held territory, half “had already been destroyed.” The revelations from New York and Jerusalem had an immediate impact on public opinion, particularly in Jewish circles.
These reports came from the Jews themselves; some might still dismiss them as the exaggerations of a people under stress. But a non-Jewish source came forward the same day with a third account of the unprecedented wave of terror against Jews. On November 24, the Polish government released to the press its two-page digest of the reports carried by Karski. Many newspapers around the world carried the news; most treated the report’s release as a minor story.