Sunday, March 6, 2011

Jan Karski on Belzec Death Camp

Source:  America Views the Holocaust, page 183-191.  Polish Death Camp: Collier's, October 14, 1944

Comment: Useful to demonstrate that visiting Izbica is not a viable explanation for Karski's testimony

 As a member of the underground, I was ordered to leave Warsaw and report to the Polish government and the Allied authorities about conditions in Poland.  My orders came from the delegate of the Polish governement acting somewhere in Poland and from the commander in chief of the underground army.  Jewish leaders confided to me their written report but they insisted that in order to be able to tell the truth I should see with my own eyes what actually happened to the Jews in Poland.  They arranged for me to visit one of the Jewish death camps.

The camp was near the town of Belzec, about 100 miles east of Warsaw, and was well known all over Poland because of the tales of horror that were circulated about it.  The common report was that every Jew who reached it, without exception, was doomed to death.
The camp was about a mile and a half from the store.  We started walking rapidly, taking a side lane to avoid meeting people.  It took about twenty minutes to get to the camp, but we became aware of its presence in less than half that time.  About a mile away from the camp we began to hear shouts, shots, and screams.
“What’s happening?” I asked.  “What’s the meaning of all that noise?”
“The Jews are hot,” he said, grinning as though he had said something witty.
I must have glared at him, for he changed his tone abruptly.
“What could it be?” He shrugged. “They are bringing in a ‘batch’ today.”
I knew what he meant and did not inquire further.  We walked on while the noise increased alarmingly.  From time to time a series of long screams or a particularly inhuman groan would set the hair on my scalp bristling.
“What are the chances of anyone’s escaping?” I asked my companion hoping to hear an optimistic answer.
“None at all,” he answered, dashing my hopes to the ground. “Once they get this far, their goose is cooked.”
“You mean that there isn’t a single chance of anybody’s escaping from the camp, even with the way things are there?”
“Well, from the camp itself, maybe.  But not alone. With a guard like me helping, it can be done.  But it’s a terrible risk,” he said, wagging his head solemnly.  “The Jew and I could both get killed.”
We trudged on, the Estonian watching me out of the corner of his eye.
Dealer in Human Flesh
“Of course,” he said craftily, “if a Jew pays well – very well – it can be done.  But it is very risky, it has to be handled right….”
“How can they pay? They don’t have any money on them, do they?”
“Say, we don’t try to get money out of them.  We ain’t so dumb.  We get paid in advance.  It’s strictly a cash proposition.  We don’t even deal with those in the camp” – he gestured contemptuously in the direction of the noise – “we do business with people on the ouside, like you.  If somebody comes to me and tells me that such and such a Jew is going to arrive and that he wants him ‘cheated out’ – well, if he is willing to fork out plenty of hard cash in advance, then I do what I can.”
“Have you saved many Jews so far?” I asked.
“Not as many as I’d like, but a few anyhow.”
“Are there many more good men like you there who are so willing to save the Jews?”
“Save them? Say, who wants to save them?” He looked at me in bewilderment as though I were talking unheard of nonsense.  ” But if they pay, that’s a different sotry.  We can all use some money”
I did no venture to disagree.  It would have been hopeless to try to persuade him of anything different.  I looked at his heavy, rather good-natured face and wondered how the war had come to develop such cruel habits in him.  From what I had seen he seemed to be a simple average man, not particularly good or bad.  His hands were the calloused but supple hands of a good farmer.  In normal times that was what he probably was – and a good father, a family man, and a churchgoer besides.  Now, under the pressure of the Gestapo and the cajoleries of the Nazis, with everyone about him engaged in a greedy competition that knew no limits, he had been changed into a professional butcher of human beings.  He had caught onto his trade well and discussed its niceties, used its professional jargon as coolly as a carpenter discussing his craft.
“And what are you here for?”  The question was both shrewd and innocent.
“I’ld like to ’save’ some Jews too,” I said with an air of conspiracy.  “With your help, of course.  That’s why I’ve come to the camp to see how everything works.”
“Well don’t you go trying to do anything without us.”
“Don’t be silly.  Why should I work without you?  We both want to make money and we can help each other.  We would be foolish to work against each other.”
This satisfied him and I now had the status of a younger colleague
The Approach to Horror
As we approached to within a few hundred yards of the camp, the shouts, cries and shots cut off further conversation.  I noticed an unpleasant stench that seemed to have come from decomposing boides mixed with horse manure.  This may have been an illusion.  The Estonian was, in any case, completely impervious to it.  He even began to hum some sort of folk tune to himself.  We passed through a small grove of decrepit-looking trees and emerged directly in front of the loud, sobbing, reeking camp of death.
It was on a large, flat plain and occupied about a square mile.  It was surrounded on all sides by a formidable, barbed-wire fence, nearly two yards in height and in good repair.  Inside the fence, at intervals of about fifteen yards, guards were standing, holding rifles with bayonets ready for use.  Around the outside of the fence, militiamen circulated on constant patrol.  The camp itself contained a few small sheds or  barracks.  The rest of the area was completely covered by a dense, pulsating, throbbing, noisy human mass – starved, stinking, gesticulating, insane human beings in constant agitated moetion.  Through them, forcing paths if necessary with their rifle butts, walked the German police and the militiamen.  They walked in silence, their faces bored and indifferent.  They looked like shepherds bringing in a flock to the market.  They had the tired, vaguely disgusted appearance of men doing a routine, tedious job.
Into the fence a few passages had been cut, and gates made of poles tied together with barbed wire swung back to make an entrance.  Each gate was guarded by two men who slouched about carelessly.  We stopped for a moment to collect ourselves.  I noticed off to my left the railroad tracks which passed about a hundred yards from the camp.  From the camp to the track a sort of raised passage had been built from old boards.  On the track a dusty freight train waited, motionless.
The Estonian followed my gaze with the interest of a person seeing what kind of an impression his home made on a visitor.  He proceeded eagerly to enlighten me:
“That’s the train they’ll load them on.  You’ll see it all”
We came to a gate.  Two German noncoms were standing there talking.  I could hear snatches of their conversation.  They seemed to be talking about a night they had spent in a near-by town.  I hung back a bit.  The Estonian seemed to think I was losing my nerve.
“Go ahead,” he whispered impatiently into my ear.  “Don’t be afraid.  They won’t even inspect your papers.  They don’t care about the likes of you.”
We walked up to the gate and saluted the noncoms vigorously.  They returned the salute indifferently and we passed through.
“Follow me,” he said, quite loudly. “I’ll take you to a good spot.”
We passed an old Jew, a man of about sixty, sitting on the ground without a stitch of clothing on him.  I was not sure whether his clothes had been tornoff or whether he, himself, had thrown them away in a fit of madness.  Silent, motionless, he sat on the ground, no one paying him the slightest attention.  Not a muscle or fiber in his whole body moved except for this preternaturally animated eyes, which blinked rapidly and incessantly.  Not far from him a small child, clad in a few rags, was lying on the ground.  He was all alone and crouched quivering on the ground, staring up with the large, frightened eyes of a rabbit.  No one paid any attention to him, either.
The Jewish mass vibrated, trembled, and moved to and fro as if united in a single, insane, rhythmic trance.  They waved their hands, shouted, quarreled, cursed, and spat at one another.  Hunger, thirst, fear, and exhaustion had driven them all insane.  I had been told that they were usually left in the camp for three or four days without food or a drop of water.  They were all former inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto.
The Ultimate in Misery
There was no organization or order of any kind.  None of them could possibly help or share with one another and they soon lost any self-control or any sense whatsoever except the bare instinct of self-preservation.  They had become, at this stage, completely dehumanized.  It was, moreover, typical autumn weather, cold, raw and rainy.  The sheds could not accommodate more than two or three thousand people and every “batch” included more than five thousand.  This meant that there were always two to three thousand men, women and children scattered about in the open, suffering exposure as well as everything else.
The chaos, the squalor, the hideousness of it all were simply indescribable.  There was a suffocating stench of sweat, filth, decay, damp straw, and excrement.  To get to my post we had to squeeze our way through this mob.  It was a ghastly ordeal.  I had to push foot by foot through the crowd and step over the limbs of those who were lying prone.  It was like forcing my way through a mass of death and decomposition made even more horrible by its agonized pulsations.  My companion had the skill of long practice, evading the bodies on the ground and winding his way through the mass with the ease of a contortionist.  Distracted and clumsy, I would brush against people or step on a figure that reacted like an animal; quickly, often with a moan or a yelp.  Each time this occurred I would be seized by a fit of nausea and come to a stop.  But my guide kept hurrying and hustling me along.
In this way we crossed the entire camp and finally stopped about twenty yards from the gate which opened on the passage leading to the train.  It was a comparatively uncrowded spot.  I felt immeasurably relieved at having finished my stumbling, sweating journey.  The guide was standing at my side, saying something, giving me advice.  He raised his voice:
“Look here.  You are going to stay here.  I’ll walk on a little farther.  You know what you are supposed to do.  Remember to keep away from Estonians.  Don’t forget, if there’s any trouble, you don’t know me and I don’t know you.”
I nodded vaguely at him.  He shook his head and walked off.
I remained there perhaps half an hour, watching this spectacle of human misery.  At each moment i felt the impulse to run and flee.  I had to force myself to remain indifferent, to practice stratagems to convince myself that I was not one of the condemned.  Finally, I noticed a change in the motion of the guards.  They walked less and they all semmed to be glancing in the same direction – at the passage to the track which was quite close to me.
I turned toward it myself.  The German policemen came to the gate with a tall, bulky SS Man.  He barked out an order and they began to open the gate.  I was very heavy.  He shouted at them impatiently.  They worked at it frantically and finally shoved it open.  They dashed down the passage as though they were afraid the SS man might come after them, and took up their positions where the passage ended.  The whole system had been worked out with crude effectiveness.  The outlet of the passage was blocked off by two cars of the freight train, so that any attempt on the apart of one of the Jews to break out of the mob would have been completely impossible.
The SS man turned to the crowd, planted himself with his feet wide apart and his hands on his hips, and loosed a roar that must have actually hurt his ribs.  It could be heard far above the hellish babble that came fromt he crowd:
“Ruhe, Ruhe! Quiet, Quiet! All Jews will board this train to be taken to a place where work awaits them.  Keep order.  Do not push.  Anyone who attempts to resist or create a panic will be shot.”
He stopped speaking and looked challengingly at the helpless mob that hardly seemed to know what was happening.  Suddenly, accompanying the movement with a loud, hearty laugh, he yanked out his gun and fired three random shots into the crowd.  A single, stricken groan answered him.  He replaced the gun in his holster, smiled and set himself for another roar:
“Alle Juden, ‘raus – ‘raus!”
For a moment the crowd was silent.  Those nearest teh SS man recoiled from the shots and tried to dodge, panic-stricken, toward the rear.  But this was resisted by the mob as a volley of shots from the rear sent the whole mass surging forward madly, screaming in pain and fear.  The shots continued without letup from the rear and now fromt he sides, too, narrowing the mob down and driving it in a savage scramble onto the passageway.  In utter panic they rushed down the passageway, trampling it so furiously that it threatened to fall apart.
Then new shots were heard.  The two policemen at the entrance to the train were now firing into the oncoming throng corralled in the passagway, in order to slwo them down and prevent them from demolishing the flimsy structure.  The SS man added his roar to the bedlam.
“Ordnung, ordnung!” He bellowed like a madman.
“Order, order!” The two policemen echoed him hoarsely, firing straight into the faces of the Jews running to the trains.  Impelled and controlled by this ring of fire, they filled the two cars quickly.
And now came the most horrible episode of all.  The military rule stipulates that a freight car may carry eight horses of forty soldiers.  Without any baggage at all, a maximum of a hundred passengers pressing against one another could be crowded into a car.  The Germans had simply issued orders that 120-130 Jews had to enter each car.  Those orders were now being carried out.  Alternately swinging and firing their rifles, the policemen were forcing still more people into the two cars which were already overfull.  The shots continued to ring out in the rear, and the driven mob surged forward, exerting an irresistible pressure against those nearest the train.  These unfortunates,c razed by what they had been through, scourged by policemen, and shoved forward by the milling mob, then began to climb on the ehads and shoulders of those in the trains.
A Climax of Frightfulness
These latter were helpless since they had the weight of the entire advancing throng against them.  They howled with anguish at those who, clutching at their hair and clothes for support: trampling on necks, faces and shoulders: breaking bones: and shouting with insensate fury, attempted to clamber over them.  More than another score of men, women and children crushed into the cars in this fashion.  Then the policemen slammed the doors across the arms and elgs that still protruded, and pushed the iron bars in place.
The two cars were now crammed to bursting with tightly packed human flesh.  All this while the entire camp reverberated with a tremendous volume of sound in which groans and screams mingled with shots, curses, and bellowed commands.
Nor was this all.  I know that many poeple will not believe me, but I saw it, and it is not exaggerated.  I have no other proofs, no photographs.  All I can say is that I saw it, and it is the truth.
The floors of the car had been covered with a thick,white powder.  It was quicklime.  Quicklime is simply unslaked lime or calcium oxide that has been dehydrated.  Anyone who has seen cement being mixed knows what occurs when water is poured on lime.  The mixture bubbles and steams as the powder combines with the water, generating a searing heat.
The lime served a double purpose in the Nazi economy of brutality; The moist flesh coming in contact with the lime is quickly dehydrated and burned.  The occupants of the cars would literally burned to death before long, the flesh eaten from their bones.  Thus the Jews would “die in agony”, fulfilling the promise Himmler had issued “in accord with the will of the Führer” in Warsaw in 1942.  Secondly the lime would prevent the decomposing bodies from spreading disease.  It was efficient and inexpensive – a perfectly chosen agent for its purpose.
It took three hours to fill up the entire train.  It was twilight when the forty-six cars were packed.  From one end to the other the train, with its quivering cargo of flesh, seemed to throb, vibrate, rock and jump as if bewitched.  There would be a strangely uniform momentary lull and then the train would begin to moan and sob, wail and howl.  Inside the camp a few score dead bodies and a few in the final throes of death remained.  German policemen walked around at leisure with smoking guns, pumping bullets into anything that moaned or moved.  Soon none were left alive.  In the now quiet camp the only sounds were the inhuman screams that echoed from the moving train.  Then these too, ceased.  All that was now left was the stench of excrement and rotting straw and a queer, sickening acidulous odor which, I thought, may have come from the quantities of blood that had stained the ground.
The Last Incredible Journey
As I listened to the dwindling outcries fromt he train I thought of the destination toward which it was speeding.  My informants had minutely described the entire journey.   The train would travel about eight miles and finally come to a halt in an empty, barren field.  Then nothing at all would happen.  The train would stand stock-still, patiently waiting while death penetrated into every corner of its interior.  This would take from two to four days.
When quicklime, asphyxiation and injuries had silenced every outcry, a group of men would appear.  They would be young, strong Jews, assigned to the task of cleaning out these cars until their own turn to ride in them should arrive.  Under a strong guard they woul unseal the cars and expel the heaps of decomposing bodies.  The mounds of flesh that they piled up would then be burned and the remnants buried in a single huge hole.  The cleaning, burying and burial would consume one or two days.
The entire process of disposal would take, then from three to six days.  During this period the camp would have recruited new victims.  The  train would return and the whole cycle would be repeated.
I was still standing near the gate, gazing after the no longer visible train, when I felt a rough hand on my shoulder.  The Estonian was back again.
“Wake up, wake up!” he was scolding hoarsely. “Don’t stand there with your mouth open. Come on, hurry or we’ll both be caught.  Follow me and be quick about it.”
I followed him at a distance, feeling completely benumbed.  When we reached the gate he reported to a German officer and pointed at me.  I heard the officer say, “Sehr gut, gehen sie” and then we passed though the gate.
The Estonian and I walked a while together and then separated.  I walked to the store as quickly as I could, running when there was no one about to see me.  I reached the grocery store so breathless that the owner became alarmed.  I reassured him while I threw off my uniform, boots, stockings and underwear.  I ran into the kitchen and locked the door.  In a little while my bewildered and worried host called out to me:
“Hey, what are you doing in there?”
“Don’t worry. I#ll be right out.”
When I came out , he promptly entered the kitchen and called back in despair:
“What the devil have you been doing? The whole kitchen is flooded!”
“I washed myself,” I replied, “that is all. I was very dirty.”
Then I collapsed.  I was completely, violently, rackingly sick.   Even today, when I remember those scenes, I become nauseated.


  1. This eyewitness account of the Izbica transit camp should be required reading in everry school.

  2. After the war, it was generally agreed that what Karski had witnessed here was not Belzec, but the transit camp near Izbica. Karski himself agreed with this reassessment.