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Jan Karksi

Polish Underground Courier – Eyewitness to Horror  



Jan Karski was invited by Leon Feiner and Adolf Berman to witness for himself the brutal treatment the Jews were experiencing at the hands of the Nazis. In September 1942 Karski went to Izbica, a small village, 41 miles from Lublin, where the Germans had established a transit –ghetto.

Jan Karski tells his story in 1997

Gathered in appalling conditions, Jews from Germany, Czechoslovakia and Austria were brought to Izbica, before commencing their final journey to the death camps of Belzec and Sobibor. 

Karski changed from his civilian clothes into the uniform of an Estonian guard accompanied by an Estonian guard in a grocery store, and they set off and in his own words Karski recalls the visit:


“As we approached to within a few hundred yards of the camp, the shouts, cries, and shots cut off further conversation. I noticed, or thought I noticed, an unpleasant stench that seemed to have come from decomposing bodies 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 fixed bayonets ready for use. Around the outside of the fence militia men 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 motion.


Through them, forcing paths if necessary with their rifle butts, walked the German police and the militia men. They walked in silence, their faces bored and indifferent. They looked like shepherds bringing a flock to the market or pig –dealers among their pigs. 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, allowing entrance. Each gate was guarded by two men who slouched about carelessly.


We stopped for a moment to collect ourselves. To my left I noticed 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 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.”


1942 deportation of Jews in Izbica

We came to a gate. Two German NCO’s were standing there talking, I could hear snatches of their conversation. They seemed to be talking about a night they had spent in a nearby town. I hung back a bit. The Estonian seemed to think I was losing my nerve.


“Go ahead,” he whispered impatiently in my ear. “Don’t be afraid. They wont even inspect your papers. They don’t care about the likes of you.”  We walked up to the gate and saluted the non-coms vigorously. They returned the salute indifferently and we passed through, entering the camp and mingled unnoticed with the crowd.  “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 torn off 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 fibre in his whole body moved. He might have been dead or petrified except for his 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, quarrelled, cursed, and spat at each other. 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 a drop of water or food.


They were all former inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto. When they had been rounded up they were given permission to take about ten pounds of baggage. Most of them took food, clothes, bedding, and, if they had any money and jewellery.


On the train, the Germans who accompanied them stripped them of everything that had the slightest value, even snatching away any article of clothing to which they took a fancy. They were left a few rags for apparel, bedding and a few scraps of food. Those who left the train without any food starved continuously from the moment they set foot in the camp.


There was no organisation or order of any kind. None of them could possibly help or share with each other and they soon lost any self-control or any sense whatsoever except the barest instinct of self-preservation. They had become at this stage, completely dehumanised. 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.


Jews at forced labor unloading artillery munitions at a supply depot near Izbica

This meant 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 was 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 sheer death and decomposition made even more horrible by its agonised 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 urging 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 un-crowded spot, I felt immeasurably relieved at having finished my stumbling, sweating journey.


The guide was standing at my side, saying something, giving me advice. I hardly heard him, my thoughts were elsewhere. He tapped me on the shoulder. I turned towards him mechanically, seeing him with difficulty. He raised his voice. “Look here. You are going to stay here. I’ll walk on a little further. 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, practice stratagems on myself to convince myself that I was not one of the condemned, throbbing multitude, forcing myself to relax as my body seemed to tie itself into knots, or turning away at intervals to gaze into the distance at a line of trees near the horizon.


I had to remain on the alert, too, for an Estonian uniform, ducking toward the crowd or behind a nearby shed every time one approached me. The crowd continued to writhe in agony, the guards circulated about, bored and indifferent, occasionally distracting themselves by firing a shot or dealing out a blow.


Finally, I noticed a change in the motion of the guards. They walked less and they all seemed to be glancing in the same direction- at the passage to the track which was quite close to me. I turned toward it myself.


Two German policemen came to the gate with a tall bulky SS man. He barked out an order and they began to open the gate with some difficulty. It was very heavy. He shouted at them impatiently. They worked at it frantically and finally whipped 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 part of one of the Jews to break out of the mob, or to escape if they had so much presence of mind left, would have been completely impossible. Moreover, it facilitated the job of loading them onto the train.


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 from the 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.


A post card from the transit camp in Izbica

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 the 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 let-up from the rear and now from the sides too, narrowing the mob down and driving it in a savage scramble onto the passageway.


In utter panic, groaning in despair and agony, they rushed down the passageway, trampling it so furiously that it threatened to fall apart. Here new shots were heard. The two policemen at the entrance to the train were now firing into the oncoming throng corralled in the passageway, in order to slow them down and prevent them from demolishing the flimsy structure.


The SS man now added his roar to the deafening 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 the most horrible episode of them all. The Bund leader had warned me that if I lived to a hundred I would never forget some of the things I saw. He did not exaggerate. The military rule stipulates that a freight car may carry eight horses or forty soldiers. Without any baggage at all, a maximum of a hundred passengers standing close together and pressing against each other could be crowded into a car.


The Germans had simply issued orders to the effect that 120 to 130 Jews had to enter each car. These orders were now being carried out. Alternately swinging and firing with their rifles, the policemen were forcing still more people into the two cars, which were already over-full.


The shots continued to ring out in the rear and the driven mob surged forward, exerting an irresistible pressure against those nearest to the train. These unfortunates crazed by what they had been through, scourged by the policemen, and shoved forward by the milling mob, then began to climb on the heads and shoulders of those in the trains.


These were helpless since they had the weight of the entire advancing throng against them and responded only with howls of anguish to 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 human beings, men, women and children gained admittance in this fashion. Then the policemen slammed the doors across the hastily withdrawn limbs that still protruded and pushed the iron bars in place.


The two cars were now crammed to bursting with tightly packed human flesh, completely hermetically filled. All this while the entire camp had reverberated with a tremendous volume of sound in which the hideous groans and screams mingled weirdly with shots, curses, and bellowed commands.


Nor was this all, I know that many people will not believe me, will not be able to believe me, will think I exaggerate or invent. But I saw it and it is not exaggerated or invented. I have no other proofs, no photographs. All I can say is that I saw it and that it is the truth.


Letter from the Izbica Judenrat dated March 29, 1942

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 large amount of heat.


Here the lime served a double purpose in the Nazi economy of brutality. The moist flesh coming in contact with the lime is rapidly dehydrated and burned. The occupants of the cars would be 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 Fuhrer” in Warsaw in 1942.

Secondly the lime would prevent decomposing bodies from spreading disease. It was efficient and inexpensive – a perfectly chosen agent for their purposes.


It took three hours to fill up the entire train by repetitions of this procedure. It was twilight when the forty-six (I counted them) 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 momentary lull and then, again, the train would begin to moan and sob, wail and howl. Inside the camp a few score dead bodies remained and a few in the final throes of death.


German policemen walked around at leisure with smoking guns pumping bullets into anything, that by a moan or motion betrayed an excess of vitality. Soon not a single one was left alive.


In the now quiet camp the only sounds were the inhuman screams that were echoes 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 odour which I thought, may have come from the quantities of blood that had been shed and with which the ground was stained.


As I listened to the dwindling outcries from the train, I thought of the destination toward which it was speeding. My informants had minutely described the entire journey. The train would travel about eighty 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 be in them should arrive. Under a strong guard they would unseal the cars and expel the heaps of decomposing bodies. The mounds of flesh that they pilled up would then be burned and the remnants buried in a single huge hole.


The cleaning, burning and burial would consume one or two full 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 from the beginning. 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. He was frantically trying to rouse my attention and to keep his voice lowered at the same time.


“Wake up, wake up,” he was scolding me hoarsely, “Don’t Stand there with your mouth open. Come on hurry, or we’ll both get caught. Follow me and be quick about it.” 


I followed him at a distance, feeling completely benumbed.”






New York Times

Holocaust Historical Society




 Copyright. Hans Zimmerman  H.E.A.R.T 2008 


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