Source: Story of a Secret State by Jan Karski
Comment: Items of interest
[page 7 - mobilisation and German attack]
There were, too, the remarks my brother had made during the hours immediately after the mobilization. My brother, who was my senior by nearly a score of years, held an important government position and had belonged, as far back as I could remember, to the 'well-informed circles.' The citations which Pietrzak made from his father, who had even more authoritative channels of information, amplified and confirmed the analysis given by my brother. Others joined in with gleanings from relatives, friends and their personal deductions. The entire compilation, when sifted down, tended to leave us with the conclusion that our mobilization was simply the Polish riposte to the Nazi war of nerves. Germany was weak and Hitler was bluffing. When he saw that Poland was strong, united, prepared, he would back down quickly and we should all go home, If not, the farcical little fanatic would be taught a severe lession by Poland and, if necessary, by England and France.
One evening our major said:
'England and France are not needed this time. We can finish this alone.;
Pietrzak remarked dryly:
'Yes sir, we are strong, but...well, but....it is always nice to be in good company.'
On the night of September 1, around 5:00 am, while the soldiers of our Mounted Artillery Division tranquilly slept, the Luftwaffe roared through the short distance to Oswiecim undetected and, perched above our camp, proceeded to rain a blazing shower of incendiaries on the entire region. At the same hour, hundreds of the powerful and modern German tanks crossed the frontier and hurled a tremendous barrage of shells into the flaming ruins,
The extent of the death and destruction and disorganization this combined fire caused in three short hours was incredible. By the time our wits were sufficiently collected even to survey the situation, it was apparent that we were in no position to offer any serious resistance. Nevertheless, a few batteries, by some miracle, managed to hold together long enough to hurl some shots in the direction of the tanks. By noon, two batteries of our artillery had ceased to exist.
The barracks were almost completely in ruins and the railroad station had been leveled. When it became apparent that we were incapable of any serious resistance, the retreat, it such it could be called began. Our reserve battery received orders to leave Oswiecim in formation and to take our guns, supplies and ammunition in the direction of Cracow. As we marched through the streets of Oswiecim toward the railroad, to our complete astonishment and dismay, the inhabitants began firing at us from the windows, They were Polish citizens of German descent, the Nazi Fifth Column, who were, in this fashion, announcing their new allegiance. Most of our men instantly wanted to attack and set fire to every suspect house but were restrained by the superior officers.
[page 256 - 258 Retribution ]
The Germans issued an order forbidding all marriages unless permission was granted by the authorities. In nearly all cases, permission was withheld on the grounds that the couple were not suited to the program of 'raising the racial standard of the Polish people.' Complementary to this unprecedented edict, another order was issued to the effect that all illegal babies could be 'confiscated' by the authorities and deported to orphanages in the Reich.
When, as a consequence of the first decree, the villagers began to contract secret marriages, the second order was brought into play. The children arriving to these unfortunates were invariably snatched from their parents' arms. Often the mothers attempted to take their infants to another village where they could be hidden. This was rarely successful. The Gestapo employed their resources to track down the mother and tear away the baby as though it had been a puppy. Thousands of Polish children have been irretrievably lost to their parents in this way. No one is sure even of exactly what did happen to them.
The rural branches of the Underground displayed a special brand of ferocity and ingenuity all their own. Indeed, in our desperation and outrage against the barbaric methods of the Germans and outrage against the barbaric methods of the Germans we used devices of which we were almost ashamed, but which we developed as purely rational answers to the appalling German process of exterminating our citizenry. In several cases, for instances, we employed procurers to arrange encounters between German officers and prostitutes whom we knew to have veneral infections. We allowed a great number of criminals to be liberated from penitentiaries in 1939 and encouraging them to resume their former professions of thieving and murdering, with the proviso that they confine their activities to the Germans. Our authorities kept the names, records, and data of every one of them, in order to be able to regain control of them after the war. Of course, they were promised that their sentences would be reduced in proportion to the success of their operations against the Germans.
It is significant of the intensity of the collective hatred against the Germans that not one of these criminals committed a single act against a Pole and that many of them could be trusted to perform one or two of the more bloody requirements of underground action.
The people who did not live under German domination will never be able to gauge the strength of this hatred and will find it difficult to understand that every moral law, convention, or restriction on impulses simply disappeared. Nothing remained but the desperation of an animal caught in a trap. We fought back by every conceivable means in a naked struggle to survive against an enemy determined to destroy us. Poland snarled and clawed back at its oppressors like a wounded cat. I doubt if such a state has existed in large collectivities since the time of Christ.
We developed some real experts in revenge. I remember a man called Jan, who came from the province of Poznan and spoke German fluently. Before the war he traded in pigs. During and after the war, the region from which he came endured the most atrocious sufferings under the domination of the Germans. In Warsaw, Jan became one of the many specialists in paying back the Germans with their own coin.
To spread contagious diseases was Jan's favorite activity. He carried on his person an astounding collection of every type of lethal agent. He had an attractive, specially constructed little box in which was housed lice that bore microbes, typhoid-bearing germs and others. I was so repelled at the notion that I forebore to gather more specific information. His methods, however, were well-known among us.
He would frequent bars, enter into conversation with German soldiers, and drink with them. Drinking was one of Jan's pleasures but he never let it interfere with his main objective. At the proper moment he would drop a louse bearing typhoid germs behind the collar of his German friend. He would drop germs into the drinks. He, too, would introduced them to girls who had venereal disease. He was known to have a number of different methods, which he would utilize according to his convenience or fancy. Not one of the Germans ever escaped lightly with whom the 'walking germ,' as he was known, became acquainted.
[page 267 -268 Underground Press]
By and large, the views and tendencies of the secret press were those of the Underground. The Government Delegate had his own official organ, Rzeczpospolita Polska (The Polish Republic). In it were published his commands and advice, the speeches of prominent members of the government and the statesmen of the United Nations, and editorials which expressed the official viewpoint of the Underground. It had a wide ciruclation and was very influential in molding opinion and conduct. The Government Delegate also published provincial organs from the same viewpoint and serving a similar purpose. Among the most popular were two entitled Our Eastern Provinces and Our Western Provinces which were especially noteworthy in their treatment of matters of local interest.
Wiadmosci Polskie (Polish News) was the official organ of the Commander of the Home Army. It contained articles devoted to social and military problems. The army also issued the semi-official Information Bulletin which stressed current news. The staff of this paper was composed of highly skilled, experienced journalists. Its news, editorial and make-up departments were all of the highest quality, and it was undoubtedly the most popular secret paper in Poland. The military command also issued Zolnierz Polski (The Poland Soldier), a large part of which was devoted to reminiscence and analysis of the military defeat. It published, too, news of the activities of the Polish army at home and abroad. Insurrection was a special military paper, largely transmitting information for the benefit of army officers on such subjects as street fighting, insurrectionary tactics and 'diversion.'
The journals of the political parties were in a different class. They expressed the rich multiplicity of political life in the Underground and, taken as a whole, performed immense services in heightening the awareness of the populace and educating them to an understanding of the divergent political trends in the modern world. All shades of opinion could be found, from the extreme right to the extreme left.
The publications of the Socialist Party contained a high level of reporting and a vigorous editorial policy. The chief organ of the party was the WRN, a title formed from the initials of the Polish equivalents of the words 'liberty,' 'equality' and 'independence.' The Wies i Miasto (Country and City) fostered the collaboration and rapproachement of factory and rural workers. Wolnosc (Freedom) circulated among the intelligentsia. It had numerous organs worked out to fit their program for different section of the population and different regions. Many of them were of a local and restricted character, their circulations being according less wide.
The chief organ of the Peasant Party was called Through Fight to Victory. They also published a paper for the urban intelligentsia called Orka and others.
The Christian Labor Party, which had suffered the greatest casualties in the underground struggle, frequently changed the names of its newspaper for conspirational reasons. Its chief organ during the first period of my underground work was called Glos Warszawy (The Voice of Warsaw). When I was leaving Poland, their two main papers were called Zryo and Narod (The Nation).
The chief organ of the National Democratic Party was Walka (The Fight). The party also issued a periodical of military and political character called Narod i Wojsko (The Nation and the Army).
These were, on the whole, the most influential and well-known papers of the country. There were many others, some of them the publications of these same parties but less widely known, and others from the smaller centers.
[page 281 - 282 Liaison Women ]
A message, smuggled out of the jail after her first and only examination, described her condition. The Gestapo beasts stripped her to the skin and put her on the floor. They tied her legs and hands to hooks and then struck at her sex organs with rubber blackjacks. The message from the prison read: " When they carried her away, the lower half of her body was in shreds."
[page 313 Parliament in Poland ]
When I left for England I would carry more than one thousand pages of printed matter for the government on Contax films the size of two or three American matchsticks. This material would be concealed in the handle of a razor, so perfectly soldered that its concealment would be well-nigh undetectable.
[page 319 shortwave radio]
A coded message was sent by short-wave to the Government in London to our organisation in France:
"Karski leaving soon. Goes through Germany, Belgium, France, Spain. Two week stay in France; two weeks in Spain. Inform all 'transfer cells' in France, also all Allied representatives in Spain. Password: 'Coming to see Aunt Sophie.' Announce him as Karski"
[page 357-58 Rudolph Strauch, pre-war liberal friend in Berlin]
For dinner they asked me to a beerhouse on a side street just off Unter den Linden. It was a 'standardized' meal but ample and fairly cheap, about fifteen marks for the three of us. Discussion at the table centered on the Jews. Rudolph and his sister gave vent to all the common Nazi remarks on the subject. I made an effort to pierce their thick skins by describing in an off-hand, neutral fashion the most abominable and revolting of the practices I had witnessed, the death train, the quicklime and chlorine. Their reactions were cool and detached, betraying not the slightest trace of physical, let alone moral, repulsion. Rudolph commented:
'Very efficient. The Jewish corpses will not be allowed to spread disease as they did in life.'
'They must have been warm,' was the response of Berta at the conclusion of my description of the quicklime episode.
During the course of the meal, I detected a note of hostility in Berta's behavior toward me, an odd shade of suspicion and fear. I began to worry and fret. Perhaps I had been exaggeratedly pro-German, or somewhat implausible in my narrative. I might have made a slip somewhere in my facts or contradicted myself. Perhaps the feeling of superiority to a mere Pole was beginning to assert itself. I felt downright alarm when Berta got up from her chair and beckoned Rudolph to follow her.
'Please excuse us," she said to me with cold formality, 'I have something to discuss in private with my brother.'
They retreated into an alcove a few tables away. The cigarette I was smoking suddenly developed a bitter flavor. What a fool I had been to come, I thought. A glance around the restaurant made it plain to me that if they had gone to inform the police, I did not have a chance to escape. They returned in a few minutes, Rudolph strained, nervous, and a trifle embarrassed, his sister stubbornly calm and determined.
'They are going to denounce me,' I thought in panic and struggled to control myself and remain outwardly cool and genial.
Rudolph spoke to me in a tense, hoarse whisper.
'Jan,' he said, almost apologetically, 'I hate to say this to you. Personally, I am very fond of you, but we have to part. All the Poles are the enemies of the Fuehrer and the Third Reich. They try to harm Germany wherever they can and they server Jewish and British interests. They even help the Russian barbarians. I know that you are different, but what can I do? This is wartime. I will have to break off relations with you.'
My fear subsided, although my anger mounted at this stupid speech, particularly at the silly, official tone of the concluding remark.
'Besides,' Rudolph added, drops of sweat forming on his worried brow as he gazed around the room, 'It is dangerous to be seen talking to foreigners.'
[page 251 Assignment in Lublin ]
One of my first tasks in Warsaw was an order to take some material to a political leader hiding in Lublin. I stepped on the train loaded with a mass of radio bulletins, reports, and secret journals wrapped in a piece of paper to look like a loaf of bread or some other food-package. I carried it ostentatiously on the theory that it aroused less suspicion and could be more easily disposed of in case of emergency.
The trip to Lublin takes about six hours - slightly longer on the dilapidated trains the Germans had allowed to remain in Poland. This one was old, dingy, and noisy. It was unbelievably overcrowded and nearly every passenger on it was engaged in smuggling food. Each seat was taken, the aisles were crammed with people, and the lavatories, the doors of which I had been opened wide, were also thronged. I was in the center of a car, surrounded by other standees, bumping into them and the fortunate seated passengers at every lurch and turn.
After three hours of this jolting, stifling journey, the train came to a sudden halt in the middle of an open field. Through the window I saw squads of German gendarmes clustering around the train. It was one of the common routine investigations the Gestapo made at unpredictable intervals to check illegal practices.
[page 253 Assignment in Lublin ]
But at the station before Lublin I learned a thing or two about these unsophisticated and candid-looking peasants. The Gestapo had investigated the train with methodical, ruthless efficiency. Every parcel that contained a morsel of food had been confiscated. They had searched everywhere, poking under the benches, standing on tiptoe to peer at the shelves, yanking bags of flour from under the billowing skirts of the peasant women, and even taking slabs of bacon from their brassieres. They had cleaned the food from the train as thoroughly as a horde of locusts.
Yet at the tiny station before Lublin, as if by magic, a swarm of men, women, boys and girls climbed down from the train, loaded with every variety of bulky, heavy package. I could easily detect loaves of bread, sacks of flour, hames and sides of bacon. Like a flock of birds, they flew from the train and disappeared quickly into the forest while I rubbed my eyes in amazement and delight. I have never yet understood where and how they concealed those sizeable bundles.
[page 145 Torture - Gestapo in Preszow?]
I was taken to a small office, thick with cigarette smoke, in the Preszow police station.
[page 150 - more Torture Inspector Pick]
There were only four men in the room besides myself. Behind the larger table a padded swivel chair in shiny leather was occupied by a new official. He was the type that one saw in Germany not too infrequently, but that was scarce in the Polish division of the Gestapo. He was an extraordinary fat man, but his flesh seemed to have been smoothly molded from a single, uniformly rich substance....The other three were the usual, nondescript Gestapo guards.
[page 95 - 98 Belzec to Lwow ]
He had been notified of my impending arrival and accepted me readily. I was to be included in a party of Jews which he would guide across the border within three days. He had completed dozens of such expeditions without a mishap and was very cool and unruffled for a young man engaged in so hazardous an enterprise. While I talked he slipped into a short heavy coat and, taking me by the arm, piloted me out-of-doors.
'Come,' he said, 'we have no time to lose. You will have to find a place to stay in the village. I must show you the spot where we are to meet.'
He shambled along, still sleepy, pausing occasionally to stretch and yawn. It was about two and a half miles to the rendezvous for the border crossings. He took little notice of me. To make conversation I asked him why he was so sleepy. He answered good-naturedly enough, telling me that he had been up all night conducting a party through, and had already had his sleep interrupted several times during the day to show members of the next group the appointed spot. I intimated that there ought to be a better system than for him to march back and forth all day. He grunted in agreement, but added that nobody had thought of any other.
At length we passed a stream and came to a clearing near a mill.
'This is it,' he said wearily, as though he had made the exact remark on an endless number of occasions. 'You are to be here three days from now at six o'clock punctually. We don't wait for anybody.'
'I'll be on time,' I answered. 'Where do you suggest I stay in the meanwhile?'
'There is a quiet little inn at the far end of the village. You can't miss it. It is the only one. Take a good look around before you go, there won't be anyone to guide you back here.'
Obediently I glanced at the trees, the road, the mill, and the little stream. He waited for my eyes to complete a full circle, and then we set off, walking with long, heavy strides toward his hut. At one time, he seemed to be lurching about and I noticed that his eyes were almost shut. I nudged him. He responded with surprising alacrity.
'Is anything wrong?' he asked.
'No, but you were asleep and staggering. I thought you might stumble and hurt yourself.'
'Hurt myself? Here?' he glanced contemptuously at the inoffensive dirt road. 'Not if I were drunk and blindfolded.
The inn was easy to find and the lodging surprising comfortable. The innkeeper, a little, wrinkled old peasant, asked no questions and quietly raised his charges in proportion to his suspicions. I passed the three days doing my best to appear inconspicuous, feigning illness and staying in my room. I arrived at the appointed clearing slightly ahead of schedule but many of hte others were already there.
It was almost dark. The moon was luminous and full, exposing everyone in the clearing to my view. I could see that there were many of all ages, old men and women, two women with babies in their arms and a few young men and girls. They were all escaping Jews. It seemed as if they sense what the future held in store for them, that soon the pitiless extermination of the Jews would start.
They carried a variety of bundles, bags and suitcases, and some even held pillows and blankets in their arms. They were divided into groups and some formed family units. One old couple had come with four daughters, two of whom had brought their husbands with them, and these eight individuals seemed to form a little detachment of their own. Since it would be necessary to walk about thirteen miles through forest and field, the guide, although it was not really an arduous journey, was supposed to refuse to include babies and any debilitated people.
Apparently this rule was not stringently observed, for when the guide arrived, he contended himself with delivering a formal reprimand to the mothers and demanding that they quiet their offspring immediately since the children both had begun to cry loudly enough to be heard for miles. The two mothers were standing close together, and a number of the older women approached them to offer advice. The two mothers held the babies in their arms and rocked them to and fro, whispering gently to them. At last the babies fell asleep and we set out.
The guide walked on ahead with large, rapid strides, glancing neither to right nor left and occasionally whirling around to hush the party when the conversation became loud. It was, however, hard to imagine the presence of any eavesdroppers. It was cold and the dark silhouettes of the leafless trees made the whole scene lonely and desolate.
Our path wound through forests, fields, paths, patches of mud, and little streams in rapid succession. Often it seemed as though the guide must surely have lost his way, but his steady, unhesitating tread deterred all questioning. When a cloud passed across the moon, it plunged us into pitch darkness and we stumbled forward, clinging to each other desperately, holding on to coattails, falling, bruising hands and knees, scratching our faces and getting well-splattered with mud.
When the moon came out again I saw the two mothers clearly. Emaciated, their hair dishevelled by the wind and the low branches, their faces bruised by the sharp twigs, they were holding on with one hand to the coattails of two men who preceded them while they hugged the babies tightly to their breasts with their free hands. We had one hand free to part branches and keep our balance by clutching for support. They had no protection against the large rocks with which the path was strewn, the thorns, the tree roots onw hich they frequently stumbled.
We always knew when they stumbled. Alarmed, we would hear the babies begin to whimper, and everyone would become tense with fear and anticipation. Each time the mothers would find some new resource of tenderness by which to still them. The guide would stop frequently and make us wait while he reconnoitered the path ahead. He would return gesturing for us to hurry and follow him. The path he followed was tortuous and inaccessible to Soviet and German guards who were unfamiliar with the terrain.
In any case, his prudence was beneficial and the precautions did no harm. We emerged from the forest and found ourselves in the middle of the road. The guide called back to us softly, in a voice that expressed great relief and joy:
'People, we are on the other side of the border. You can rest easy, now.'
We wearily flung ourselves down on the wet ground under the trees by the side of the road. Our guide divided us into three groups and took each group separately into the village.
In the village we separated. I was left at a Jewish hostle with four other men and a woman from our group.
We spent half a day in this hostel, mostly listening to our loquacious host. In the afternoon we left, walking one by one to the railroad station to which the innkeeper's daughter directed us. It was a distance of about three miles and on the way we frequently Soviet patrols. We passed them in silence and hailed the militia by stretching out our arms, clenching our fists in the communists salute in order to avoid suspicion.
The station was besieged by hundreds of anxious, noisy, and gesticulating people. No more tickets could be obtained at the window, but the black market was doing a flourishing business. Within a few minutes the innkeeper's daughter bought six tickets to Lwow.