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The Price of Freedom
Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust, by E. Thomas Wood and Stanislaw M. Jankowski (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1994; paperback February 1996). Copyright 1994 by E. Thomas Wood and Stanislaw M. Jankowski. All rights reserved.
The following excerpt tells of the aftermath of Karski's failed suicide attempt in a Slovakian prison cell, following his capture in June 1940 and intensive torture by the Gestapo. He was using the pseudonym "Witold Kucharski" at the time of his capture.
Suddenly awake, Jan struggled in vain to emit a scream of rage. He tried to thrash free of the bare wooden table to which he was strapped, but the transfusion continued. The world faded out again.
When it faded back in, Jan lay in a hospital ward, surrounded by ancient patients and antiseptic odors. Huge splints, which would have been comical in another time and place, were attached to his wrists. To his utter despair, he soon learned that the old Slovak in the prison had overheard his dying throes and alerted the authorities. The Gestapo had ordered local doctors to preserve their catch for further questioning. The cycle would continue -- and now they would be on the lookout for his next suicide attempt.
That attempt would come nonetheless, Jan resolved. He had been deterred once, but it was absolutely imperative that he kill himself. Certainly there was no more to live for at this moment than there had been the night before.
A nun appeared at the bedside, holding a thermometer. "You understand Slovak?" she asked cheerfully.
"Listen carefully," she said softly. "It is better to be here than in prison. We will try to keep you here as long as possible. Do you understand?"
Here was a possibility. Perhaps the good sister had it in mind to provide him with a medical exemption from future torture. Interesting, but Jan still refused to allow himself to hope. His misery was multiplied a few days later, when the guard in his room tauntingly placed a newspaper in front of him. Its headline announced the surrender of France to the Nazis on June 22, 1940.
A week went by. Jan played along with the scheme that the nun, and later the doctor who had transfused him, had outlined in whispers over his bed. He made a point of appearing as weak and sickly as possible, to bolster the physician's claim that he had to stay longer at the hospital. But Jan knew he was only putting off the inevitable. On his seventh morning in the Presov infirmary, two men from the Gestapo came for him. Over the doctor's strenuous protests, they hauled his limp form back to the prison.
Once deposited in his old cell, however, Jan remained only a few hours. In an even more foul temper than usual, the Gestapo men soon returned to take him back to the hospital. The Slovak doctor had evidently convinced higher-ups among the Germans that their prized prisoner would perish without further treatment.
Now in excruciating boredom, still pretending to be near death, still expecting to face further torture as soon as the Germans thought he was ready for it, Jan lay in the hospital as the days went by. Then, one day in early July, everything changed.
The Gestapo did come for him again. But after they had shoved him into the back of the car, they drove in a different direction from the prison. Jan feared the worst: They could have been taking him to another prison, or even to an execution site. But he felt a glimmer of hope as he realized they were headed north, into Poland. His spirits soared when the car halted in Nowy Sacz-- the very town Jan and his guide had left a month earlier, at the outset of their ill-fated journey.
The Germans deposited their cargo in a secured ward at the local hospital. His room, which he shared with several elderly patients, was guarded at times by Polish policemen and at other times by Gestapo men. Immediately Jan began considering the possibility of escape. If he could contact his colleagues in Nowy Sacz, then maybe, just maybe, they could free him.
On the other hand, any such attempt might play right into the hands of the Germans. They had sent him here for a reason, Jan thought. Surely they must have decided that if their prisoner would not tell them about the movement, he could be tricked into showing them some part of it. Jan decided that they were using him as bait. Nevertheless, he had to explore his new options. If the underground could not free him, perhaps it could at least help him commit suicide.
"What can I do to help you?" mumbled a young doctor, leaning over to change the soiled dressings on Jan's wrists. "Can I pass a message to anyone?"
Jan studied the physician's smooth, guileless face. The offer was tempting-- but that was probably just how the Gestapo wanted it to seem. "No," pouted the patient, "I have nobody to send messages to. I don't know what you're talking about."
The doctor leaned closer. "Don't be afraid," he said. "I'm not a provocateur. We're all patriotic Poles here."
Jan turned his eyes away from the doctor. He was not about to fall for this trap.
From doctors and nurses alike, Jan heard the same advice he had heard in Presov. "You are very sick," they kept telling him. "Stay that way." After a couple of days, he learned that the nurses were consistently logging his temperature two or three degrees higher than the thermometer read.
On his second day in the hospital, Jan hatched a plan. He began to moan feverishly, begging to see a priest. He was going to die, he wailed. He had to receive the last rites. The doctor and nurse on the scene reacted with ostentatious distaste in front of the guard, rebuking Jan for disturbing the other patients. But they helped him into a wheelchair and rolled him down to the chapel. The guard dutifully followed, but allowed the prisoner to enter the confessional alone.
"Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned...." Jan had much to confess, given the sin he had tried to commit. But when he had finished asking the priest for absolution, he moved on to a more secular matter. He had qualms about raising it in this holy place, but he dismissed them by rationalizing that he was no longer at confession once he had received absolution.
Jan knelt silently after a final prayer with the priest. He tried to work up his nerve.
After a while, the voice came from the other side of the screen: "Son, go in peace."
Jan did not move.
"Son, go in peace," repeated the priest, a trifle irritated.
"Father, I want you to carry a message to someone for me," Jan finally whispered. "Her name is Zofia Rysiowna. She lives at number 2 Matejko Street."
"And what is it that you want me to tell her," the paternal voice hesitantly replied.
"That 'Witold Kucharski' is at this hospital," said Jan, "and that he wants poison."
The priest almost wept as he scolded the parishioner on the other side of the booth. "My son, my son," he whispered, "you cannot use the confessional for such earthly matters! You cannot ask me to help you commit the very sin for which you have just received absolution! How can you think of such things?"
Jan kept his silence.
The priest paused. "Oh, my son, my son," he said. He seemed to be groping for words. Finally he spoke again, in a strained whisper: "What's her name? What's that address?"
A new nurse tended to Jan the next day, solicitously fluffing his pillow and taking his temperature. She was Zofia Rysiowna, the colleague at whose home Jan had prepared for his departure from Nowy Sacz. Jan's heart raced when he recognized her. The message had been delivered.
"Everybody's crying," Rysiowna mumbled as she hovered over the bed. "Everybody's worrying. What should we do?"
"Inform Josef," said Jan, not moving his lips. He told her that she could reach Josef Cyrankiewicz, the socialist leader, through Tadeusz Pilc, Jan's high-school friend in Krakow. He gave her Pilc's address. "If they can't save me," Jan mumbled, "let them send poison. I can't take any more torture."
Rysiowna went directly from the hospital to the hideout of her brother, Zbigniew Rys, an official of the local division of the underground's military wing. After discussing the situation with him, she boarded the first available train to Krakow. There she found Pilc and delivered the message for Cyrankiewicz.
By contacting Cyrankiewicz, Jan increased the odds in his favor. Both the underground army and one of the political factions would now be aware of his predicament. Jan knew that Cyrankiewicz was on good terms with the leader of the unified military forces in southern Poland, Tadeusz Komorowski. Independently, however, the socialists also had their own small fighting units. One way or the other, Cyrankiewicz could see to it that something was done for Jan-- if, in fact, anything could be done.
Two days after her first visit, Zofia Rysiowna returned to the hospital. Again fluffing Jan's pillow, she put one hand under it. "This is cyanide," she murmured. "It kills painlessly. But don't use it except in the most dire emergency. We will try to arrange your escape."
Komorowski, the military leader, had authorized an escape operation, but the socialists had agreed to finance it. The main cost would be a bribe offered to the two Polish policemen who would be on duty outside Jan's ward on the night of the operation. For this purpose the socialists had allocated the sizeable sum of 20,000 zlotys. One of their party's underground officials had accompanied Rysiowna on her return trip from Krakow. As soon as she arrived, bringing the cash from the socialists and the go-ahead from Komorowski's headquarters, her brother Zbigniew began organizing a team to carry out the mission.
In the shadow of the hospital, crouched on the wet grass, a three-man team waited for midnight. Zbigniew Rys scanned the grounds in search of guards. The fact that his superiors had forbidden any direct engagement with the enemy had not sunk in on Jozef Jenet and Karol Glod, his overanxious young subordinates. They had fairly oozed bravado from the outset -- dangerously so. Sixteen-year-old Jenet had even produced a kitchen knife, with which he was ready to take on the Gestapo. Rys had little faith that his whispered reprimand would have any effect.
The silhouettes of orderlies and nurses appeared occasionally in the corridors and stairwells. A bored-looking janitor was also visible, manning the lodge at the main entrance. The other windows were dark.
Inside the hospital, Dr. Jan Slowikowski emerged from the delivery room, the cries of a newborn fading in his ears as he paced the hallways. To his relief, he encountered none of the recuperating German soldiers who sometimes lingered in the hallways to enjoy a late smoke. Just before midnight, he climbed the stairs to the third floor. At the door to the secured ward, one of the Polish gendarmes was already asleep in his chair, an empty glass sitting on the table next to him. The other glanced briefly at Slowikowski, saying nothing. In the center of Nowy Sacz, church bells rang the hour. The doctor opened the door.
Jan lay still, watching the figure in the doorway, listening for any interruption in the steady breathing and snores coming from the other five beds in the room. Slowikowski, the baby-faced physician whose offer Jan had earlier rejected, had turned out to be a genuine underground member after all. He slowly pulled out a cigarette and lit it. Seeing this all-clear signal, Jan rose from his bed. He clutched the cyanide capsule tightly: Tonight he would be free or die.
The patient threw off his gown and padded naked toward the door. Dr. Slowikowski disappeared. The gendarme guided Jan to the stairway. Then, rushing back to his seat, the policeman gulped down the sedative-laced water in his glass and nestled into a chair next to his comrade.
Jan staggered all the way down to the ground floor and began fumbling with a lock on the stairwell window. He tried furiously to turn the lock, but couldn't muster the grip strength. Hearing the voices of nurses in the corridor, he stumbled up to the next landing. There through the open window he saw Zbigniew Rys, who had climbed to the roof of an annex to the building.
Clambering over the window-sill, Jan fell into the arms of Rys. The two men crawled across the roof. Rys jumped to the ground ahead of Jan and then caught the naked fugitive on his shoulders as he climbed down. Jan glanced at the faces of his rescuers as Jenet and Glod slipped a jacket and trousers over him; he recognized none of them. Each throwing an arm around him, Jenet and Glod half-carried Jan toward the fence surrounding the hospital grounds.
Running, or even walking, was an ordeal for the weak, injured, barefoot escapee. Scaling the fence was out of the question. He held up his bandaged wrists in silent apology. The three underground fighters swept him up and shoved him over the fence in one swift motion. The escape team's lookout, Tadeusz Szafran, caught him on the other side. Rys now led the group toward the River Dunajec, ignoring Jan's feeble plea for a brief rest. Every minute of delay due to Jan's frailty would leave the trail that much fresher for the bloodhounds. Signaling for the others to hoist their cargo onto his back, Rys carried Jan the rest of the way to the river.
At the Dunajec, the three younger men under Rys's command fled into the darkness, their mission completed. Another underground member emerged from the rushes at the water's edge, towing a rowboat toward the bank. He and Rys helped Jan into the boat and began rowing, against the current, toward the opposite shore of the river.
As the rescuers furiously paddled, the boat listed wildly from side to side. Jan, weak and dizzy, held on to the side of the boat as firmly as he could. But in the middle of the river, he tumbled over the side. Rys, a powerfully built man, calmly set down his oar and hauled Jan back into the boat. Jan lay on the floor of the boat, shivering uncontrollably, until it reached the other shore.
After hiding the boat in the rushes, Jan and his liberators fled through a forest and across a moonlit field. In agony from his soggy bandages to his bare feet, but exhilarated by the promise of deliverance from the Gestapo, Jan alternately limped along with the two men and rode piggyback on them. They reached a country road and fell into a trot, racing the approaching dawn. As the first light approached, Rys and the other conspirator led Jan through a foggy pasture and halted at a barn.
"We must leave you here," said Rys. "Your host will pay his respects tomorrow. He will see to it that you are well-hidden for a while. You will be contacted as soon as the Gestapo chase slackens off."
Jan, too excited and exhausted to speak coherently, tried to babble his gratitude. Rys cut him off.
"You better cut out all those thanksgivings," said Rys. "I had two orders. The first was to get you out if I could. The second was to shoot you if I failed."
Jan concealed himself in a hay loft, awaiting further developments. The barn's owner, an ancient farmer who was a veteran of the anti-tsarist underground of 1905, brought food twice a day. After several days, two underground agents arrived to evacuate the fugitive from the Nowy Sacz area.
Buried under a small mountain of produce in a horse-drawn cart, Jan rode for hours on end. When he was allowed to emerge from the fragrant pile, he was on a remote rural pike southwest of Krakow, near the village of Katy. A fresh-faced young woman awaited him there. Jan rode with her to a modest, isolated country estate, nestled in mountainous terrain. His escape was over; his quarantine-- a standard precaution taken with any underground member who had been compromised -- had begun.
At dawn on the morning after the escape, the two policemen in the hospital corridor had awoken to find a formidable nurse hovering over them and inquiring none too politely about the whereabouts of patient "Kucharski." They had looked at each other sheepishly, wondering aloud how they could both have fallen asleep at once.
As the nurse charged off to notify the authorities, the policemen scurried to hang a rope from one of the windows of their floor. During interrogations, and later when they were on trial for negligence, the rope and the sedative residue in their water-glasses would temporarily convince the Germans of their innocence.
The Gestapo investigation at the hospital hit a dead end. Doctors, nurses and patients could offer no clues. A large bounty was posted for information leading to the capture of Kucharski and those who had helped him escape, but without effect. A dragnet around the Nowy Sacz area and house-to-house searches yielded nothing.
In the Vigilance Gazette, a newsletter distributed to police stations throughout Poland, Jan's photo appeared over the caption: "A dangerous bandit who is a threat to the people." The newsletter advised officials that the fugitive was easily recognizable by the scars on his wrists.
Obersturmfuhrer Heinrich Hamann, commander of the Gestapo in Nowy Sacz, pursued the case relentlessly. His suspicions were heightened by a series of disappearances: First one of the acquitted policemen, then Dr. Slowikowski, then Zofia Rysiowna went into hiding. Then, in May 1941, the Gestapo somehow broke the case. How the Germans learned the names of those involved in the escape has never been determined with certainty, but local rumor had it that one of the excitable young conspirators under the command of Rys-- either Jenet, or Glod, or Szafran-- bragged to friends about his exploits.
Rysiowna, captured in Warsaw, was imprisoned at the Ravensbruck concentration camp until it was liberated in 1945.
Glod and Jenet were captured with another underground member who had helped to transport Jan out of the area. All three were sent to Auschwitz. None survived captivity.
Szafran was held at the prison in Nowy Sacz. The second drugged policeman from the hospital, re-arrested after his acquittal, was also detained at the prison. Unable to find Jan Slowikowski, the Gestapo jailed another local doctor, along with Slowikowski's brother. Unable to determine which of two local priests carried Jan's message from the hospital confessional to the underground, the Gestapo imprisoned both. Dozens of other Nowy Sacz residents filled the jail as well, not charged with taking part in the escape but simply held in retribution for it.
The Nowy Sacz prison echoed with the cries of the tortured throughout the summer of 1941, as the Germans tried to extract the whereabouts of "Witold Kucharski" from the Poles they held. By late summer, Hamann had apparently given up on finding the escapee. But he could still teach a lesson to the Poles in his custody.
The Polish underground made a specialty of jailbreaks, but there was to be no jailbreak in Nowy Sacz. The Poles also often managed to set up efficient lines of communication between prisoners and the outside world, generally by bribing guards to carry messages. After several months of captivity, one of the imprisoned priests smuggled such a message to the outside:
"Tomorrow, on 21 August at 5:00 a.m., they will shoot us. We are calm and we wish you the same. It seems our beloved country needs this sacrifice. We shall pray for you at the Lord's throne. We forgive everyone and ask for your prayers for our souls. If we have wronged anyone, we are sorry. We apologize to all our parishioners."
As dawn broke the next morning, the crack of automatic rifles rang out from a brickyard in the nearby town of Biegonice. Thirty-two Poles fell dead, punished for their real or imagined parts in the escape of "Witold Kucharski."