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Believing the Unbelievable
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.
In London, on December 2, 1942, Karski reported to Polish-Jewish leaders Szmul Zygielbojm and Ignacy Schwarzbart.
Zygielbojm had assumed the worst about the fate of the Jews in Europe for some time. His had been a lone voice, without much influence. Schwarzbart had close ties to the World Jewish Congress and had shared that organization's cautious outlook as the first atrocity stories filtered out of Europe.
On December 1, when Schwarzbart perused the full text of the documents Karski had carried, his illusions were shattered. Reeling, he cabled the World Jewish Congress in New York:
The leaders received Jan in a small conference room. If they needed any further evidence in order to "believe the unbelievable," Karski provided it. He told of naked corpses in the Warsaw Ghetto, of hollow-eyed children wearing yellow stars, of the mass murder he had witnessed at the camp.
Jan fielded questions for some time. Finally Schwarzbart excused himself, rising unsteadily from his seat. Karski stayed to deliver a message to Zygielbojm, explaining that he would repeat as exactly as possible what Leon Feiner, a Jewish leader in Warsaw, had told him. Jan relayed Feiner's rejection of empty protests. He repeated a call for retaliatory bombing, leafleting and the execution of Germans in Allied hands. Then, without notes, he began reciting verbatim Feiner's final plea:
"We are only too well aware that in the civilized world outside, it is not possible to believe all that is happening to us. Let the Jewish people, then, do something that will force the other world to believe us. We are all dying here; let them die too. Let them crowd the offices of Churchill, of all the important English and American leaders and agencies. Let them proclaim a fast before the doors of the mightiest. Let them die a slow death while the world is looking on. This may shake the conscience of the world."
Zygielbojm jumped from his seat. He paced violently back and forth across the small room. "It is impossible," he said, "utterly impossible. You know what would happen. They would simply bring in two policemen and have me dragged away to an institution." Zygielbojm became more and more frantic, less and less coherent. By the end of the interview, he was begging Karski to believe he had done his best to help his people.
"It will actually be a shame to go on living," Zygielbojm declared in a BBC broadcast two weeks later, "if steps are not taken to halt the greatest crime in human history." Zygielbojm continued his desperate efforts for five more months.
Finally, he apparently decided to heed Feiner's call for self-sacrificing protest. Leaving a note with one last plea for action on behalf of the Jews, Szmul Zygielbojm committed suicide on May 12, 1943.