You can't run away from Izbica. Jan Karski's story

12.03.2021
Written by: Przemysław Batorski
It took Jan Karski two days to recover from a visit to the transit ghetto in Izbica. The Germans turned the Jewish town near Zamość into a transfer point for Jews from Poland, the Czech Republic and Western Europe, who were then transported to the death camps in Bełżec and Sobibór. In March 1942, the first train with Jews from Bohemia arrived there.
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Izbica, 1940-1942, houses at Lubelska Street, Wikipedia, public domain

 

Izbica is a town located in the Lublin region, 22 kilometers from Zamość. In the 18th century, it was founded by Jews who had to leave the neighboring village of Tarnogóra, expelled by Christian residents as competitors in trade[1]. In 1921, 93% of the 3,085 inhabitants were Jews. As a town inhabited almost exclusively by Jews from the beginning, "it was a phenomenon in the scale of the entire Republic of Poland"[2]. In 1939, the number of inhabitants exceeded 5,000, and the ethnic composition was probably similar. Most of the Jews in Izbica were poor craftsmen and traders.

After the war broke out, the town was captured by the Germans, then handed over to the Red Army, but after the border was changed, it was again under German rule [3]. The town is surrounded by hills on three sides, and a river runs on the fourth side. Due to natural borders, the proximity of railway lines and the domination of the Jewish population, the occupiers chose Izbica as a transit ghetto.

Jews from Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia were brought to Izbica. Then they were transported to the death camps in Bełżec (in operation from March 1942) and Sobibór (in operation from May 1942). The first train with Jews from Theresienstadt arrived in Izbica on March 11 or 13 (sources give different dates) 1942. Theresienstadt (Terezin) was a ghetto for specially selected Jews, mainly intelligentsia, established by the Germans in an old Austrian fortress in the occupied Czech Republic. In the fall of 1942, Polish Jews from the vicinity of Krasnystaw and Zamość were also resettled to Izbica.

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The ghetto in Izbica, 1941-1943, Lubelska Street. Wiesław Smyk, fotopolska.eu

“The 'houses' are mainly made of wood and clay and consist of one or two 'rooms'. Everything dirty and infested. Several houses have the luxury of beds, tables, chairs or cabinets," wrote Ernst Krombach, deported from Essen, Germany, to his girlfriend Marianne Strauss in August 1942. "It is a city of cave huts with many hiding places that would be an absolute paradise for scout groups"[4].

Tomasz Blatt (Thomas "Toivi" Blatt) was brought up in Izbica. He later was a prisoner of Sobibór and one of the last surviving participants of the uprising in this extermination camp in October 1943 (he died in 2015 at the age of 88). In an interview in 2015, he said:

Refugees from Koło were accommodated in our house in Izbica. The canteen manager got a letter from his son; he said they were gassing people in Chełmno. My parents didn't believe it, they laughed at it. We already knew later. In mid-1942, everyone knew that the train was coming, the wagons were open, there would be a round-up tomorrow or today. [5]

Izbica was constantly overcrowded. The inhabitants lived in dugouts and mud huts, even a dozen or so people lived in one room. They suffered from hunger and a typhus epidemic caused by extremely poor sanitary conditions. There were no medicines or a hospital, a people’s kitchen gave out one meal a day in the form of half a liter of liquid considered "soup" [6]. As in other ghettos, the disastrous living conditions weakened the prisoners and made it easier for the Germans to transport them to extermination camps later.

The Jews of Western Europe were completely unaware of where they would go and what would happen to them. Polish Jews, whose friends had been deported earlier, knew more[7]. Czech and German Jews, who did not speak Yiddish, established their own Judenrat (Jewish Council) and the Order Service, as a result of which these institutions in the ghetto were duplicated and competed with each other[8]. Regardless of these internal conflicts, all Izbica Jews were to be sent to Bełżec or Sobibór. While trying to get to Hungary, Tomasz Blatt was passing near the camp in Bełżec:

We drove to Bełżec, although I was not aware of it. I noticed people closing windows, smoking cigarettes. What is? "This is Bełżec, this is Bełżec" – I heard. I could see a flame through the window, like a fire. I didn't know what was on fire because the fences were masked with young fir trees. Cigarettes were smoked so as not to smell the bodies. [9]

Most likely, it was the ghetto in Izbica that was visited in the fall of 1942 by Jan Karski, a courier of the Polish Underground State. (In the account in the book Secret State, there is an erroneous information that he visited the death camp in Bełżec). First, during his visit to Warsaw, Karski met with representatives of Jewish political parties, Leon Feiner from Bund and Adolf Berman from Poale Zion Left. With their help, he entered the Warsaw ghetto twice. Feiner also helped him organize the entrance to the transit camp in Izbica.

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Jan Karski

After traveling by train to Lublin, Karski came by cart to a shopkeeper cooperating with the Polish Home Army who lived near Izbica. He changed into the uniform that had previously belonged to a Ukrainian guard who had escaped from an SS unit, and with the help of another bribed Ukrainian, he entered the camp.

Halfway up, we began to hear shouts of commands, screams and single sounds of gunshots.

“What's happening?,” I asked.

"The Jews have a fever," he replied, pleased with the joke.

I looked at him sharply. He changed his tone.

“What's happening? Transport is getting ready”.

I didn't ask for details. The noise grew louder.

“Can you somehow get away from here?,” I asked.

“No kidding. You don't run away from here...” [10]

Karski and his guide easily crossed the gates of the camp. The Ukrainian explained that he sometimes helped Jews leave Izbica for a high fee and tried to introduce Karski to the details of what he called "business".

We were passing an old man. He sat naked on the ground and rocked back and forth rhythmically. His eyes sparkled and his eyelids blinked incessantly. Nobody paid any attention to him. A child in rags was lying next to him. It was having convulsions. It stared around in horror.

The crowd pulsed with some insane rhythm. They screamed, waved their arms, argued and cursed. They probably knew that they would soon go into the unknown, and fear, hunger and thirst intensified the feeling of uncertainty and animal anxiety. (...) Those who came here were mainly the inhabitants of the ghettos, who had nothing already... [11]

Soon the Germans and the Ukrainians began to drive the emaciated Jews to the wagons of the train.

(...) I witnessed scenes that I will remember for the rest of my life. I was not a good observer. I wanted to run away a few times, but I had nowhere to go. With all my will, I tried to remain calm. (...) [12]

According to the military regulations, a freight wagon was intended for eight horses or forty soldiers in transit. By forceful stuffing, one hundred people without any luggage could be accommodated in the car. The Germans ordered to pack one hundred and thirty people, but they were still cramming an additional ten. When the door would not close, they smashed people blindly with their butts, fired inside the wagon, and shouted at the unfortunate Jews. To make room for others, some of the Jews climbed up on the shoulders and heads of those already inside. From the depths of the wagon came some howl and roar of damnation.

After one hundred and forty people had been crammed in, the guards proceeded to close the door. They were heavy, made of wood upholstered with iron. They crushed outward limbs amid screams of pain. After sliding the door closed, it was secured with an iron bar and bolted. [13]

According to Karski's calculations, 46 wagons were loaded that day. This would mean that the transport numbered 6,440 people who went to the death camp. Many died at the entrance to the carriages or on the way to the gas chambers. (Taking into account this number and the time Karski was in the camp, it is possible that he witnessed one of the liquidation operations that took place in Izbica on October 18-19 and November 1, 1942) [14].

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Izbica, railway station, around 1940 / eski, fotopolska.eu

Karski was shocked. With difficulty he returned to the shop, asked for vodka and slept for a day and a half, then went back to Warsaw. After 21 days of travel through Germany, Belgium, France and Spain, he reached Gibraltar.

In December 1942, Karski handed over another of his reports to the Polish government in London, and on December 10, Foreign Minister Edward Raczyński sent a diplomatic note on the extermination of Jews to the governments of 26 countries that signed the United Nations Declaration. On December 17, 1942, the Joint Declaration of Members of the United Nations was created – the document was published in the international press and presented to the British parliament. In the Declaration the Allied states reported that Germany was implementing Hitler's plan to exterminate the Jews in Europe, mentioning the likely hundreds of thousands of victims. Poland was mentioned as a place where the Germans "slaughter" Jews, "labor camps" were mentioned, but not about extermination camps. (Karski used the term "death camp" and gave the names of the Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka camps in the BBC broadcast in 1943, in which he talked about the Izbica ghetto.) The Allies also promised to severely punish those responsible for the Holocaust.

Karski was embittered by the lack of real action on the part of the Allies – the governments of the United States and Great Britain, dignitaries and diplomats, leaders of the Jewish diaspora and famous writers who could better inform the world about the ongoing Holocaust. He also presented the living conditions in the Warsaw ghetto to Szmul Zygielbojm, a member of the National Council of the Republic of Poland to the Polish government in exile[15]. On May 12, 1943, Zygielbojm committed suicide due to the world's indifference to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. As Karski wrote: “The Jews waged a hopeless war on the Germans. They died. But in a fight. Nobody came to help”[16].

Over 26,000 people passed through the Izbica ghetto. Only 14 pre-war Jewish inhabitants of the town survived[17].

 

 

Footnotes:

[1] Izbica. Historia społeczności [Izbica. History of the community], https://sztetl.org.pl/pl/miejscowosci/i/668-izbica/99-historia-spolecznosci/137381-historia-spolecznosci, access 12.03.2021.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Basic information about the town and the ghetto follows the article: Jakub Chmielewski, Izbica jako przykład getta tranzytowego (1942-1943) [Izbica as an example of a transit ghetto (1942-1943)], „Kwartalnik Historii Żydów” [Jewish History Quarterly] no. 242 (June 2012), pp. 191-206, access 12.03.2021.

[4] Izbica, educational materials of the Museum and Memorial in Bełżec, http://www.belzec.eu/media/files/pages/247/izbica_pol.pdf, access 12.03.2021.

[5] Tomasz Blatt, Nie ma się czym chwalić [Nothing to brag about], interviewed by Maciej Foks and Tomasz Sudoł, „Pamięć” no. 1 (34)/2015, p. 16, online: https://www.polska1918-89.pl/pdf/nie-ma-sie-czym-chwalic,1341.pdf, access 12.03.2021.

[6] J. Chmielewski, op. cit., p. 200.

[7] Ibid., p. 203.

[8] Ibid.

[9] T. Blatt, op. cit., p. 16.

[10] Jan Karski, Tajne państwo [Secret State], edited by Waldemar Piasecki, Warszawa 1999, p. 257.

[11] Ibid., p. 259.

[12] Ibid., p. 260.

[13] Ibid., p. 261.

[14] J. Chmielewski, op. cit., p. 204.

[15] J. Karski, op. cit., p. 252-254.

[16] Ibid., p. 255.

[17] J. Chmielewski, op. cit., p. 206.

Przemysław Batorski   JHI Web Editor