The Man Whose Words Fell on Deaf Ears

One thing that I am often reminded of in todays world is just how much history repeats itself and how easy it is for us to sit back and just watch it. When we stop talking about things, such as the Holocaust, they begin to fade into the past and just become something that happened. They should never be left to the past; they should always be at the forefront of our conscience so that we may remain aware of what can happen when power is left unchecked.

I recently read the story of a man who had the strength and courage to tell the world what was happening in Nazi Germany, but his words fell on deaf and dumb ears. Those in power didn’t want to know what was happening, it was much easier to turn a blind eye. That man was Jan Karski.

 

Jan Karski. Photo- wikimedia Commons

The Man

He was born Jan Kozielewski on April 24, 1914 in Lodz, Poland. The youngest of eight children in a Roman Catholic family. His father traded in leather goods.

At the time Jan was growing up, Lodz was a city full of Polish Catholics, Polish Jews, Germans and Russians. He studied law and diplomacy at the University of Lviv. Jan had something that lacks a vast majority of people today, he had a conscience. And his conscience dictated his life in many, many ways.

After graduation from university, Jan became a junior diplomat and an officer in the Polish Reserve forces.

 

World War II

September 17, 1939 Russian forces invaded Poland as part of a pact with Germany. Karski, along with tens of thousands of other Polish military officers, policemen and leading citizens, were rounded up and marched into Russia. Jan was fortunate, he was able to disguise himself as an enlisted man and fled Russian occupied Poland for Nazi occupied Poland. Had he not escaped, he would have surely met the fate of over 40,000 Poles, and been murdered in Katyn forest in Russia.

After his escape, Jan became a courier for the Polish underground. His task was to relay messages between the underground and the exiled Polish government, first in France and then later in England. This was the perfect task for Jan, as he possessed a photographic memory. This meant that he would not have to carry valuable documents on his persons.

In late 1940 he was caught by the Gestapo. Being a man of great conscience, Jan slashed his wrists to commit suicide, rather than risk giving up any information to the Gestapo. He was taken to a hospital, where the underground was able to liberate him and he was free to resume his work in the resistance.

1942 saw Jan begin the work for which he will spend the rest of his life talking about, the Holocaust. Jan was smuggled in and out of the Warsaw ghetto numerous times. His eyewitness accounts of Nazi soldiers hunting Jewish children for sport and of bodies lying naked in the street with newspaper covering their genitals, are shocking even today. In Jan’s own words he saw “degradation, starvation and death” in the ghetto. He later posed as a Ukrainian guard at the Izbica transit camp and witnessed first hand how Jews were loaded like cattle into train cars being sent to Belzec for extermination.

Warsaw ghetto, dead left on street. Photo- wikimedia Commons

Jan will never be able to shake the images he saw from his mind and they will shape the remainder of his life.

In October of 1942 Jan traveled to London to alert the exiled Polish government to what was happening to the Jewish people. He also met with English Foreign Minister Anthony Eden and describes the Nazi plans to exterminate an entire race of people. However, his words continue to fall onto deaf ears.

July 1943 saw Jan going to the United States to meet with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter (a close friend of F.D.R.). After Jan describes, in detail, the atrocities being committed by the Nazi regime, the horrors that he had witnessed first-hand, the Supreme Court Justice told him “A man like me talking to a man like you must be totally frank. So, I must say: I am unable to believe in what I have just heard, in the things that you have just told me”. Sadly, the world would discover that everything Jan had said, was true.

After speaking with F.D.R and having his story being ignored by the politicians, he was assigned to the exiled government that was now in the United States. Both Jan and the Polish government felt that the world needed to know what was going on in the concentration camps, so Jan was encouraged to write his experiences down and publish a book. It would become Story of a Secret State. It was published in the United States in 1944 and quickly became a bestseller. It became a Book of the Month selection and sold over 400,000 copies, swaying public opinion on the issue of the concentration camps and the extermination of millions of lives. The books longest chapter was on the Jewish Holocaust in his native Poland. Jan was given the opportunity to tell his story over and over again through speaking tours throughout the United States and Canada, everyday people were now listening to what he had to say.

 

After the War

When the war ended, Jan stayed in the United States and earned in Ph. D from Georgetown University, where he would teach for the next forty years at the School of Foreign Service. In 1965 he married Pola Nirenska, a Polish Jewish dancer that he had met in 1938 in London. She would commit suicide in 1992, the pain of losing her entire family to the Holocaust proving to great for her to bear.

When asked why he spoke out Jan often said “I have no other proofs, no photographs. All I can say is that I saw it, and that is the truth.” Jan’s life was written in the book The Emissary: The Story of Jan Karski by Maciej Kozlowski. In the book Jan is quoted by the author as saying “I spent about an hour in that camp. I came out sick, seized by fits of nausea. I vomited blood. I had seen horrifying things there. Disbelief? You would not believe it yourself, if you saw it.”

Jan would also go on to write another book, The Great Powers and Poland 1919-1945: From Versailles to Yalta- An Analysis of Political Power.

On June 2, 1982 Jan was honored by Yad Vashem and made Righteous Among the Nations, even though he never saved one Jewish person, the Commissioner for the Designation of the Righteous felt that it did not matter, as Jan had risked his life by going into the ghetto and then telling the world what he saw. On top of that, Jan was not silent about what he saw, he spoke out and to the Commissioner, that was just as important as saving a life.

Jan was also given a number of other honors for his work in speaking out against the Nazis and in risking his life to tell the world what was happening, such as:

1994- he was made an Honorary Israeli Citizen

Poland: the top honors of Cross of the White Eagle and Virtuti Militari

May 29, 1992- United States President, Barack Obama, posthumously awarded Jan the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Americas highest civilian honor.

Jan’s Presidential Medal of Freedom

Jan was never able to understand or accept the worlds silence on the death of six million Jews and four million non-Jews during the Holocaust. In 1981 he gave a speech to American military officers who had helped liberate the camps, in which he said “And thus I myself became a Jew. And just as my wife’s entire family was wiped out in the ghettos of Poland, in its concentration camps and crematoria- so have all the Jews who were slaughtered become my family. But I am a Christian Jew… I am a practicing Catholic…my faith tells me the second original sin has been committed by humanity to the end of time. And I want it to be so.”

Upon becoming an Honorary Citizen of Israel Jan had this to say: “This is the proudest and the most meaningful day in my life. Through the Honorary Citizenship of the State of Israel, I have reached the spiritual source of my Christian Faith. In a way, I also became part of the Jewish community… and now I, Jan Karski, by birth Jan Kozielewski- a Pole, an American, a Catholic- have also become an Israeli.”

 

Jan Karski lived his life true to his conscience. He saw a great evil occurring and he chose to speak out instead of becoming silent and passive to its aggression. And that is what we must do today. When ever and where ever we see great evil, or just evil itself, occurring we must speak out. We speak out for Jan; we must speak out for those who cannot and we must speak out for our own conscience.

It takes great courage to speak out. It takes great courage to stop and recognize when evil is happening, even though it may not be happening to you. If we allow it to happen to anyone, anywhere, we are just as guilty as those who commit the atrocity, because we stood by and watched.

I hope that you have enjoyed this week’s blog and that you will be encouraged to speak out against evil and hatred. Please consider becoming a follower of this blog, and sharing it with friends and family. See you again soon!

 

 

The Train That Could Have Won the War?

So, being the nerd that I am, I watch a lot of documentaries. Especially ones on World War II. I have often wondered if the Nazi regime could have won the war if they hadn’t spent so much money and man power on the concentration camps, rounding up people into the camps and on Hitlers train. I know the last one sounds a little strange, but when I learned about it, it certainly seemed like it could have been money spent better elsewhere. But it also shows the level of paranoia that Hitler reached.

 

Why Did He Want a Train?

January 30, 1933 Hitler was elected to the German Chancellery and as he was crisscrossing Germany on his political campaign, he learned that Benito Mussolini had his own train. It would be a way for him to move across the Reich in comfort and safety, so in 1937 he commissioned the Germany Railway to build it for him. So, before he launches into war with the rest of the world, he builds his own private train.

The train took two years to complete and was massive! With each car weighing at least 60 tons, it took two locomotives just to pull it. It was equipped with the latest in technological advances, could carry up to two hundred people between the 10-16 cars that made up the train, and he named it Amerika. Why Amerika? Because he was fascinated by the American decimation of its native Indian population.

 

The Train

The train was absolutely massive in size. The train in its entirety was 1,200 tons and over 430 meters long, it was the Air Force One of its day and could travel at over 120 Kph.

It was pulled by two locomotives, that each took eight hours to prep for any journey Hitler may have wished to undertake. It took heating 27,000 liters of water to generate enough steam to power the locomotives. They were not good for long distances and if Hitler traveled more than 250-300 kilometers, the locomotive would need to be changed for a fresh one. With each locomotive consuming 7 tons of coal.

The train was equipped with two anti-aircraft cars, one in front and one in back. Each anti-aircraft car carried four guns at the front and rear of it, with the middle as living space for the soldiers who manned the guns. The living space included beds, kitchen, toilets, washroom and a magazine for arms and munitions. The specially designed anti-aircraft 20 mm guns could fire into the air at an altitude of 2.5 kilometers and then drop and fire side ways at on coming threats, with a capability of 800 rounds per minute.

There was one car specifically for Hitlers personal regiment of bodyguards from the RSD (Reichssicherheitsoienst). They were SS soldiers that would make up the only contingent of armed personnel on board the train, and there were 22-26 on board at any given time.

Along the trains route, men were posted every 100 meters, with more posted at vulnerable points such as stations, bridges and tunnels.

Hitler and Franco in Hendaye. Photo wikimedia Commons

Security was tightly controlled on board the train. Every member of staff was carefully vetted and had to prove Aryan lineage back to 1750. There could be no trace of Jewish heritage and they had to be reliable Nazi party members. There were bomb sniffing dogs and the food was checked for poison and explosives.

Nazis were obsessive about Hitlers security and used an entire regiment of SS and Wehrmacht just to guard the train, each car and the route of the train.

The train was to be Hitlers new rolling military headquarters where he would be able to dictate Nazi policy.

While Hitlers bedroom was sparsely furnished with a single bed, his bathroom was far from spartan. Given to him as a gift for his 50th birthday on April 20, 1939 by the Reichbahn, the 78-ton car was richly adorned. With marble baths and floors, the car had to have a special cement floor poured just to support the interior furnishings of the car. It consisted of five marble and enameled steel bath tubs, three marble shower stalls, a barber area and an 11,200-liter water tank. It was the ninth car from the front of the train and the most heavily guarded with two guards stationed at each end of the car.

Hitlers private Mercedes followed the train, driven by his chauffer. A Focke Wulf 200 Condor aircraft flew ahead of the train to eliminate any threats on the ground or in the air.

Having his own train allowed Hitlers full war cabinet to be with him at all times. At different points in time Petain of France, Mussolini of Italy and Franco of Spain all rode in the train.

 

Hitler and Franco (left). Photo wikimedia Commons.

Hitler Tours the Train and the End of the Line

Throughout 1940 Hitler used the train to go through the conquered countries that were now part of the Third Reich. June 22, 1940, he takes the train to France to accept the surrender of France, at the same place and in the same railcar that Germany signed the 1918 Armistice. When he returns to Berlin on July 6 of that year, he is welcomed by a giant crowd and has now been elevated to cult like status. This is the last time that he will freely mingle with the general public.

The train was also used on a secret route through France and into Spain, the plan was to meet with General Franco and try to bring Spain into the war on the German side. Hitler takes France’s Petain with him.

Hitler returns to the Berghof where he remains until October 20, 1940 when he decides to take a three-leg trip across France. It is this journey in which he hopes to get Franco to ally with Germany. Security is extremely tight. SS security forces are sent ahead to secure the train stations. Train stations were Amerika was to stop were given last minute notification of its arrival, they would then have to re-route all other trains coming in. The trains would be stopped or parked on a side line of the track until Amerika left the station. French railroad workers were forced to stay in work sheds until Amerika continued on its route, as they were not allowed to be on the station platforms.

All bridges and tunnels along the route had to be checked for explosives, decoy trains could be sent 20-30 minutes ahead of Amerika or sent after Amerika had left the station. There is not a lot that survives documenting the route, timetable and notes of the journey as all documentation was destroyed at the end of each day.

October 22, 1940 Amerika arrives in Montoire-sur-le-Loir so that Hitler can meet with French Vichy president Petain, who Hitler takes with him to meet with Franco. Five hundred German soldiers arrived in the town early to secure the area for Hitlers arrival.

Petain left, meets Hitler. Photo Wikimedia Commons

October 23, 1940 the train arrives in Hendaye, a town on the French/Spanish border to meet with General Franco. They meet for nine hours and Franco declines to align with the Germany war machine.

Throughout the remaining years of the war, Hitler uses the train to travel though Europe. When the war ends, the Americans take Hitlers train, it is divided between the United States and Great Britain. Generals for both the Americans and British use the train as their own personal train to travel through occupied territories.

By the end of the war Hitler is not the only one with a special private train, there were over 25 “special” trains for Hitlers ministers and generals. By the early 1950’s train cars from various “special” trains were returned to West Germany. West German chancellor Konrad Adenover used some of the cars to make up his own personal train that he used to go to Moscow in 1955.

In the 1960’s Queen Elizabeth II and the Beatles used the private train car of Hitlers minister of transport to tour through Germany. The 1970’s see the last use of the train cars from Hitlers train, when German chancellor Willy Brandt uses them, by the 1980’s the few remaining cars sit collecting dust in the back of a museum.

 

Most people agree that Hitler was a sadistic, dictator who ruled by his hatred of the Jews, Roma’s, homosexuals and many other groups of people, yet he didn’t mind taking their money and using it for things such as his special train. The Nazi regime is full of contradictions. But you have to wonder, would the war have had a different outcome if the money and man power put into the trains, the security for the trains, and the concentration camps. It certainly would have put more men at his disposal instead of the old men and boys he used to defend Berlin in its last hours. Hitler was an egomaniac of the highest degree and people followed him. We now have to ask ourselves “why?”. And we have to avoid repeating those same mistakes again, at all costs.

 

I hope that you have enjoyed learning about Hitlers train and maybe wondering “what if?” about it. I look forward to seeing you again in two weeks. Please share this blog and/or follow it.