The world knew about the Shoah thanks to the Polish Underground State – the Polish Government-in-Exile informed the Allies about the Holocaust. An interview with Eryk Habowski, an expert in international law at the Pilecki Institute.

Why did Great Britain and the United States launch an initiative to establish the United Nations War Crimes Commission (UNWCC)? What were to be its tasks?

The unprecedented scale of crimes perpetrated by 20th-century totalitarianisms, particularly the German “death industry” (about which Churchill said in a 1941 radio interview that Europe hasn’t seen such atrocities since the Mongol invasions), and the pressure exerted by émigré governments, especially the Polish Government in London, led to the Allies’ decision to establish the UNWCC. Upon prior agreement, a statement on the subject was made on 7 October 1942 by the US president, F.D. Roosevelt, and Lord Chancellor J. Simon. The first official meeting of the representatives of Australia, Belgium, China, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece, the Netherlands, India, Yugoslavia, Canada, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, South Africa, Great Britain and the United States was held on 20 October 1943 in London. The objective was clear: the Commission was to assist the Allies in gathering evidence against war criminals from both Europe and East Asia in order to make it possible to bring the perpetrators to a reckoning after the war. The UNWCC operated from January 1944 to March 1948. The Commission asserted its importance among others by playing a part in initiating works aimed at establishing the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg.

What can be found among the UNWCC documents?

These are the recently declassified UN procedural files: indictments against war criminals or persons suspected of crimes against the law of nations. There are witness accounts, protocols, reports, as well as a host of subsidiary materials. These archival documents pertain to over 8,000 cases and about 36,000 people accused of various war crimes committed during the Second World War by the Axis powers. Charges brought by Poland concern over 1,500 cases. The entire collection numbers almost half a million of pages.

What was the scale of Polish activity in the Commission?

When in November 1944 – 10 months after it commenced its operations – the UNWCC announced the first list of war criminals, it contained over 700 names. The vast majority – about 400 – came from charges filed by the Polish Government in London. Polish documents were drafted on the basis of information that was diligently gathered since the beginning of the war and meticulously analyzed; the Polish Government-in-Exile had begun the systematic operation of gathering evidence of German crimes in the occupied country already in the spring of 1940 – about half a year after SMS Schleswig-Holstein fired the first shots at Westerplatte. At the same time, the Poles alerted the world to the genocidal nature of the Nazi totalitarianism, striving for a universal condemnation of the occupant’s crimes. One of the first acts of this kind was the joint Polish-British-French declaration of 18 April 1940. In October of the same year, the Polish Government issued a statement on German crimes together with the Czech Government. But this was just a beginning: there followed more appeals, memoranda, and notes filed by the Polish authorities to the Allies, including directly to the US president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. In September 1941 Poland acceded to the Atlantic Charter, and in January 1942 the Poles were the driving force behind the signing of the Declaration of St. James’ Palace, which brought together the delegates from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Norway, the Netherlands, Greece, Belgium, Luxembourg and France, with the representatives of among others the United Kingdom, the United States, the USSR, China and India as observers. On 10 December 1942, the Polish émigré government sent a 9-page note on the Holocaust to all the Allies; the document was signed by the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Edward Raczyński. It was the first address of this kind ever to be made by a European government. A week later, the Allied powers issued a declaration demanding that the Germans bring an end to the extermination of Jews, while Count Raczyński alerted the press and gave an evening speech at the BBC radio: “should people keep quiet, the stones will cry out”.

Did the Poles present evidence of the functioning of concentration and death camps still during the war?

It should be emphasized that detailed charges concerning for instance the death camp of Treblinka were filed in April 1944, a few months before the Soviet army entered the camp – and, for that matter, before the Allied invasion of Normandy on 6 June or the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944.

The charge concerning Treblinka mentions, among others, the sorting of clothes and shoes of people going to their deaths and the burning of corpses of Jewish victims, which first had to be dragged out of the death chambers. People forced to perform this kind of work were next made to dig graves for themselves – and were shot in them.

The number of charges brought by Poland and concerning crimes against the Jews was over 370 – it was virtually every fourth Polish indictment.

Apart from work in the UNWCC and making appeals to the world’s conscience, there is also the case of the so-called “Ładoś Group”, which was active in Switzerland. Was it an isolated operation, or can we rather speak of a broader action?

Of key importance here is the continued and consistent activity of the Polish Government in London, the work of hundreds of thousands of people in the underground in occupied Poland, the tasks fulfilled by Polish diplomats – including Envoy Aleksander Ładoś, his “Bernese Group” and their operation of issuing false passports to rescue thousands of European Jews – but also appeals voiced at the time for the bombarding of the railway lines leading into Auschwitz in order to prevent transports of people earmarked for extermination. To this picture we should add the life of Cavalry Captain Witold Pilecki, who volunteered to be sent to Auschwitz, and of Henryk Sławik, who saved thousands of people in Hungary, as well as the establishment of the Council to Aid Jews “Żegota”. Other stories of this kind are still being discovered in the course of archival research.

These are not isolated incidents but consistent, systemic activities of the Polish Government-in-Exile and its structures aimed at rescuing as many people as it was possible in the dark midst of the Age of Genocide.

Eryk Habowski

Eryk Habowski, an expert in International law at the Pilecki Institute and author of a forthcoming monograph on the UNWCC and the Polish diplomacy.

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