How does one capture the humiliation inflicted on people who – for no reason other than being Jewish – were arrested and forced from their homes? How was the ordeal of living in a ghetto or a camp conveyed by people who were there at the time? Some individuals used the power of the written word to record what they saw happening – knowing that they were living through unprecedented times. This activity carried a high risk under the harsh conditions of Nazi occupation: to be caught conveying or even noting down such information could bring instant arrest.
In December 1942, the Polish courier Jan Karski’s secret messages arrived in London, and played a key role in alerting the British and American governments to the scale and ferocity of Hitler’s persecution policies.
Karski was a Polish diplomat and still in his mid-twenties, when, on the outbreak of war in September 1939, he joined the Polish army. He was soon taken prisoner by the Soviets, but managed to escape and join the Polish underground movement.
Much of the intelligence Karski conveyed depended on his ability to memorise dozens of pages and hundreds of names. In late 1942 he was smuggled into the Warsaw ghetto and also the transit camp at Izbica, where he witnessed the horrors suffered by Jews under Nazi occupation, including mass starvation and the transports of Jews to the Belzec extermination camp.
Making a perilous trip to London, Karski was able to deliver a detailed report to the Polish Government-in-Exile and to senior British politicians, including Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. The Allied Declaration of 17 December 1942 – when the House of Commons stood in silence in memory of the murder of the Jews of Europe - was in large part due to his efforts.
Karski was haunted to the end of his life by memories of the disbelief he encountered and of politicians’ unwillingness to act more decisively on what they had learned. He remains a significant figure in the history of the Holocaust and has been the subject of numerous films, books and commemorative events.
In January or February 1943, Edith Jacoby’s last letter to her family left the notorious SS Trawniki labour camp for the United States. Although it may seem unlikely that prisoners in such camps could send letters abroad, it was in fact possible.
The family who inherited Edith Jacoby’s letters from their recently deceased father approached IWM and explained their history. Edith was the grandmother they had never known, who had survived the Warsaw Ghetto and then for a while the Trawniki labour camp, where 12,000 Jews were made to sort the confiscated possessions of others who had been deported. Decades after the Second World War her grandchildren were able to read about her last few months:
‘What we've had to live through in the last half year is so unbearable that we are almost unconscious from fear, everybody tries to save himself, and I do my best too but without money it is almost impossible...’
She went on to describe her living conditions:
‘Three panes of glass from the window are missing, so the wind just blows into the room. The door doesn't have a handle, so it is always open. My washing water is frozen in the morning, my toothbrush stiff as ice.’…
‘Almost everybody has a little stove in their room on which you can cook, but to use it you need wood and that costs money, and money is something that I don't have at all. Sometimes I have to live for weeks on 1 or 2 zloty until I find someone who can give me something...’
At the end of her letter Edith Jacoby expressed the hope that she might survive, but no further letters came.
Lastly there is the young actress Hana Maria Pravda’s death march diary. Hana Maria Pravda had a long acting career, continuing to appear in UK tv dramas into her eighties. As a young woman, however, she had been deported from her home city of Prague, survived selection at Auschwitz-Birkenau and had been put to work digging massive tank-traps against the Russian advance.
In January 1945 she and some 1,000 other fellow-prisoners were ordered to march westwards. Five days into the march Hana and her friend slipped away into the forest, and, replacing their striped uniforms with ordinary clothes found in abandoned homes, made their way to newly-liberated Slovakia. Amazed and relieved to have survived, Hana wrote up her recent experiences:
‘On the seventh day about 350 people are missing. We are as hungry as wolves. When they lead us to the vats of soup we fight in the snow for some leaves of frozen cabbages. I want to escape at any price, because there is nothing left to lose now. It is clear that we have lost our lives already.’
Once salvation came their conditions changed and Hana could reflect with wry amusement on her former captors:
‘We are sleeping in a beautiful large villa with a piano! I am going to take with me a picture of Beethoven ...In all the big deserted houses we find SA and SS uniforms lying on the floor like discarded snakeskins.’
These writings served different purposes when first compiled – the urgent need to inform the world of a crime without precedent; the desperate last message from a mother to her children; the hand written testimony of a young woman who had miraculously survived. All three writers had the ability to recall detail and to put it into words while it was still fresh. They can have had little idea that their writings would one day go into a museum showcase and help educate thousands about the momentous event we now call the Holocaust. Their accounts - and dozens of others in our exhibition - help our visitors build a picture of what it was like to be caught up in that terrible event.