MEMORIAL AND MUSEUM

AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU

FORMER GERMAN NAZI
CONCENTRATION AND EXTERMINATION CAMP

The role of the Polish government-in-exile

The Polish government in London received a good deal of information about Auschwitz. At first, this data concentrated on the fate of Polish prisoners and Auschwitz as a concentration camp. Over time, news on the fate of other ethnic groups, and especially the killing of the Jews, came to predominate. This reflected changes in the prisoner population and the transformation of Auschwitz into a center for killing Jews.

The Polish government-in-exile in London played an important role in exposing Nazi atrocities. Through the press and diplomatic channels, it tried constantly to inform the international community and Allied and neutral governments about what was happening in Auschwitz and other camps, the occupation reign of terror in Poland, the killing of Poles, and the extermination of the Jews.

On the night of May 3, 1941, the Polish government used a diplomatic note to inform Allied and neutral governments about arrests and mass executions in Poland, deportation to Auschwitz and other camps, and the conditions there. The note also discussed atrocities committed against Jews in the first 15 months of the occupation.

The note contained numerous annexes; annex 168a was a 3-page summary of reports about the Auschwitz camp through November 1940.

Excerpts of this note and the annexes were published in London in 1941 as The German Occupation of Poland. Extract of Note Addressed to the Governments of the Allied and Neutral Powers on May 3,1941.

Annex 168a, titled, “Oświęcim Concentration Camp,” was printed in the Polish Fortnightly Review, an English-language of the Polish Ministry of Information and Documentation, on November 15, 1941.

The Review carried numerous further articles about Auschwitz. In July 1942, for instance, it reported on the mass killing of Jews and the repression of non-Jews in occupied Poland. It also printed detailed information about conditions in Auschwitz, the murder of Soviet POWs and Polish political prisoners with Zyklon B in September 1941, the gas chambers in Birkenau, the ways used to kill prisoners, pharmacological experiments on prisoners, the high death rate, prisoner suicide, and the opening of the women’s camp.

The next issue of the Review, on July 15, 1942, carried information about atrocities against Polish civilians. The section of the article on Auschwitz included information on the constant influx of prisoners, the high death rate, and the assignment of prisoner labor to the construction of a synthetic-fuel plant.

Dziennik Polski, the daily Polish-language bulletin of the Ministry of Information and Documentation, later titled Dziennik Polski i Dziennik Żołnierza, also carried Auschwitz information. 

On June 9, 1944, for instance, Dziennik Polski i Dziennik Żołnierza, citing a dispatch from the Polish Telegraphic Agency in London, ran an article on the killing in Auschwitz gas chambers of several thousand Czech Jews deported from the Theresienstadt ghetto. It also reported that, before their death, they were forced to write letters to relatives in Bohemia describing the “good working conditions” in Poland. The source was a dispatch from occupied Poland, received in London on June 5.

Mass media

Allied radio stations broadcast information about Auschwitz on the basis of reports sent to London from occupied Poland. The BBC led the way with numerous reports about camp conditions, extermination, and SS intentions.

The British, American, and Swiss press also ran Auschwitz stories. Sporadic at first, they appeared more regularly from mid-1944. It should be noted here that newspapers and radio stations also drew on other, non-Polish sources, especially in the final phase of the war.

Pleas for intervention

A desire to document atrocities was not the only reason the Polish underground sent information to the West. The movement also wanted the Allies to intervene, believing that international action could improve the lot of the prisoners. The underground made specific suggestions and requests.

For example, a Government Delegate dispatch of April 5, 1944, received in London 2 months later, contained information about the murder of Jews from Theresienstadt in Birkenau and an appeal to notify the Jews remaining in Theresienstadt and the International Red Cross about the atrocity.

A July dispatch informing Premier Stanisław Mikołajczyk about the mass murder of Jews from Hungary in the gas chambers also suggested that “sharp propaganda might slow the rate of liquidation.”

The “List of Auschwitz Butchers”

Members of the camp resistance movement also tried to put pressure on the camp SS garrison by means of a mid-1944 dispatch listing the worst perpetrators. The BBC broadcast the “List of Auschwitz Butchers” and mentioned that they had all been sentenced to death. Later resistance reports discussed the impact this had on the SS men.