The first formal international statement about the atrocities of the Holocaust was released on December 17, 1942.
American and British officials released the “Joint Declaration by Members of the United Nations” as a direct response to “The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland” – a report released by exiled Polish government officials on December 10 and sent to those who would become the 26 signers of the Joint Declaration.
The 16-page Polish report documented German atrocities, specifically the transition from executing prisoners with bullets to the implementation of gassing. The report estimated that one-third of Poland’s Jews had already been murdered in places like Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor.
When British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden read the Joint Declaration in the British House of Commons, the members stood in silence, an act typically reserved only for the death of a head of state.
The BBC and The New York Times immediately ran stories. While news outlets had published articles about mass killings and rumors of atrocities before, this was the first formal statement of confirmed evidence.
The same day that the Polish officials released their report, the first shipment of German Jews arrived at Auschwitz.
It was not well known at the time, but the first Zyklon B experiments were conducted on Soviet prisoners at Auschwitz on September 3, 1941. By January 1942, Zyklon B was being used to murder Jews in the old red farmhouse next to the camp, and victims were buried in mass graves in the nearby meadow.
The camp began constructing four large gas chambers with attached crematoria in August 1942. Auschwitz alone went through seven metric tons of Zyklon B in 1942 and 12 metric tons in 1943.
Even before the Joint Declaration and resulting news coverage, the signs of the horror were there, but few wanted to pay attention.
In the summer of 1941, Heinrich Himmler summoned the Kommandant of Auschwitz to Berlin in order to inform him that the Fuhrer had ordered the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question,” and it would be the SS’s responsibility to carry it out.
That September, the Nazi’s took western Ukraine and Kyiv, shooting 23,000 Jews at Kamenet-Podolsk and 33,771 at Babi Yar by the end of the month. October witnessed 35,000 Jews executed in Odessa. The SS Einsatzgruppe B reported killing 45,476 Jews in November, and more than 25,000 Jews were executed in the forest near Riga Latvia in early December.
On January 20, 1942, top SS officials met with Reinhard Heydrick, Himmeler’s second in command, at the Wannsee Conference in order to formulate the details of Hitler’s “final solution.”
After this meeting, there was a rush to transport Jews from all over the Reich to concentration camps in the east. Trains from Poland, Slovakia, Paris, Holland, Croatia, Denmark and Norway all converged on Auschwitz.
It should have been very clear what was happening. Everyone knew that Jews were being systematically rounded up for some nefarious purpose. Therefore, the Joint Declaration should not have come as a surprise.
In addition, exiled Polish officials and both the British and American governments had received regular reports about conditions in Poland since 1940, and specifically about the Warsaw ghetto from Jan Karski, a former Polish soldier who joined the resistance after Germany invaded Poland.
He was smuggled into the Warsaw ghetto twice and met with Jewish leaders, making extensive notes of what he witnessed. In the 1987 PBS documentary Shoah, Karski described his experience.
“My job was just to walk. And observe. And remember. The odour. The children. Dirty. Lying. I saw a man standing with blank eyes. I asked the guide: what is he doing? The guide whispered: ‘He’s just dying,'” Karski said. “I remember degradation, starvation and dead bodies lying on the street. We were walking the streets and my guide kept repeating: ‘Look at it, remember, remember.’ And I did remember. The dirty streets. The stench. Everywhere. Suffocating.”
Karski later infiltrated the Izbica ghetto in German-occupied Poland dressed as an Estonian guard. He witnessed the atrocities first hand. Ultimately, he took what he saw, along with microfilms of data compiled by the resistance, back to Polish leaders in Allied territory. His work became the foundation of the Polish report on the Holocaust.
President Barak Obama recognized his bravery by awarding Karski the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. In his speech, Obama implored us as a people to remember: “We must tell our children about how this evil was allowed to happen — because so many people succumbed to their darkest instincts; because so many others stood silent. But let us also tell our children about the Righteous Among the Nations. Among them was Jan Karski — a young, Polish Catholic — who witnessed Jews being put on cattle cars, who saw the killings, and who told the truth.”
The moral question posed by the Polish report and Karski’s observations is, “How much does it take for the world to be outraged?”
Karski should not have had to risk so much to compel world leaders to acknowledge the atrocities they either already suspected or knew about.
But we should then turn our gaze inward because we hear of evil and injustice all around us. Reports of war crimes in Ukraine, China’s abuse of the Uighur people, the inhumane conditions of the Gaza Strip, the constant conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the genocide being carried out against the Rohingya in Myanmar (Burma) – the list could go on.
While none of these crises should be directly compared to the Holocaust, we must ask ourselves if we are committing the same crimes again.
Karski’s story reminds us that unspeakable evil usually begins with small acts of injustice and, if unchecked, becomes unthinkable atrocities and violence.
The Holocaust began with antisemitism long before Hitler, but the world had no excuse for turning a blind eye after the 1935 Nuremberg Race Laws. The fact that the world waited so long is shameful.
We should remember the evils of the Holocaust, but we must also remember that the world sat by and ignored the signs for a decade.
Let us not do this again. Let us be prepared to be outraged in the sight of evil and to act swiftly and decisively to oppose it and bring it to an end.
Senior Staff Chaplain and Clinical Ethicist at the Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, Arkansas.