Mass Escape at Janowska
by Jeff Provine
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November 19th 1943,
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the mass Escape at Janowska occured on
this day occured. In the outskirts of Lwów, in which had once been Poland
but was then under the fascist rule of Nazi Germany, the Janowska
concentration camp for labor and transit stood (pictured, Members of a
Sonderkommando 1005 unit pose next to a bone crushing machine).
In the early days of World War II, the corner of Poland had become Russian
territory in Hitler's deal with Stalin in the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact.
Knowing the coming persecution from the Nazis, Jews fled the western part
of Poland and settled here as refugees, doubling the local Jewish
population to 200,000. In 1941, Operation Barbarossa brought Germany east,
and the Jews found themselves blamed under propaganda for massacres, then
slaughtered and fenced like animals.
With some 13,000 already killed by 1942, the Germans restricted the
northern part of Lwów into a ghetto and began deporting thousands more for
extermination at Belzec. Others were taken to Nazi SS factories
established on Janowska Street, forced to work for the German war machine
and live in a nearby concentration camp. Janowska evolved further into a
transit and processing camp, sorting victims into usable fodder and those
who would simply be exterminated.
Toward the end of 1943, the war began to turn against Germany, and the
Russians moved their front westward. As the Germans fell back, they worked
to evacuate prisoners to cover their war crimes of mass murder. Under
Sonderaktion 1005, systematic clearing of mass graves and execution of
witnesses rushed to hide what had been done. In November, evacuation began
at Janowska, with prisoners forced to exhume the dead and burn the bodies
in hidden fires in the woods. Meanwhile, increased numbers were sent
westward to extermination at unprecedented rates.
On November 19, an uprising began among the prisoners. Uprisings had been
planned before, such as those by Pilecki at Auschwitz, but none seemed to
meet with any hope of success. Janowska may very well have ended as a last
desperate strike until a group of men who could have escaped decided to
give up their freedom to fight back. Storming the arsenal at high
casualties, the prisoners were able to arm themselves and establish a
fortress. In the resulting firefight would ultimately result in Nazi
crackdown of the camp, but by then some 6,000 well armed prisoners had
escaped. While many of them would be recaptured, a majority would fall
among the Polish Underground and survive the war.
The stories of the thousands of escaped Jews, Poles, and Russians reached
public ears. Minor escapes had happened earlier in the Holocaust, such as
Jacob Grojanowski in 1942, which created the Grojanowski Report on the war
crimes by German command. While the BBC and New York Times reported on the
gassing of Jews, Allied propaganda had downplayed the plight. Jan Karski,
who had given testimony repeatedly on the murderous situation, even to
Franklin Roosevelt himself in 1943, worked for years to call action
against the Germans without much success.
Now with the thousands of freedmen spreading word across Europe, the
Holocaust became impossible to ignore. Karski used his connections to give
the story greater precedence, and finally the West listened. Candlelight
vigils were held in London, New York, and Hollywood, and speeches were
presented before Congress and Parliament. Nazi propaganda worked to
contain rumors within German borders, though increased insurrection among
prisoners dragged thousands of troops from the front.
In 1944, Pope Pius XII announced the condemnation of the Holocaust by the
Catholic Church. The religious implications struck many of Germany's loyal
Catholics, causing a political uproar that spun Germany into civil war.
With unclear battle-lines and the approach of Allied troops, many Germans
simply retreated home and washed their hands of the Third Reich. The war
in Europe would be proclaimed an Allied victory December 12, 1944.
In the chaos, many of the perpetrators of the Holocaust would escape
abroad, most eventually dragged back as the World Court sought justice.
Hitler himself committed suicide while attempting to evade capture by
Russian troops. Having gained political voice, the Jewish people would
soon establish a new homeland in Israel in 1947 as well as cultural
recognition, such as the works of journalist and novelist Anne Frank, who
survived the Holocaust as a young girl.
says in reality the uprising at Janowska did not succeed. Few prisoners
managed to escape, and pursuit by SS and local forces killed and recaptured
many of those. Liquidation at Janowska continued, purging the camp in time
for withdrawal. News of the Holocaust did not spread until camps began to be
liberated in mid-1944. Troops and embedded journalists reported having no
idea what the Nazis had been doing until they saw it for themselves. To view
guest historian's comments on this post please visit the
Today in Alternate History web site.
Jeff Provine, Guest Historian of
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