Saturday 4 November 2023

The Polish Ambassador to the Holy See and the Holocaust


Archival research can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. But, along the way, you find some fascinating and even disturbing things of great significance, which you we not seeking.  My field of research is Ukrainian oriented, but Ukraine's story is part of a larger narrative and is interconnected with Polish, Austrian, Russian, and German history. A better understanding of the former can only be had by grasping its context upon the backdrop of the others.

 I used to wonder what the fuss was about in Poland about Auschwitz and why it was considered a memorial for Poles as well as for Jews. Although these reports have an indirect connection to Ukrainian history (there were several Ukrainians at Auschwitz), and perhaps are already published elsewhere, I felt compelled, as a witness before history, to post them. Tragically, the cycle of racial hatred and violence introduced and maintained by the Germans continued, later in the war, between Ukrainians and Poles.

Kazimierz or Casimir Papée (1889–1979), served as Ambassador of Poland to the Holy See from 1939 to 1958. He was born in Lemberg or Lwów, which is Lviv in modern day Ukraine. The majority of the city's population were Poles and in 1919 it became part of the Second Polish Republic. Lwów also had a large Jewish population which exceeded Ukrainians in number. Papée was appointed Ambassador in June 1939, only a few months before the onset of the Second World War. It was a time of high tension between the authoritarian "Regime of the Colonels" in Poland and the Holy See, and the post had remained vacant for two years after the death of long-time ambassador Władyslaw Skrzyński. 

Papée bombarded the Vatican with reports throughout the war. He was one of the strongest voices pressuring the Holy See to speak out against the Holocaust and became a thorn in the side of the papal Secretariat of State (Section for political affairs). He continued to maintain the embassy for the Polish Government in Exile after 1939. Even though his ambassadorial rank was revoked by John XXIII in 1958, he headed the Legation of the Government-in-Exile until his death, in 1979.

Below are English translations of two of Papée's French-language reports to the Vatican Secretariat of State concerning Auschwitz and the Shoah:

Vatican, November 21, 1941 

The situation in occupied Poland


[…] III Prison camp in Oświęcim

It is reported from reliable sources that Gestapo agents recently carried out a terrible massacre among those they had locked up in the Oświęcim Camp. It is said that 3,000 inmates were killed there during a single day in October. We still don't know their names.

The Oświęcim Camp – (the Germans gave this locality the name “Auschwitz”) – has existed since the spring of 1940. It was installed in the former barracks of the 73rd Polish Infantry Regiment. The number of prisoners – which can be determined by comparing the numbers that each of them wears sewn into their clothes – comes to 17,000; there would be among them more than 12,000 Poles and more than 4,000 Germans. – It must be emphasized that the vast majority of detainees in this Camp are subject to simple administrative provisions, without any court, in which they could have defended themselves, having ruled against them, and without any accusation made against them: the Gestapo arbitrarily sends there all those who seem dangerous or simply undesirable.

The Camp is surrounded by recently constructed walls, barbed wire and high voltage electrical wires. Surveillance is entrusted to a detachment of the Gestapo, which at its command – a strong military troop of SS men and numerous police dogs. The Camp depends on a higher office of the Gestapo, based in Katowice.

In order to isolate the Camp as far as possible from any contact with the population, last march, the Gestapo deported the inhabitants of the entire two kilometre zone around the barracks. For this purpose, the entire population of 3 neighbouring villages, as well as 80 % of the inhabitants of the town of Oświęcim, were deported. After these expulsions, approximately 5,000 prisoners from the Camp were often employed in work outside the barracks, always under the very strict supervision of the agents. The others never come out.

Recently, 19 prisoners were released. Those who have seen them say that they are almost mad, that several of them have broken limbs and that they are terrible to see. Those who have seen them note, with the deepest emotion, that the very appearance of the prisoners is terrible proof of a cruelty which cries to heaven for vengeance.

Stefan Petekycky from Auschwitz
There are children from 16 months old, and old people over 60 years old. The cold, the hunger, the bodily and moral tortures, to which they are subjected night and day, exterminate them. A crematorium, set up in the middle of the Camp, consumed no less than 10 corpses per day in summer, and up to 60 corpses in winter. Almost none of those who were locked up in the Camp in March 1940 have survived to date. The dead are replaced by new victims who are arrested throughout the country. They are, for the most part, intellectuals, and there are many priests and religious people. Recently, His Excellency Monsignor Wetmański, Auxiliary Bishop of Płock, also joined them.

The women from around Oświęcim, despite the terrible danger to which they were exposed, managed to come to the aid of the prisoners by smuggling them food. The poverty which reigns everywhere restricts these women’s Christian heroic activity to a minimum. No more than 300 prisoners are able to obtain additional food through these clandestine channels, which allows them to survive for some time to come.

Recently, in Warsaw, on the square in front of the central station, a film was shown entitled: “Europe on the front lines against the Bolsheviks”. After speaking about this “crusade”, the loudspeaker asked the question: “Where are you, Poles?” Voices immediately rang out from the entire crowd in response: “In Oświęcim!” - The show had to be suspended and various people were arrested. The word “Oświęcim” is written, like the “V” [Victory] on the walls and palisades, despite the Germans.

One of the Germans, a collaborator of the head of the Gestapo, publicly announced that “the Oświęcim Camp is one of Himmler’s glories”. They call this Camp “Todeslager” [Death camp].

Vatican, November 23, 1942

We are informed from Warsaw...  “[…] Mass executions of Jews continued. In Warsaw, Lwów, Wilno, Lublin, Przemyśl, Przeworsk, Tarnów – the number of Jews killed is calculated by many tens of thousands for each of these cities, not to mention all the others. They are killed by means of asphyxiating gas in rooms specially prepared for this purpose (and often in wagons), and by means of machine-gunning, after which the dead and the half-dead are covered with earth together. There are frequent cases of collective suicides of Jewish families; Jewish mothers throw themselves out of high-story windows with their children. In Lublin, the Germans themselves threw Jewish children onto the streets. In Przeworsk, a crowd of desperate Jews gathered around a cross, invoking the pity of Christ. We see everywhere convoys of Jews being led to death. Rumours circulated about the Germans using their corpses in chemical factories (soap factories).

It is already foreseen that the extermination of the Jews in Poland will soon end and that the special detachments, trained for this work, unable to stop shedding blood every day, will have a pressing need for other victims. Already in Eastern Little Poland [Eastern Galicia], men and women beggars have been hunted down and killed. It is feared that a general suppression of the elderly will soon be ordered. All these measures are taken because the aim is to reduce the number of mouths to feed. The sight of these deeds has immense repercussions on the mentality of the Poles: feelings of hatred continue to grow. [...]