I. Introduction: The Holocaust as a Continental Event
II. Eye-witness Accounts on the Holocaust in Great Britain
II.I. Report by Jerzy Tabeau
III. The Polish Government-in-Exile
III.I. Karski’s Mission to the West
III.II. Activities of Polish Ambassador to Great Britain
III.III. Controversies about the Polish Role
IV. British Response to the News
IV.I. Destruction of the Auschwitz Camp
V. Conclusion: The Collective Memory of the Holocaust Today
I. The Holocaust as a Continental Event
The insular character of Great Britain has always played a role in its relations with other European countries. The political idea of ‘splendid isolation’ could have only originated in that country. The British mentality, which is specific in many respects, means that the perception of events taking place on the other side of the English Channel is inevitably distinct from the perception of other European nations. A particular way of viewing and reacting to political developments in Europe from a distance was given expression in many periods of history. One example is at the beginning of the Second World War. It did not affect Great Britain directly, but the country was obliged due to the Anglo-Polish military alliance to assist the Polish in defending their country. The result was a situation, which is known today as Phoney War. Britain declared war on Germany but did not fulfil the terms of the agreement. This attitude was a manifestation of the appeasement policy pursued by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. The result was that Britain (as well as France) only started major military actions in May 1940, when German troops had marched into the Benelux countries, and as it had become clear that there might be a serious threat to the British in a short period of time.
The neutral approach towards a catastrophe taking place far away on the continent is particularly disturbing in the case of what is known today as the Holocaust: the mass extermination of European Jews in the years 1941-1945. One must say that the British approach to this event was and is inexorably different than the German or Polish one. The genocide took place in Poland, in a country which suffered severely under Nazi occupation; it is at this important to bear in mind that three out of six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust were Polish citizens. Germany, as the country of the perpetrators, must have its own characteristic view on the event; it is for instance understandable why this country feels obliged to remember and remind of the Holocaust today so much. The British on the other side were neither perpetrators nor victims. They did, of course, take active part in military actions during the war, but since the Holocaust is regarded as a systematic murder on its own and as something distinct from what happened on the battlefields, one cannot really say that Britain was directly affected by it. In the course of events there were refugees seeking for asylum in Britain; there were also numerous actions undertaken by the British to rescue Jews from German-occupied countries. The ongoing mass murder of Jews was, however, viewed from distance both in literal and in metaphorical sense. Till today the question of whether Great Britain along with other allied countries could and should have done more to prevent the genocide is much disputed. To what extent the allies knew about the ‘Final Solution’ and about the existence of Nazi concentration camps still arouse controversies because there is strong evidence that the information about the systematic murdering of Jews was brought to western governments by civilians, escapees as well as by members of military. Because of the fact that the Holocaust took place in occupied Poland, it is not surprising that many reports were provided by Poles. Polish government circles as well as members of the Home Army played a particularly important role in that.
The Polish Government-in-Exile (formally known as the Government of the Republic of Poland in Exile) was recognised by all the allied countries and was the centre of diplomatic actions undertaken by the Polish state. The fact that the government of a country, where the mass extermination of Jews took place, was operating from London and the fact that this government was informing the British authorities on the ongoing tragedy brings important insight into the topic. It is not only interesting to investigate, to what extent the British were informed, but also to see in the first place how they were reacting to the information provided and how this is remembered decades after. The following essay will therefore centre on the Polish contribution in revealing the news, including the publication of eye-witness accounts during the war, and discuss, whether the British became aware of the scale of the tragedy and how this influenced their actions. The paper will be concluded with the question regarding the place of the Holocaust in the collective memory of British people.
II. Eye-witness Accounts on the Holocaust in Great Britain
There were many sources of information about the mass murder of Jews taking place in occupied Poland, which were brought to Great Britain. Reports made by Auschwitz escapees soon after they managed to flee the camp are one example of many. Among escapees were people of various nationalities and with different backgrounds. For the British case it is important to mention that numerous reports were published during the war in London, so that the existence of concentration camps and their detailed depictions became soon more or less accessible to British government circles as well as to the British public. Among the publications were eye-witness accounts provided by Polish escapees, many of which were first sent to members of the Polish Underground State in the country before they were forwarded to London. One of the examples is the account by Kazimierz Hałoń who escaped the Auschwitz concentration camp on 2nd November 1942. Before his report was published in London -based socialist Liberty , it was first delivered to the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) leadership in Cracow. Descriptions written in eye-witness accounts caused reactions, which were undertaken to prevent the Nazis to commit further crimes – even though, as the later part this paper will show, the impact of these actions was arguably small.
There were not only reports coming from Poland, but also from German-occupied Hungary, from where many Jews were transported to Auschwitz. The information provided by escapees played a vital part in arousing a feeling of protest in many countries. In the Hungarian case President Roosevelt, Pius XII, the King of Sweden, the governments of Turkey, Switzerland, and Spain, as well as the International Red Cross put pressure on regent Miklos Horthy to halt the deportation. This action proved effective and transports from Hungary stopped arriving in Auschwitz at the beginning of July 1944. Eye-witness accounts about Auschwitz in particular were made by Jews from different countries, for instance by Slovakian Jews Alfred Wetzler and Rudolf Vrba who escaped the camp in April 1944. Their accounts described the events in the camp during the last two years and also contained information about earlier occurrences. They were sent in secret to governments of the allied states, Great Britain included, as well as to the World Congress of Jews, the Vatican, and the International Red Cross. The reports were published in various newspapers in Switzerland and Great Britain. They were reprinted along with the report written by the Pole Jerzy Tabeau in Switzerland in a publication entitled Les camps d’exterminatio n .
Numerous reports were written by Polish escapees, among others by Witold Pilecki, Jan Redzej, Edward Ciesielski, and Stanisław Chybiński. Not all of them were published during the war, though. As historian Henryk Świebocki notes, they [members of the Polish underground] “played a special role in revealing the Nazi atrocities at Auschwitz to the world. Polish prisoners and especially members of the camp resistance movement affiliated with the AK and the international Kampfgruppe Auschwitz (Auschwitz Combat Group) prepared reports and lists on SS crimes that were smuggled to the outside world through covert channels. They also sent copies and extracts from the camp records, and even stolen documents. Couriers then transferred this material from the camp vicinity to ZWZ-AK headquarters or the Domestic Government Delegation, from where it was sent by radio or courier to the Polish Government-in-Exile in London”.
The role of the Polish Government-in-Exile based in London is of particular interest for the evaluation of the British response to the news about the ongoing mass extermination of Jews. Before its activities will be described in more detailed way, the report by Jerzy Tabeau, which was used along with other reports to raise consciousness of the ongoing tragedy in Great Britain and other allied countries, will be presented.
II.I. Eye-witness Account by Jerzy Tabeau
As already mentioned, not all reports about the extermination of Jews were published during the war. The ones, however, which were issued at that time, had often some impact. One of the eye-witness accounts that played an important role for revealing the news was the account delivered by the Pole Jerzy Tabeau who escaped from the Auschwitz camp in November 1943. In his report, which was originally addressed to the leaders of the Polish Underground State, he described the events of the last year and a half. The report written by Tabeau entitled as Report by a Polish Major reached Great Britain and the United States and it can be seen as an example of a wide array of activities undertaken by members of the underground in Poland.
Jerzy Tabeau was imprisoned in Auschwitz in March 1942 and managed to flee the camp in November 1943. The first attempt to escape along with four other prisoners was with the help of a bribed SS-man and due to a prepared action undertaken by the Polish resistance. Since this plan did finally not work, Tabeau and another prisoner decided to escape by cutting through the barbed wire fence. Some two weeks later Tabeau arrived in Cracow and contacted a person from the Polish underground who was connected with the Domestic Delegation of the Polish Government-in-Exile in London. Tabeau started soon to write his report on the camp while being in Cracow. At the beginning of 1944 the report was written and first sent by secret channels of the Domestic Delegation to Switzerland. It took a couple of months till the report was read, then it absorbed some attention of the World Congress of Jews. It is believed that the report became known to the British legation in Switzerland at that time. Later the text reached the British Government in London. In the United States Tabeau’s report was incorporated in a brochure with the title German Extermination Camps – Auschwitz and Birkenau , which did not only include Tabeau’s report, but it also contained the accounts written by Alfred Wetzler and Rudolf Vrba. In the introduction of the brochure, which was published in Washington in November 1944 by the Executive Office of the President, one can read the following assessment of the validity of Tabeau’s reports: “(…) So revolting and diabolical are the German atrocities that the minds of civilized people find it difficult to believe that they have actually taken place. But the governments of the United States and of other countries have evidence which clearly substantiates the facts. (…) The Board has every reason to believe that these reports present a true picture of the frightful happenings in these camps”.
 Today the question if the Holocaust was or was not a part of the Second World War arouses in Great Britain some controversies. For instance, as the Holocaust Exhibition at Imperial War Museum in London was planned, opinions as these were expressed: “We want none of your proposed Holocaust Exhibition – absolutely scandalous. Your museum was built as a dedication to BRITISH war history, not these other fanciful things”. The exhibition was finally opened in June 2000 and, as it was put by the project manager, “[it has] sent out a clear message that the Imperial War Museum is very much more than its name suggests”. Bargett, Suzanne: The Depiction of the Holocaust in the Imperial War Museum since 1961, in: After Eichmann. Collective Memory and the Holocaust since 1961, ed. David Cesarani, London/New York 2005, p. 153/156.
 The Home Army (English for ‘ Armia Krajowa ’) was the official name of the Polish resistance movement mobilised against the German occupier. The Home Army remained loyal to the Polish Government-in-Exile, which was firstly based in Paris, then for a short period of time in Angers, and after the capitulation of France in May 1940 it was moved to London.
 These sources of information were later used by the Czechoslovak Government-in-Exile, which was also based in London, for issuing a paper entitled Report on condition in the concentration camps of Oswiecim and Birkenau .
 Świebocki, Henryk: Informing the world about Auschwitz, Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau, URL: http://en.auschwitz.org.pl, viewed on 26th March 2010.
 It is important to mention that it was not until 1981 when the name of its author became undisputable. In 1944 and in subsequent years the Polish Major’s Report was published anonymously.