“We have work to do,” he said, “and very little time to do it. We have to talk to the point.”
Leon Feiner was a Polish Jewish attorney, trained in Krakow. He was politically active as a Social Democrat dating back to his student days. In addition to his work as an attorney, he translated various types of literature into Yiddish, founded the Krakow Jewish Theater Association, and was active in the Jewish Sports Club. In the late 1930s, as the Polish government drifted toward authoritarianism, Dr. Feiner was arrested for his socialist activities and (after a trial) was sent to an internment camp at Bereza Kartuska, in what is now Belarus.
“We want you to tell the Polish and Allied Governments and the great leaders of the Allies that we are helpless in the face of the German criminals. We cannot defend ourselves and no one in Poland can defend us. The Polish underground authorities can save some of us, but they cannot save masses. The Germans are not trying so enslave us as they have other peoples; we are being systematically murdered.”
Inmates at Bereza Kartuska were sentenced for terms of three months, extendable indefinitely. Most of the inmates were political prisoners; those the regime deemed to be dangerous to security, peace, and the social order. Feiner seems to have escaped from the camp (or was possibly released by the Soviets) in September 1939. Finding himself in the Soviet occupation zone, he was arrested at the Lithuanian border and sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment as a “fascist” and “counter-revolutionary.”
“Our entire people will be destroyed. A few may be saved, perhaps, but three million Polish Jews are doomed. This cannot be prevented by any force in Poland, neither the Polish nor the Jewish Underground. Place this responsibility on the shoulders of the Allies. Let not a single leader of the United Nations be able to say that they did not know that we were being murdered in Poland and could not be helped except from the outside.”
Dr. Feiner escaped the Soviet prison at Lida when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. He then made his way to Warsaw, where he lived on the “Aryan” side of the city under an assumed name (Michael Berezowski). He immediately took up underground work as the liaison between the Bund and the Polish government-in-exile, and served as an organizer of Zegota, which provided humanitarian assistance to Polish Jews. In October 1942, he met with Jan Karski, the Home Army liaison who would soon travel to the west to personally bring word of the persecution of the Jews to Roosevelt and Churchill. Dr. Feiner He personally guided Karski through the sewers into the Warsaw Ghetto and later arranged Karski’s visit to a transit camp to the Belzec death camp.
“Tell the Jewish leaders that this is no case for politics or tactics. Tell them that the earth must be shaken to its foundation, the world must be aroused. Perhaps then it will wake up, understand, perceive. Tell them that they must find the strength and courage to make sacrifices no other statesmen have ever had to make, sacrifices as painful as the fate of my dying people, and as unique. This is what they do not understand. German aims and methods are without precedent in history. The democracies must react in a way that is also without precedent, choose unheard-of methods as an answer. If not, their victory will be only partial, only a military victory. Their methods will not preserve what the enemy includes in his programme of destruction. Their methods will not preserve us.”
During the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Feiner went into hiding. Once the resistance had collapsed, he turned his efforts toward helping Jews who had ended up in forced labor camps and continued to serve as the chairman of Zegota. He went into hiding again during the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944.
“You ask me what plan of action I suggest to the Jewish leaders. Tell them to go to all the important English and American offices and agencies. Tell them not to leave until they obtain guarantees that a way has been decided upon to save the Jews. Let them accept no food or drink, let them die a slow death while the world is looking on. Let them die. This may shake the conscience of the world.”
Dr. Feiner did not live to see liberation. Suffering from throat cancer and with no access to medical care, he died in Lublin in January 1945.
Yom Ha’Shoah began yesterday at sunset. The date was chosen to coincide with the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It’s a day to remember all of the victims of the Shoah, those who fought but also those who organized and helped others escape. Dr. Feiner raised the money; he went to meetings and provided information, though he never took up arms. Today, we remember those who still lie in unmarked mass graves in Ukraine; those who perished in the carbon monoxide gas at Treblinka; those who died of starvation and disease and cold in the small camps and ghettos scattered all over occupied Europe. They all fought until the end, with acts of resistance both large and small, in the face of an enemy determined to murder them.
Quotations from Dr. Feiner are from Jan Karski, “Story of a Secret State”