Would you risk your own life
and your family’s to save another human being?
That is the question anyone aiding Jews would have asked themselves each day.
Would you risk your own life
and your family’s to save another human being?
I am not sure if I would.
Zegota is a story of thousands of those who did. It happened during World War II under the brutal Nazi Germany occupation of Poland. The risk takers were Polish Christians who saved Polish Jews destined for Shoah. They came from all areas of life, educated or not, religious or not, from large cities or small villages, as members of Polish resistance or as unorganized individuals. They all knew the possible price to be paid, nevertheless they acted.
“Żegota” (also known as the “Konrad Żegota Committee”, was a codename for the Polish Council to Aid Jews , an underground organization of Polish resistance in German-occupied Poland active from 1942 to 1945.
The Council to Aid Jews operated under the auspices of the Polish Government in Exile through the Government Delegation for Poland, in Warsaw. Żegota aided the country’s Jews and found places of safety for them in occupied Poland. Poland was the only country in Nazi-occupied Europe where there existed such an organization.
The Council to Aid Jews, Żegota, was the continuation of an earlier secret organization set up for this purpose, called the Provisional Committee to Aid Jews (Tymczasowy Komitet Pomocy Żydom), founded in September 1942 by Zofia Kossak-Szczucka and Wanda Krahelska-Filipowicz (“Alinka”) and made up of democratic as well as Catholic activists. Its members included Władysław Bartoszewski, later Polish Foreign Minister (1995, 2000).
Within a short time, the Provisional Committee had 180 persons under its care, but was dissolved for political and financial reasons.
Founded soon after in October 1942, Żegota was the brainchild of Henryk Woliński of the Home Army (AK).
From its inception, the elected General Secretary of Żegota was Julian Grobelny, an activist in prewar Polish Socialist Party. Its Treasurer, Ferdynand Arczyński, was a member of the Polish Democratic Party. They were also the two of its most active workers. Żegota was the only Polish organization in World War II run jointly by Jews and non-Jews from a wide range of political movements. Politically, the organization was formed by Polish and Jewish underground political parties.
Jewish organizations were represented on the central committee by Adolf Bermann and Leon Feiner. The member organizations were the Jewish National Committee (an umbrella group representing the Zionist parties) and the socialist General Jewish Labor Union. Both Jewish parties operated independently also, using money from Jewish organizations abroad channelled to them by the Polish underground. They helped to subsidize the Polish branch of the organization, whose funding from the Polish Government-in-Exile reached significant proportions only in the spring of 1944. On the Polish side, political participation included the Polish Socialist Party as well as Democratic Party (Stronnictwo Demokratyczne) and a small rightist Front Odrodzenia Polski. Notably, the main right-wing party, the National Party (Stronnictwo Narodowe) refused to participate.
Kossack-Szczucka withdrew from participation from the onset. She had wanted Żegota to become an example of pure Christian charity and argued that the Jews had their own international charity organizations. She went on to act in the Social Self-Help Organization (Społeczna Organizacja Samopomocy – SOS) as a liaison between Żegota and Catholic convents and orphanages, where Catholic clergy hid many Jews.
It is estimated that about half of the Jews who survived the Holocaust in Poland (thus over 50,000) were aided in some shape or form by Żegota founded in 1942. Żegota had around one hundred (100) cells, operating mostly in Warsaw where it distributed relief funds to about 3,000 Jews. The second-largest branch was in Kraków, and there were smaller branches in Wilno (Vilnius) and Lwów (L’viv). In all, 4,000 Jews received funds from Żegota directly, 5,600 from the Jewish National Committee and 2,000 from the Bund (because of overlaps, the total number of Jews helped by all three organizations in Warsaw was about 8,500). This aid reached about one-third of the Jews in hiding in Warsaw, but mostly not until late 1943 or 1944. The systematic killing of Jews began to take place, so it was hard to save Jews already in the ghetto. That is why they only protected Jews located in hiding in Poland.
Concealing Jews was punishable in Poland by death for all the persons living in the house where they were discovered. A difficult problem therefore was to find hiding places for persons who looked Jewish. Zegota was on a constant lookout for suitable accommodations. No estimate can be given of the magnitude of this form of aid by Zegota, but it appears to have been great. Children were put in the care of foster families, into public orphanages or similar institutions maintained by convents. The foster families were told that the children were relatives, distant or close, and they were paid by Zegota for the children’s maintenance. In Warsaw, Zegota had 20-500 children registered whom it looked after in this way.
The head of the children section was Polish Nurse and Social worker called Irena Sendler.
Assisted by some two dozen other Żegota members, Sendler smuggled approximately 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and then provided them with false identity documents and shelter outside the Ghetto, saving those children from the Holocaust.
Żegota helped save some 4,000 Polish Jews by providing food, medical care, relief money and false identity documents for those hiding on the so-called “Aryan” side of German-occupied Poland. Most of its activity took place in Warsaw. The Jewish National Committee had some 5,600 Jews under its care, and the Bund an additional 1,500, but the activities of the three organizations overlapped to a considerable degree. Between them, they were able to reach some 8,500 of the 28,000 Jews hiding in Warsaw, as well as perhaps 1,000 elsewhere in Poland.
Help in the form of money, food and medicines was organised by Żegota for the Jews in several forced labour camps in Poland as well. Forged identity documents were procured for those hiding on the ‘Aryan side’ including financial aid. The escape of Jews from ghettos, camps and deportation trains occurred mostly spontaneously through personal contacts, and most of the help that was extended to Jews in the country was similarly personal in nature. Since Jews in hiding preferred to remain well-concealed, Żegota had trouble finding them. Its activities therefore did not develop on a larger scale until late in 1943.
Medical attention for the Jews in hiding was also made available. Zegota had ties with many ghettos and camps. It also made numerous efforts to induce the Polish government – in – exile and the Delegatura to appeal to the Polish population to help the persecuted Jews.Below is a letter they sent to the exiled government,asking for funding.
“The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland”, by the Polish government-in-exile addressed to the wartime allies of the then-United Nations, 1942″
Over 700 Polish heroes, murdered by Germans as a result of helping and sheltering their Jewish neighbors, were posthumously awarded the title Righteous Among the Nations They were only a small percentage of thousands of Poles reportedly executed by the Nazis for aiding Jews. According to differing research “the number of Poles who perished at the hands of the Germans for aiding Jews” was as high as fifty thousand. Nonetheless, “Władysław Bartoszewski,
who worked for Żegota during the war estimates that ‘at least several hundred thousand Poles, participated in various ways and forms in the rescue action [for Jews].’ Recent research suggests that a million Poles were involved” in giving aid, “but some estimates go as high as three million” of those passively protective.More specific estimates indicate that some 100,000 of those who meet Yad Vashem’s criteria, to 300,000 Poles were directly engaged in rescuing Jews even though the threat of death did act as a deterrent.
Many members of Żegota were memorialised in Israel in 1963 with a planting of a tree in the Avenue of the Righteous at Yad Vashem. Władysław Bartoszewski was present at the event.
The third anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising with members of Żegota,Warsaw, April 1946. Seated, from right to left: Piotr Gajewski, Ferdynand Marek Arczyński, Władysław Bartoszewski, Adolf Berman and Tadeusz Rek.
I think all these brave men and women have taught us one vital lesson that there is always a choice. You can choose to just look away or act like they did and I know it is not alwaysan easy choice but a choice nonetheless.