Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team
Revolt & Resistance
Acts of Resistance
"The Council for Aid to Polish Jews"
Hans Stanislav Kopec -Gdansk
English language revisions by Carmelo Lisciotto
Poland was the principal focus of military transport for the Germans after June 1941. The country acted as a conduit for the front in Russia. Therefore, there were many targets for the Polish resistance movement and from June 1941 to December 1941, they destroyed 1,935 railway engines, derailed 90 trains, blew up three bridges and set fire to 237 transport lorries.
However, such success came at a cost as the reprisals by the Germans was savage in the extreme. In fact, so extreme was the German reaction, that the Polish resistance all but ended its work for about 10 months in 1942. The SOE in London could not effectively assist the Poles because the distance was simply too great for operation teams to overcome.
Help for the Jews had to be coordinated, organized and supported on a larger scale occurred seemingly at once and spontaneously to a number of Polish resisters. They realized that the support of personal friends, or unplanned and unsupported help of strangers, was far from enough. But more help would not be easy. By this time, the Polish population had been impoverished. Working for ridiculously low wages, limited to very small rations, and living in a police state, their ability to help was severely restricted.
Yet there existed people capable of extraordinary courage and altruism who tried to help as much as they could. It required a selfless devotion to look after people in hiding. Consider the difficulties. The rescuers had to undertake total care for those under their protection. They had to procure food secretly because the Jews in their care were entitled to no rations; this food, bought on the black market (i.e., illegally), was very expensive.
They had to prepare their food, wash their laundry, and, depending on the hiding place, even provide toilet buckets, empty them, and clean them. Then, there was the psychological stress of dealing with fear—their own and that of the Jews in their care, thus Żegota was born.
It was under such conditions that Żegota [The Council for Aid to Jews] was organized in Warsaw in 1942. Żegota was the continuation of an earlier secret committee set up for this purpose, called the Provisional Committee for Aid to Jews (Tymczasowy Komitet Pomocy Żydom), founded in September 1942 by Zofia Kossak-Szczucka and Wanda Krahelska-Filipowicz.
Another well-known member was Władysław Bartoszewski, later Polish Foreign Minister (1995, 2000). Made up of democratic Polish Catholic activists, the Provisional Committee had 180 persons under its care within a short time. Żegota, founded in December of 1942, was a brainchild of Henryk Woliński. It included Jewish organizations, represented on the central committee by Adolf Berman and Leon Feiner.
For that reason, Kossack-Szczucka withdrew from participation. She had wanted Żegota to be an example of pure Christian charity and argued that the Jews had their own organizations. Kossack-Szczucka went on to act in the Social Self-Help Organization (Społeczna Organizacja Samopomocy - SOS) as a liaison between Żegota and Catholic convents and orphanages.
Social welfare was Żegota's primary concern, but since the organization had established contact with Jewish activists, Poles were also in a position to transmit messages from Jewish leaders to the outside world. The Polish underground used secret radio transmitters to beam the news about the atrocities committed against the Jewish people and, in 1942, their couriers carried news about the genocide to leaders in England and the United States.
Besides the obvious difficulties of hiding someone under the crowded conditions of the occupation and the constant surveillance of German soldiers and police, there was an automatic death penalty imposed on Polish Christians and their families if they were caught helping Jews. Names of the executed Poles were published to serve as a warning to others.
Of vital importance also was to coordinate efforts with the Jewish Underground and thus establish a liaison with the Jewish community. This already existed at a party level, and contacts had already been made with the AK by the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB), a resistance group formed by the younger members of the Jewish Underground.
Some of the Jewish leaders were already living on the Aryan side and the two most prominent, Dr. Adolf Berman and Dr. Leon Feiner, were invited to join in the first discussions of the Konrad Żegota Committee in Warsaw. (Konrad Żegota was a pseudonym used as cover for the groups activities).
No conversations about anything to do with Jews could be risked, and "Żegota" was used not only in discussions, but on all documents, receipts, and memos. In time, "Żegota" came to signify all activities involving help to Jews.
The organizations played almost no part in arranging the escape of Jews from ghettos, camps and deportation trains: its activities were largely confined to those already in hiding. Escape occurred mostly spontaneously through personal contacts, and most of the help that was extended to Jews in Poland 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. The financial resources needed to save even one Jewish life ranged from 6,000 to 15,000 zlotys. The monthly budget of Żegota ranged from 500,000 to 2 million zlotys - not even close to the money required to meet the demands of the organization.
Despite this lack of cash, Żegota distributed about 50,000 sets of false identification documents that were provided by secret forgery units of the underground. Żegota agents looked for homes and hiding places, including emergency shelters, to enable escaping Jews to get off the streets as quickly as possible.
Medical attention for the Jews in hiding was also made available through the Committee of Democratic and Socialist Physicians. By utilizing a network of underground doctors who were willing to risk seeing Jewish patients or to offer temporary shelter in hospitals, often by diagnosing a communicable disease and putting the person in a hospital isolation ward.
Żegota had ties with many ghettos and camps. It also made numerous efforts to induce the Polish Government in Exile and its Delegator to appeal to the Polish population to help the persecuted Jews, however their policy was not to solicit help without revealing for whom it was intended and what the risks were. They agreed that it would be immoral to endanger another's life without consent.
However, there were a few instances when this was done – in the case of children and out of desperation. A special section of Żegota was organized to get children out of the Warsaw Ghetto after locating homes for them. The children also required false documents and stories to match. If they were old enough, they had to memorize new identities. Żegota rescued about 2,500 children in the city of Warsaw. Irena Sendlerova played a leading role in the rescue and hiding of Jewish children. [Read more about Irena Sendlerova HERE]
By the spring of 1944, the Polish resistance was thought to number 400,000. The government in exile played a key part in running the non-communist resistance in Poland – far more freedom than any other government in exile within Britain was allowed. The Polish resistance was very well organized and at one time there were over 100 radio stations broadcasting in occupied Poland.
Żegota also involved the Polish Home Army in decreeing a death penalty on those Poles who blackmailed or betrayed Jews. When these sentences were carried out, the Home Army published the names of the executed as a deterrent to others.
Żegota members who remained in Poland after the war suffered under the new communist regime, which condemned them as fascists. In in the mid-1960s the organization was honored by Yad Vashem for its rescue work.
Hoffman, Eva. Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews.Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.
Teresa Prekerowa. Konspiracyjna Rada Pomocy Zydom w Warszawie, 1942-1945 (Panstwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, Warsaw, 1982)
Copyright 2008 Stanislav Kopec & Carmelo Lisciotto H.E.A.R.T