"Żegota" (Polish pronunciation: [ʐɛˈɡɔta] ( listen)), also known as the "Konrad Żegota Committee", was a codename for the Polish Council to Aid Jews (Polish: Rada Pomocy Żydom), 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 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 Polish Democrat as well as other Catholic activists. Within a short time, the original Committee had 180 persons under its care, but was dissolved for political and financial reasons.
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 Krakow, and there were smaller branches in Wilno (Vilnius) and Lwów (L'viv). In all, 4,000 Jews received funds from Zegota 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.
Founded 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 two of its most active workers. Members included Władysław Bartoszewski, later Polish Foreign Minister (1995, 2000). Żegota was the only Polish organization in World War II run jointly by Jews and non-Jews from a wide range of political movements. Structurally, the organization was formed by Polish and Jewish underground political parties.
Jewish organizations were represented on the central committee by Adolf Berman and Leon Feiner. The member organizations were the Jewish National Committee (an umbrella group representing the Zionist parties) and the Marxist General Jewish Labour Bund. 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 (in London) reached significant proportions only in the late 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.
Kossak-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 as well as other public orphanages, which jointly hid many Jewish children. Żegota's children's section was headed by Irena Sendler, a Polish social worker and activist, who was nominated for a Nobel Prize before her death in 2008.
According to a letter by Adolf Berman, the Jewish Secretary of Żegota and head of the Jewish National Committee, dated February 26, 1977, there were other activists who were especially meritorious. He mentioned theatre artist Prof. Maria Grzegorzewska, psychologist Irena Solska, Janina Buchholtz-Bukolska*, educator Irena Sawicka*, scouting activist Dr. Ewa Rybicka, school principal Irena Kurowska, Prof. Stanisław Ossowski and Prof. Maria Ossowska, zoo director Dr. Jan Żabiński* and his wife Antonina*, a writer Stefania Sempołowska, the unforgettable director of children's theatres Jan Wesołowski*, Sylwia Rzeczycka*, Maria Łaska, Maria Derwisz-Parnowska (later Kwiatowska*). Former Senator Zofia Rodziewicz, Zofia Derwisz-Latalowa, Dr. Regina Fleszar and others had great merits. Beside the university educated people there were commoners like Waleria Malaczewska, Antonina Roguska, Jadwiga Leszczanin, Zofia Dębicka*, tailor Stanisław Michalski, farmers Kajszczak from Łomianki and Paweł Harmuszko, laborer Kazimierz Kuc and many others. Those with an asterisk (*) after their name have been recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations up to the end of 1999.
The largest cell of Żegota (Felicja) was led by Mieczysław Herling-Grudziński, a wealthy lawyer, who hid 600 Jews (out of the 3,000 helped by Żegota in Warsaw) on his suburban estate in Boernerowo (today Bemowo).
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.
The German occupying forces made concealing Jews a crime punishable by death for every Pole living in a house where Jews were discovered (the head of the household and his or her entire family). 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.
Żegota did play a large part in placing Jewish children with foster families, public orphanages and church institutions (orphanages and convents). The foster families had to be told that the children were Jewish, so that they could take appropriate precautions, especially in the case of boys. (Jewish boys, unlike Poles, were circumcised.) Żegota sometimes paid for the children's care. In Warsaw, Żegota's children department, headed by Irena Sendler, cared for 2,500 of the 9,000 Jewish children smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto. Sendler attempted to return them to their parents at the end of World War II. However, almost all had been murdered in one way or another at Treblinka.
Medical attention for the Jews in hiding was also made available through the Committee of Democratic and Socialist Physicians. Żegota 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.
- “Żegota is the story of extraordinary heroism amidst unique depravity – compelling in its human as well as historical dimensions. It is a particularly valuable addition to our understanding of the many facets of the Holocaust because Żegota as an organized effort was tantamount to ‘Schindler’s List’ multiplied a hundredfold.” ― Zbigniew Brzeziński
Notes and references
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- Yad Vashem Shoa Resource Center, Zegota, page 4/34 of the Report.
- Andrzej Sławiński, Those who helped Polish Jews during WWII. Translated from Polish by Antoni Bohdanowicz. Article on the pages of the London Branch of the Polish Home Army Ex-Servicemen Association. Last accessed on March 14, 2008.
- Tadeusz Piotrowski (1997). "Assistance to Jews". Poland's Holocaust. McFarland & Company. p. 118. ISBN 0-7864-0371-3.
- Gunnar S. Paulsson Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw, 1940-1945 Published 2003 Yale University Press ISBN 0-300-09546-5 p.269
- Anna Poraj, Polish Righteous, Those Who Risked Their Lives; see: Rajszczak family, 2004.
- Chaim Chefer, Righteous of the World: Polish citizens killed while helping Jews During the Holocaust
- Ron Riesenbach, The Story of the Survival of the Riesenbach Family
- Richard C. Lukas, Out of the Inferno: Poles Remember the Holocaust University Press of Kentucky 1989 - 201 pages. Page 13; also in Richard C. Lukas, The Forgotten Holocaust: The Poles Under German Occupation, 1939-1944, University Press of Kentucky 1986 - 300 pages.
- Gunnar S. Paulsson, “The Rescue of Jews by Non-Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland,” published in The Journal of Holocaust Education, volume 7, nos. 1 & 2 (summer/autumn 1998): pp.19–44. Reprinted in “Collective Rescue Efforts of the Poles,” p. 256
- Paulsson (2002)
- (Polish) various authors. Andrzej Krzysztof Kunert, Andrzej Friszke, ed. "Żegota" Rada Pomocy Żydom 1942–1945. Warsaw: Rada Ochrony Pamięci Walk i Męczeństwa. ISBN 83-91666-6-0 Check
- (English) various authors (2003). Joshua D. Zimmerman, ed. Contested Memories: Poles and Jews During the Holocaust and Its Aftermath. Rutgers University Press. p. 336. ISBN 0-8135-3158-6.
- (English) MS Nechama Tec (1986). When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-505194-7.
- (English) Tadeusz Piotrowski (1997). Poland's Holocaust. McFarland & Company. ISBN 0-7864-0371-3.
- (English) Gunnar S. Paulsson. Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw, 1940-1945. Yale: Yale University Press. p. 2002. ISBN 0-300-09546-5.
- (English) Irene Tomaszewski; Tecia Werbowski (1994). Zegota: The Rescue of Jews in Wartime Poland. Montreal: Price-Patterson.
- (English) Irene Tomaszewski; Tecia Werbowski (1994). Zegota: The Council to Aid Jews in Occupied Poland 1942-1945. Price-Patterson. ISBN 1-896881-15-7.