Polish Righteous Among the Nations
|Medals and diplomas awarded at a ceremony in the Polish Senate on 17 April 2012|
There are 6,532 Polish men and women recognized as Righteous by the State of Israel
The citizens of Poland have the world's highest count of individuals who have been recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations for saving Jews from extermination during the Holocaust in World War II. There are 6,532 Polish men and women recognized as Righteous to this day, over a quarter of the total number of 24,811 awards.
It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of Poles concealed and aided hundreds of thousands of their Polish-Jewish neighbors. Many of these initiatives were carried out by individuals, but there also existed organized networks of Polish resistance which were dedicated to aiding Jews – most notably, the Żegota organization.
In German-occupied Poland the task of rescuing Jews was especially difficult and dangerous. All household members were punished by death if a Jew was found concealed in their home or on their property. It is estimated that the number of Poles who were killed by the Nazis for aiding Jews was as high as tens of thousands, 704 of whom were posthumously honored with medals.
Before World War II, Poland's Jewish community had numbered between 3,300,000 and 3,500,000 persons – about 10 percent of the country's total population. During World War II, Germany's Nazi regime sent millions of deportees from every European country to the concentration camps it set up in the General Government in occupied Poland. Soon after war had broken out, the Germans began their extermination of Polish Jews, ethnic Polish, Romani, Russians, Czech, and others minorities of Poland. Most were quickly rounded up and imprisoned in ghettos, which they were forbidden to leave.
As it became apparent that, not only were conditions in the ghettos terrible (hunger, diseases, etc.), but that the Jews were being singled out for extermination at Nazi concentration camps, they increasingly tried to escape and hide in order to survive the war. Many Polish Gentiles concealed hundreds of thousands of their Jewish neighbors. Many of these efforts arose spontaneously from individual initiatives, but there were also organized networks dedicated to aiding the Jews.
Most notably, in September 1942 a Provisional Committee to Aid Jews (Tymczasowy Komitet Pomocy Żydom) was founded on the initiative of Polish novelist Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, of the famous artistic and literary Kossak family. This body soon became the Council for Aid to Jews (Rada Pomocy Żydom), known by the codename Żegota, with Julian Grobelny as its president and Irena Sendler as head of its children's section.
It is not exactly known how many Jews were helped by Żegota, but at one point in 1943 it had 2,500 Jewish children under its care in Warsaw alone. At the end of the war, Sendler attempted to locate their parents but nearly all of them had died at Treblinka. It is estimated that about half of the Jews who survived the war (thus over 50,000) were aided in some shape or form by Żegota.
In numerous instances, Jews were saved by the entire communities, with everyone engaged, such as in the villages of Markowa and Głuchów near Łańcut, Główne, Ozorków, Borkowo near Sierpc, Dąbrowica near Ulanów, in Głupianka near Otwock, Teresin near Chełm, Rudka, Jedlanka, Makoszka, Tyśmienica, and Bójki in Parczew-Ostrów Lubelski area, and Mętów, near Głusk. Numerous families who concealed their Jewish neighbors paid the ultimate price for doing so. Most notably, several hundred Poles were massacred in Słonim. In Huta Stara near Buczacz, all Polish Christians and the Jewish countrymen they protected were burned alive in a church.
|Warning of death penalty
for saving Jews
According to this decree, those knowingly helping these Jews by providing shelter, supplying food, or selling them foodstuffs are also subject to the death penalty.
This is a categorical warning to the non-Jewish population against:
After the occupation of Poland, the Nazis separated the ghettos, with ethnic Poles on the "Aryan side" and the Jews on the "Jewish side". Anyone from the Aryan side found assisting those on the Jewish side in obtaining food was subject to the death penalty. Capital punishment of entire families, for aiding Jews, was the most draconian such Nazi practice against any nation in occupied Europe. On 10 November 1941, the death penalty was expanded by Hans Frank to apply to Poles who helped Jews "in any way: by taking them in for the night, giving them a lift in a vehicle of any kind" or "feed[ing] runaway Jews or sell[ing] them foodstuffs". The law was made public by posters distributed in all major cities. Polish rescuers were fully conscious of the dangers facing them and their families, not only from the Germans, but also from betrayers (see:szmalcownik) within the local population.
The Nazis implemented another law, forbidding Poles from buying from Jewish shops under penalty of death.
Over 700 Polish "Righteous Among the Nations" received their medals of honor posthumously, having been murdered by the Germans for aiding or sheltering their Jewish neighbors. Estimates of the number of Poles who were killed for aiding Jews range in the tens of thousands.
Gunnar S. Paulsson, in his work on history of the Jews of Warsaw, has demonstrated that, despite the much harsher conditions, Warsaw's Polish residents managed to support and conceal the same percentage of Jews as did the residents of cities in safer, supposedly less antisemitic countries of Western Europe.
There are 6,532 officially recognized Polish Righteous—the highest count among nations of the world. At a 1979 international historical conference dedicated to Holocaust rescuers, J. Friedman said in reference to Poland: "If we knew the names of all the noble people who risked their lives to save the Jews, the area around Yad Vashem would be full of trees and would turn into a forest."
Hans G. Furth holds that the number of Poles who helped Jews is greatly underestimated and there might have been as many as 1,200,000 Polish rescuers. Władysław Bartoszewski, a wartime member of Żegota, estimates that "at least several hundred thousand Poles... participated in various ways and forms in the rescue action." Recent research supports estimates that about a million Poles were involved in such rescue efforts, "but some estimates go as high as 3 million" (the total prewar population of Polish citizens, including Jews, was estimated at 35,100,000, including 23,900,000 ethnic Poles).
How many people in Poland rescued Jews? Of those that meet Yad Vashem's criteria – perhaps 100,000. Of those that offered minor forms of help – perhaps two or three times as many. Of those who were passively protective – undoubtedly the majority of the population. — Gunnar S. Paulsson 
The Republic of Poland was a multicultural country before World War II, with almost a third of its population originating from the minority groups: 13.9% Ukrainians; 10% Jews; 3.1% Belarusians; 2.3% Germans and 3.4% percent Czechs, Lithuanians and Russians. A number of ethnically German men from Poland joined the Nazi formations already in 1940. The presence of sizeable German and pro-German minorities constituted a grave danger for the Catholic Poles who attempted to help ghettoised Jews.
The local population in Soviet occupied eastern Poland prior to German Operation Barbarossa of 1941, had witnessed the repressions and mass deportation of up to 1.5 million ethnic Poles to Siberia, conducted by the NKVD, with some of the local Jews collaborating with them and forming armed militias. There were also incidents of Jewish Communists betraying Polish victims to the NKVD. The Anti-Semitic attitudes in those areas had been exploited by the Nazi Einsatzgruppen who induced anti-Jewish pogroms on the order of Reinhard Heydrich. A total of 31 deadly pogroms were carried out throughout the region in conjunction with indigenous auxiliary police. The Ukrainian People's Militia spread terror across dozens of cities with the blessings of the SS, including Lwów (Lemberg), Tarnopol, Stanisławów, Łuck, Drohobycz, as well as Dubno, Kołomyja, Kostopol, Sarny, Złoczów and numerous other towns. Further north-west, during the massacre in Jedwabne, a group of ethnic Poles in the presence of German gendarmerie and the SS men of Einsatzgruppe B under Schaper set fire to a barn with over 300 Jews burned to death.
There were also a number of criminal or opportunistic locals of various ethnicities, known as szmalcownicy, who blackmailed the Jews in hiding and their Polish rescuers or turned them over to the Germans for financial gains. Official collaboration did not exist in Poland as it did in other countries such as France (see World War II collaboration and Poland for details). As Paulsson notes, "a single hooligan or blackmailer could wreak severe damage on Jews in hiding, but it took the silent passivity of a whole crowd to maintain their cover."
The fact that the Polish Jewish community was decimated during World War II, coupled with well-known collaboration stories, has contributed to a stereotype of the Polish population having been passive in regard to, or even supportive of, Jewish suffering. Also, the postwar portrayals of Holocaust perpetrators based on court testimonies greatly contribute to this multifaceted distortion in perspective, because the German policemen remained silent till the end about Polish help to Jews and their own brutal punishment for such help.
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