Rescue of Jews by Poles during the Holocaust
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Polish Jews were the primary victims of the Nazi-organized Holocaust. Throughout the German occupation of Poland, many Poles risked their own lives – and the lives of their families – to rescue Jews from the Nazis. Grouped by nationality, Poles represent the biggest number of people who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. To date, 6,620 Christian Poles have been awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations by the State of Israel – more than those of any other nation by far.
The Armia Krajowa (Polish resistance) alerted the world to the Holocaust, notably with the reports of Witold Pilecki and Jan Karski. The Polish government-in-exile and the Polish Secret State asked for American and British help to stop the Holocaust, to no avail.
Some estimates put the number of Poles involved in rescue at up to 3 million, and credit Poles with saving up to around 450,000 Jews from certain death. The rescue efforts were aided by one of the largest anti-Nazi resistance movements in Europe, the Polish Underground State and its military arm, the Armia Krajowa. Supported by the Polish government-in-exile, these organizations operated special units dedicated to helping Jews; of those, the most notable was Żegota Council based in Warsaw with branches in Kraków, Wilno and Lwów.
Polish citizens were hampered by the most extreme conditions in all of German-occupied Europe. Occupied Poland was the only territory where the Germans decreed that any kind of help for Jews was punishable by death for the helper and their entire family. Of the estimated 3 million non-Jewish Poles killed in World War II, up to 50,000 were executed by Nazi Germany solely as penalty for saving Jews. After the War most of this information was suppressed by the Soviet-installed satellite regime in an attempt to discredit Polish prewar society and its wartime government as reactionary.
The Second World War began with the Nazi German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939; and, on September 17, in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement, the Soviet Union attacked Poland from the east. By October 1939, the Second Polish Republic was split in half between two totalitarian powers. Germany occupied western and central Poland. Racial policy of Nazi Germany regarded Poles as "sub-human" and Polish Jews beneath that category, validating a campaign of unrestricted violence. One aspect of German foreign policy in conquered Poland was to prevent its ethnically diverse population from uniting against Germany. The Nazi plan for Polish Jews was one of concentration, isolation, and eventually total annihilation in the Holocaust also known as the Shoah. Similar policy toward the Polish Catholic majority focused on the murder or suppression of political, religious, and intellectual leaders as well as the Germanization of the annexed lands which included a program to resettle Germans from the Baltics and other regions onto farms, ventures and homes formerly owned by the expelled Poles including Polish Jews.
The response of the Polish majority to the Jewish Holocaust covered an extremely wide spectrum, often ranging from acts of altruism at the risk of endangering their own and their families’ lives, through compassion, to passivity, indifference, and blackmail. Polish rescuers also faced threats from unsympathetic neighbours, the Polish-German Volksdeutsche, the ethnic Ukrainian pro-Nazis, as well as blackmailers called szmalcowniks along with Jewish collaborators from Żagiew and Group 13. Holocaust testimonies confirm that the Jewish criminal underworld took advantage of inside information about the socio-economic standing of their own compatriots who were trapped in the ghettos. Jewish looters knew much better than anyone else "where to dig for valuables" wrote Isaiah Trunk and Rubin Katz. There were cases of denunciations or even participation in Nazi German "cleansing" actions such as the Jedwabne pogrom of 1941. During Barbarossa, the operational guidelines for mass anti-Jewish actions were issued by Reinhard Heydrich. His Einsatzkommando chiefs were ordered to implement them on territories newly occupied by the German forces. Nevertheless, statistics of the Israeli War Crimes Commission indicate that less than one tenth of 1 per cent of native Poles collaborated with the occupiers. By contrast, national minorities gathered around OUN-UPA, YB, TDA, and BKA, routinely participated in the massacres of Polish Jews following Barbarossa.
Non–Jewish Poles provided assistance to the Jews in an organised fashion as well as through varying degrees of individual efforts. Many Poles offered food to Polish Jews and left food in places Jews would pass on their way to forced labour. Others directed Jews – who managed to escape from the ghettos – to Polish people who could help them. Some sheltered Jews for only one or a few nights, others assumed full responsibility for the Jews' survival, well aware that the Nazis punished those who helped Jews by summary killings. A special role fell to the Polish medical doctors who alone saved thousands of Jews through their subversive practise. For example, Dr. Eugeniusz Łazowski, known as Polish 'Schindler', saved 8,000 Polish Jews from deportation to death camps, by faking an epidemic of typhus in the town of Rozwadów. Free medicine was given out in the Kraków Ghetto by Tadeusz Pankiewicz saving unspecified number of Jews. Rudolf Weigl employed and protected Jews in his Institute in Lwów. His vaccines were smuggled into the local ghetto as well as the ghetto in Warsaw saving countless lives. Dr. Tadeusz Kosibowicz, director of the state hospital in Będzin was sentenced to death for rescuing Jewish fugitives. It is mostly those who took full responsibility who qualify for the title of the Righteous Among the Nations. To date, a total of 6,066 Poles have been officially recognized by Israel as the Polish Righteous among the Nations for their efforts in saving Polish Jews during the Holocaust, making Poland the country with the highest number of Righteous in the world.
The number of Poles who rescued Jews from the Nazi persecution would be hard to determine in black-and-white terms, and is still the subject of scholarly debate. According to Gunnar S. Paulsson, the number of rescuers that meet Yad Vashem's criteria is perhaps 100,000 and there may have been two or three times as many who offered minor help; the majority "were passively protective." In an article published in the Journal of Genocide Research, Hans G. Furth estimated that there may have been as many as 1,200,000 Polish rescuers. Richard C. Lukas estimated that upwards of 1,000,000 Poles were involved in such rescue efforts, "but some estimates go as high as three million." Lukas also cites Władysław Bartoszewski, a wartime member of Żegota, as having estimated that "at least several hundred thousand Poles ... participated in various ways and forms in the rescue action." Elsewhere, Bartoszewski has estimated that between 1 and 3 percent of the Polish population was actively involved in rescue efforts; Marcin Urynowicz estimates that a minimum of from 500 thousand to over a million Poles actively tried to help Jews. The lower number was proposed by Teresa Prekerowa who claimed that between 160,000 and 360,000 Poles assisted in hiding Jews, amounting to between 1% and 2.5% of the 15 million adult Poles she categorized as "those who could offer help." Her estimation counts only those who were involved in hiding Jews directly. It also assumes that each Jew who hid among the non-Jewish populace stayed throughout the war in only one hiding place and as such had only one set of helpers. However, other historians indicate that a much higher number was involved. Paulsson wrote that, according to his research, an average Jew in hiding stayed in seven different places throughout the war.
An average Jew who survived in occupied Poland depended on many acts of assistance and tolerance, wrote Paulsson. "Nearly every Jew that was rescued, was rescued by the cooperative efforts of dozen or more people," as confirmed also by the Polish-Jewish historian Szymon Datner. Paulsson notes that during the six years of wartime and occupation, the average Jew sheltered by the Poles had three or four sets of false documents and faced recognition as a Jew multiple times. Datner explains also that hiding a Jew lasted often for several years thus increasing the risk involved for each Christian family exponentially. Polish-Jewish writer and Holocaust survivor Hanna Krall has identified 45 Poles who helped to shelter her from the Nazis and Władysław Szpilman, the Polish musician of Jewish origin whose wartime experiences were chronicled in his memoir The Pianist and the film of the same title identified 30 Poles who helped him to survive the Holocaust.
Meanwhile, Father John T. Pawlikowski from Chicago, referring to work by other historians, speculated that claims of hundreds of thousands of rescuers struck him as inflated. Likewise, Martin Gilbert has written that under Nazi regime, rescuers were an exception, albeit one that could be found in towns and villages throughout Poland.
There is no official number of how many Polish Jews were hidden by their Christian countrymen during wartime. Lukas estimated that the number of Jews sheltered by Poles at one time might have been "as high as 450,000." However, concealment did not automatically assure complete safety from the Nazis, and the number of Jews in hiding who were caught has been estimated variously from 40,000 to 200,000.
Efforts at rescue were encumbered by several factors. The threat of the death penalty for aiding Jews and limited ability to provide for the escapees were often responsible for the fact that many Poles were unwilling to provide direct help to a person of Jewish origin. This was exacerbated by the fact that the people who were in hiding did not have official ration cards and hence food for them had to be purchased on the black market at high prices. According to Emmanuel Ringelblum in most cases the money that Poles accepted from Jews they helped to hide, was taken not out of greed, but out of poverty which Poles had to endure during the German occupation. Israel Gutman has written that the majority of Jews who were sheltered by Poles paid for their own up-keep, but thousands of Polish protectors perished along with the people they were hiding.
There is general consensus among scholars that, unlike in Western Europe, Polish collaboration with the Nazis was insignificant. However, the Nazi terror combined with inadequacy of food rations, as well as German greed and the system of corruption as the only "one language the Germans understood well", wrecked traditional values. Poles helping Jews faced unparalleled dangers not only from the German occupiers but also from their own ethnically diverse countrymen including Volksdeutsche, and Polish Ukrainians, many of whom were anti-Semitic and morally disoriented by the war. There were people, the so-called szmalcownicy ("shmalts people" from shmalts or szmalec, Yiddish and Polish for “grease” and slang term for money), who blackmailed the hiding Jews and Poles helping the Jews, or who turned them to the Germans for a reward. Outside the cities there were peasants of various ethnic backgrounds looking for Jews who hid in the forests, to demand money. There were also Jews turning in other Jews and non-Jewish Poles for profit, or in order to alleviate hunger with the awarded prize. The vast majority of these individuals joined the criminal underworld after the German occupation and were responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people, both Jews and the Poles who were trying to save them. The fear of denunciation not only deterred many Jews from attempting to find shelter among Poles, but also discouraged well-intentioned Poles who feared denunciators and slanderers.
According to one reviewer of Paulsson, with regard to the extortionists, "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." He also notes that "hunters" were outnumbered by "helpers" by a ratio of one to 20 or 30. According to Lukas the number of renegades who blackmailed and denounced Jews and their Polish protectors probably did not number more than 1,000 individuals out of the 1,300,000 people living in Warsaw in 1939.
Michael C. Steinlauf writes that not only the fear of the death penalty was an obstacle limiting Polish aid to Jews, but also some prewar attitudes towards Jews, which made many individuals uncertain of their neighbors' reaction to their attempts at rescue. Number of authors have noted the negative consequences of the hostility towards Jews by extremists advocating their eventual removal from Poland. Meanwhile, Alina Cala in her study of Jews in Polish folk culture argued also for the persistence of traditional religious antisemitism and anti-Jewish propaganda before and during the war both leading to indifference. Steinlauf however notes that despite these uncertainties, Jews were helped by countless thousands of individual Poles throughout the country. He writes that "not the informing or the indifference, but the existence of such individuals is one of the most remarkable features of Polish-Jewish relations during the Holocaust." Nechama Tec, who herself survived the war aided by a group of Catholic Poles, noted that Polish rescuers worked within an environment that was hostile to Jews and unfavorable to their protection, in which rescuers feared both the disapproval of their neighbors and reprisals that such disapproval might bring. Tec also noted that Jews, for many complex and practical reasons, were not always prepared to accept assistance that was available to them. Some Jews did not expect help from the Poles — in fact, some were surprised to have been aided by some people who expressed antisemitic attitudes before the war. Similar sentiment was expressed by Mordecai Paldiel, former Director of the Department of the Righteous at Yad Vashem, who writes that the widespread revulsion at the murders being committed by the Nazis was sometimes accompanied by a feeling of relief at the disappearance of Jews. A Yad Vashem study of Żegota cites an interview, in which the organization's Deputy Chairman, Tadeusz Rek, mentions his report to the representatives of the Polish government-in-exile claiming "that the overwhelming majority of Polish society are hostile toward those extending relief." Paulsson and Pawlikowski write that overall, such negative attitudes were not a major factor impeding the survival of sheltered Jews, or the work of the rescue organization Żegota.
The fact that the Polish Jewish community was destroyed during World War II, coupled with stories about Polish collaborators, has contributed, especially among Israelis and American Jews, to a lingering stereotype that the Polish population has been passive in regard to, or even supportive of, Jewish suffering. However, modern scholarship has not validated the claim that Polish antisemitism was irredeemable or different from contemporary Western antisemitism; it has also found that such claims are among the stereotypes that comprise anti-Polonism. The presenting of selective evidence in support of preconceived notions have led some popular press to draw overly simplistic and often misleading conclusions regarding the role played by Poles at the time of the Holocaust.
Punishment for aiding the Jews
In an attempt to discourage Poles from helping the Jews and to destroy any efforts of the resistance, the Germans applied a ruthless retaliation policy. On November 10, 1941, the death penalty was introduced by Hans Frank, governor of the General Government, 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.
The imposition of the death penalty for Poles aiding Jews was unique to Poland among all German occupied countries, and was a result of the conspicuous and spontaneous nature of such an aid. For example, the Ulma family (father, mother and six children) of the village of Markowa near Łańcut – where many families concealed their Jewish neighbors – were executed jointly by the Nazis with the eight Jews they hid. The entire Wołyniec family in Romaszkańce was massacred for sheltering three Jewish refugees from a ghetto. In Maciuńce, for hiding Jews, the Germans shot eight members of Józef Borowski family along with him and four guests who happened to be there. Nazi death squads carried out mass executions of the entire villages that were discovered to be aiding Jews on a communal level. In the villages of Białka near Parczew and Sterdyń near Sokołów Podlaski, 150 villagers were massacred for sheltering Jews. In November 1942, the Ukrainian SS squad executed 20 villagers from Berecz in Wołyń Voivodeship for giving aid to Jewish escapees from the ghetto in Povorsk. According to Peter Jaroszczak "Michał Kruk and several other people in Przemyśl were executed on September 6, 1943 (pictured) for the assistance they had rendered to the Jews. Altogether, in the town and its environs 415 Jews (including 60 children) were saved, in return for which the Germans killed 568 people of Polish nationality." Several hundred Poles were massacred with their priest, Adam Sztark, in Słonim on December 18, 1942, for sheltering Jews in a church. In Huta Stara near Buczacz, Polish Christians and the Jewish countrymen they protected, were herded into a church by the Nazis and burned alive on March 4, 1944. In the years 1942-1944 about 200 peasants were shot dead and burned alive as punishment in the Kielce region alone.
Entire communities that helped shelter Jews were annihilated, such as the now-extinct village of Huta Werchobuska near Złoczów, Zahorze near Łachwa, Huta Pieniacka near Brody or Stara Huta near Szumsk.
Additionally, after the end of the war Poles who saved Jews during the Nazi occupation very often became the victims of repression at the hands of the Communist security apparatus, due to their instinctive devotion to social justice which they saw as being abused by the government.
Jews in Polish villages
A number of Polish villages in their entirety provided shelter from Nazi apprehension, offering protection for their Jewish neighbors as well as the aid for refugees from other villages and escapees from the ghettos. Postwar research has confirmed that communal protection occurred in Głuchów near Łańcut with everyone engaged, as well as in the villages of Główne, Ozorków, Borkowo near Sierpc, Dąbrowica near Ulanów, in Głupianka near Otwock, and Teresin near Chełm. In Cisie near Warsaw, 25 Poles were caught hiding Jews; all were killed and the village was burned to the ground as punishment.
The forms of protection varied from village to village. In Gołąbki, the farm of Jerzy and Irena Krępeć provided a hiding place for as many as 30 Jews; years after the war, the couple's son recalled in an interview with the Montreal Gazette that their actions were "an open secret in the village [that] everyone knew they had to keep quiet" and that the other villagers helped, "if only to provide a meal." Another farm couple, Alfreda and Bolesław Pietraszek, provided shelter for Jewish families consisting of 18 people in Ceranów near Sokołów Podlaski, and their neighbors brought food to those being rescued.
Two decades after the end of the war, a Jewish partisan named Gustaw Alef-Bolkowiak identified the following villages in the Parczew-Ostrów Lubelski area where "almost the entire population" assisted Jews: Rudka, Jedlanka, Makoszka, Tyśmienica, and Bójki. Historians have documented that a dozen villagers of Mętów near Głusk outside Lublin sheltered Polish Jews.
In some documented cases, Polish Jews who were hidden were circulated between locations in a village. Farmers in Zdziebórz near Wyszków, by turns, sheltered two Jewish men who later joined the Polish resistance Armia Krajowa (Home Army). The entire village of Mulawicze near Bielsk Podlaski took responsibility for the survival of an orphaned nine-year-old Jewish boy. Different families took turns hiding a Jewish girl at various homes in Wola Przybysławska near Lublin, and around Jabłoń near Parczew many Polish Jews successfully sought refuge.
Impoverished Polish Jews, unable to offer any money in return, were nonetheless provided with food, clothing, shelter and money by some small communities; historians have confirmed this took place in the villages of Czajków near Staszów as well as several villages near Łowicz, in Korzeniówka near Grójec, near Żyrardów, in Łaskarzew, and across Kielce Voivodship.
In tiny villages where there was no permanent Nazi military presence, such as Dąbrowa Rzeczycka, Kępa Rzeczycka and Wola Rzeczycka near Stalowa Wola, some Jews were able to openly participate in the lives of their communities. Olga Lilien, recalling her wartime experience in the 2000 book To Save a Life: Stories of Holocaust Rescue, was sheltered by a Polish family in a village near Tarnobrzeg, where she survived the war despite the posting of a 200 deutsche mark reward by the Nazi occupiers for information on Jews in hiding. Chava Grinberg-Brown from Gmina Wiskitki recalled in a postwar interview that some farmers used the threat of violence against a fellow villager who intimated the desire to betray her safety. Polish-born Israeli writer and Holocaust survivor Natan Gross, in his 2001 book Who Are You, Mr. Grymek?, told of a village near Warsaw where a local Nazi collaborator was forced to flee when it became known he reported the location of a hidden Jew.
Nonetheless there were cases were Poles who saved Jews were met with a different response after the war. Antonina Wyrzykowska from Janczewko village near Jedwabne managed to successfully shelter seven Jews for twenty-six months from November 1942 until liberation. Some time earlier, during the Jedwabne pogrom close by, a minimum of 300 Polish Jews were burned alive in a barn set on fire by a group of Polish men under the German command. Among the Jews rescued by Wyrzykowska was Szmuel Wasersztajn who, without seeing anything that happened, later falsely accused many innocent Poles of the crime. Wyrzykowska was honored as Righteous among the Nations for her heroism, but left her hometown after liberation for fear of retribution.
Jews in Polish cities
In Poland's cities and larger towns, the Nazi occupiers created ghettos that were designed to imprison the local Jewish populations. The food rations allocated by the Germans to the ghettos condemned their inhabitants to starvation. Smuggling of food into the ghettos and smuggling of goods out of the ghettos, organized by Jews and Poles, was the only means of subsistence of the Jewish population in the ghettos. The price difference between the Aryan and Jewish sides was large, reaching as much as 100%, but the penalty for aiding Jews was death. Hundreds of Polish and Jewish smugglers would come in and out the ghettos, usually at night or at dawn, through openings in the walls, underground tunnels and sewers or through the guardposts by paying bribes.
The Polish Underground urged the Poles to support smuggling. The punishment for smuggling was death, carried out on the spot. Among the Jewish smuggler victims were scores of Jewish children aged five or six, whom the German shot at the ghetto exits and near the walls. While communal rescue was impossible under these circumstances, many Polish Christians concealed their Jewish neighbors. For example, Zofia Baniecka and her mother rescued over 50 Jews in their home between 1941 and 1944. Paulsson, in his research on the Jews of Warsaw, documented that Warsaw's Polish residents managed to support and conceal the same percentage of Jews as did residents in other European cities under Nazi occupation.
Ten percent of Warsaw's Polish population was actively engaged in sheltering their Jewish neighbors. It is estimated that the number of Jews living in hiding on the Aryan side of the capital city in 1944 was at least 15,000 to 30,000 and relied on the network of 50,000–60,000 Poles who provided shelter, and about half as many assisting in other ways.
Organizations dedicated to saving the Jews
Several organizations were created and run by ethnic Poles and Jewish underground activists, dedicated to saving the Polish Jewish community. Among those, Żegota, the Council to Aid Jews, was the most prominent. It was unique not only in Poland, but in all of Nazi-occupied Europe, as there was no other organization dedicated solely to that goal. Żegota concentrated its efforts on saving Jewish children toward whom the Germans were especially cruel. Polish sociologist Tadeusz Piotrowski estimates that about half of the Jews who survived the war (more than 50,000) were aided by Żegota with various forms of assistance – financial, legalization, medical, child care, and help against blackmailers. In his 1977 historical conference paper Joseph Kermish asserted that a number of Polish sources overestimated the levels of support Żegota provided to Jews, saving perhaps only a few thousands of Jews (although this lower figure only counted those saved them in Warsaw rather than in all of occupied Poland); nonetheless the study concurs that the activities of Żegota "constitute one of the most brilliant chapters in the efforts to extend relief to Jews."
Perhaps the most famous member of Żegota was Irena Sendler, who managed to successfully smuggle 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto. Besides Żegota, there were few smaller, less effective organizations, which on their actions agenda included help to the Jews. Some were associated with Zegota.
Jews and the Church
The Roman Catholic Church in Poland provided many persecuted Jews with food and shelter during the war, even though monasteries gave no immunity to Polish priests and monks against the death penalty. Nearly every Catholic institution in Poland looked after a few Jews, usually children with forged Christian birth certificates and an assumed or vague identity. In particular, convents of Catholic nuns in Poland (see Sister Bertranda), played a major role in the effort to rescue and shelter Polish Jews, with the Franciscan Sisters credited with the largest number of Jewish children saved. Two thirds of all nunneries in Poland took part in the rescue, in all likelihood with the support and encouragement of the church hierarchy. These efforts were supported by local Polish bishops and the Vatican itself. The convent leaders never disclosed the exact number of children saved in their institutions, and for security reasons the rescued children were never registered. Jewish institutions have no statistics that could clarify the matter. Systematic recording of testimonies did not begin until the early 1970s. In the villages of Ożarów, Ignaców, Szymanów, and Grodzisko near Leżajsk, the Jewish children were cared for by Catholic convents and by the surrounding communities. In these villages, Christian parents did not remove their children from schools where Jewish children were in attendance.
Irena Sendler head of children's section Żegota (the Council to Aid Jews) organisation cooperated very closely in saving Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto with social worker and catholic nun, mother provincial of Franciscan Sisters of the Family of Mary - Matylda Getter. The children were placed with Polish families, the Warsaw orphanage of the Sisters of the Family of Mary, or Roman Catholic convents such as the Little Sister Servants of the Blessed Virgin Mary Conceived Immaculate at Turkowice and Chotomów. Sister Matylda Getter rescued between 250-550 Jewish children in different education and care facilities for children in Anin, Białołęka, Chotomów, Międzylesie, Płudy, Sejny, Vilnius and others. Getter's convent was located at the entrance to the Warsaw Ghetto. When the Nazis commenced the clearing of the Ghetto in 1941, Getter took in many orphans and dispersed them among Family of Mary homes. As the Nazis began sending orphans to the gas chambers, Getter issued fake baptismal certificates, providing the children with false identities. The sisters lived in daily fear of the Germans. Michael Phayer credits Getter and the Family of Mary with rescuing more than 750 Jews.
Historians have determined that in some villages, Jewish families survived the Holocaust by living under assumed identities as Christians — with the knowledge of their neighbors, who did not betray their identities. This has been confirmed in the villages of Bielsko (Upper Silesia), in Dziurków near Radom, in Olsztyn Village near Częstochowa, in Korzeniówka near Grójec, in Łaskarzew, Sobolew, and Wilga triangle, and in several villages near Łowicz.
Some officials in the senior Polish priesthood however, remained hostile toward the Jews – a theological attitude well-known from before the war. After the war, some convents were unwilling to return children to Jewish institutions that asked for them and refused to disclose the adoptive parents' identities, forcing government agencies and courts to intervene.
Jews and the Polish government
Lack of international effort to aid Jews resulted in political uproar on the part of the Polish government in exile residing in Great Britain. The government often publicly expressed outrage at German mass murders of Jews. In 1942, Directorate of Civil Resistance, part of the Polish Underground State, issued a following declaration based on reports by Polish underground.
For nearly a year now, in addition to the tragedy of the Polish people, which is being slaughtered by the enemy, our country has been the scene of a terrible, planned massacre of the Jews. This mass murder has no parallel in the annals of mankind; compared to it, the most infamous atrocities known to history pale into insignificance. Unable to act against this situation, we, in the name of the entire Polish people, protest the crime being perpetrated against the Jews; all political and public organizations join in this protest.
Polish government was the first to inform the Western Allies about the Holocaust, although early reports were often met with disbelief even by Jewish leaders themselves; then, for much longer, by Western powers.
Witold Pilecki was member of Polish Armia Krajowa resistance, and the only person who volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz. As agent of underground intelligence he begun sending numerous reports about camp and genocide to Polish resistance headquarters in Warsaw through the resistance network he organized in Auschwitz. In March 1941, Pilecki's reports were being forwarded via the Polish resistance to the British government in London but the British authorities refused AK reports on atrocities as be a gross exaggerations and propaganda of Polish government.
Similarly, Jan Karski, who had been serving as a courier between the Polish underground and the Polish government in exile, was smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto and reported to the Polish, British and American governments on the situation of Jews in Poland. In 1942 Karski reported to the Polish, British and U.S. governments on the situation in Poland, especially the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Holocaust of the Jews. He met with Polish politicians in exile including the prime minister, as well as members of political parties such as the Polish Socialist Party, National Party, Labor Party, People's Party, Jewish Bund and Poalei Zion. He also spoke to Anthony Eden, the British foreign secretary, and included a detailed statement on what he had seen in Warsaw and Bełżec. In 1943 in London he met the then much known journalist Arthur Koestler. He then traveled to the United States and reported to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In July 1943, Jan Karski again personally reported to Roosevelt about the plight of Polish Jews, but the president "interrupted and asked the Polish emissary about the situation of... horses" in Poland. He also met with many other government and civic leaders in the United States, including Felix Frankfurter, Cordell Hull, William Joseph Donovan, and Stephen Wise. Karski also presented his report to media, bishops of various denominations (including Cardinal Samuel Stritch), members of the Hollywood film industry and artists, but without success. Many of those he spoke to did not believe him and again supposed that his testimony was much exaggerated or was propaganda from the Polish government in exile.
The supreme political body of the underground government within Poland was the Delegatura. There were no Jewish representatives in it. Delegatura financed and sponsored Żegota, the organization for help to the Polish Jews – run jointly by Jews and non-Jews. Żegota was granted nearly 29 million zlotys (over $5 million; or, 13.56 times as much in today's funds) by Delegatura since 1942 for the relief payments to thousands of extended Jewish families in Poland. The government in exile also provided special assistance – funds, arms and other supplies – to Jewish resistance organizations (like ŻOB and ŻZW), particularly from 1942 onwards. The interim government transmitted messages from Jewish underground to the West and gave support to their requests for retaliation on German targets if the atrocities are not stopped – a request that was dismissed by the Allied governments. The Polish government also tried, without much success, to increase the chances of Polish refugees finding a safe haven in neutral countries and to prevent deportations of escaping Jews back to Nazi-occupied Poland.
Polish Delegate of the Government in Exile residing in Hungary, diplomat Henryk Sławik known as the Polish Wallenberg, helped rescue over 30,000 refugees including 5,000 Polish Jews in Budapest, by giving them false Polish passports as Christians. He founded an orphanage for Jewish children officially named School for Children of Polish Officers in Vác.
With two members on the National Council, Polish Jews were sufficiently represented in the government in exile. Also, in 1943 a Jewish affairs section of the Underground State was set up by the Government Delegation for Poland; it was headed by Witold Bieńkowski and Władysław Bartoszewski. Its purpose was to organize efforts concerning the Polish Jewish population, to coordinate with Zegota, and to prepare documentation about the fate of the Jews for the government in London. Regrettably, the great number of Polish Jews had been killed already even before the Government-in-exile fully realized the totality of the Final Solution. According to David Engel and Dariusz Stola, the government-in-exile concerned itself with the fate of Polish people in general, the re-recreation of the independent Polish state, and with establishing itself as an equal partner amongst the Allied forces. On top of its relative weakness, the government in exile was subject to the scrutiny of the West, in particular, American and British Jews reluctant to criticize their own governments for inaction in regard to saving their fellow Jews.
The Polish government and its underground representatives at home issued declarations that people acting against the Jews (blackmailers and others) would be punished by death. General Władysław Sikorski, the Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Armed Forces, signed a following decree and called upon the Polish population to extend aid to the persecuted Jews:
|“||Any Pole who collaborates in their acts of murder, whether by extortion, informing on Jews, or by exploiting their terrible plight or participating in acts of robbery, is committing a most serious offense against the laws of the Polish Republic.||”|
However, according to Michael C. Steinlauf, only on rare occasions did appeals to Poles to help Jews accompany these statements before the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943. Steinlauf points out that in one speech made in London Sikorski was promising equal rights for Jews after the war, but the promise was omitted from the printed Polish version of the speech. According to David Engel, the loyalty of Polish Jews to Poland and Polish interests was held in doubt by some members of the exiled government, leading to political tensions. Overall, as Stola notes, Polish government was just as unprepared to deal with the Holocaust as were the other Allied governments, and that the government's hesitancy in appeals to the general population to aid the Jews diminished only after reports of the Holocaust became more wide spread.
Szmul Zygielbojm, a member of the National Council of the Polish government in exile, committed suicide in May 1943, in London, in protest against the indifference of the Allied governments toward the destruction of the Jewish people, and the failure of the Polish government to rouse public opinion commensurate with the scale of the tragedy befalling Polish Jews.
Poland, with its unique underground state, was the only country in occupied Europe to have an extensive, underground justice system. These clandestine courts operated with attention to due process (obviously limited by circumstances) and as a result it could take months to get a death sentence passed, much as in regular judicial systems. However, Prekerowa notes that the death sentences only began to be issued in September 1943, which meant that blackmailers were able to operate undeterred for 3 years from the time of the sealing of the Jewish ghettos in Autumn 1940. Overall, it took the Polish underground until late 1942 to legislate and organize non-military courts which were authorized to pass death sentences for civilian crimes, such as non-treasonous collaboration, extortion and blackmail. According to Joseph Kermish from Israel, among the thousands of collaborators sentenced to death by the Special Courts and executed by the Polish resistance fighters who risked death carrying out these verdicts, few were explicitly blackmailers or informers who had persecuted Jews. This, according to Kermish, led to increasing boldness of some of the blackmailers in their criminal activities. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz writes that a number of Polish Jews were executed for denouncing other Jews. He notes that since Nazi informers often denounced members of the underground as well as Jews in hiding, the charge of collaboration was a general one and sentences passed were for cumulative crimes.
The Home Army units under the command of officers from left-wing Sanacja, the PPS as well as the centrist Democratic Party welcomed Jewish fighters to serve with Poles without problems stemming from their ethnic identity. As noted by Joshua D. Zimmerman, many negative stereotypes about the Home Army among the Jews came from reading postwar literature on the subject, and not from personal experience. In spite of Polish Jewish representation in the London-based government in exile, some rightist units of the Armia Krajowa – as noted by Joanna B. Michlic – exhibited ethno-nationalism that excluded Jews. Similarly, some members of the Delegate's Bureau saw Jews and ethnic Poles as separate entities. Historian Israel Gutman has noted that AK leader Stefan Rowecki advocated the abandonment of the long-range considerations of the underground and the launch of an all-out uprising should the Germans undertake a campaign of extermination against ethnic Poles, but that no such plan existed while the extermination of Jewish Polish citizens was under way. On the other hand, not only the pre-war Polish government armed and trained Jewish paramilitary groups such as Lehi but also – while in exile – accepted thousands of Polish Jewish fighters into Anders Army including leaders such as Menachem Begin. The policy of support continued throughout the war with the Jewish Combat Organization and the Jewish Military Union forming an integral part of the Polish resistance.
Partial list of communities
Below is the partial list of Polish communities engaged in collective rescuing of Jews during the Holocaust, as described in literature mentioned. Spelling of some of the names of settlements and counties has been revised in accordance with the currently available geodata. Occasionally, the below links lead to disambiguation pages listing villages known by the same name in the same geographical area of prewar and postwar Poland.
For list of settlements and their gminas in alphabetical order, please use table-sort buttons.
- † A cross marks the Polish villages razed in various pacification operations during World War II, and no longer existing in that form. For more information see: Pacifications of villages in German-occupied Poland or the aftermath of the Massacres of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia and the Zamość Uprising among others.
- List of individuals and groups assisting Jews during the Holocaust
- Rescue of Jews by Catholics during the Holocaust
- Irena's Vow, stage play recounting the story of Irena Gut
- Kastner's Train of 1,684 Jews freed from Nazi-controlled Hungary
- Schindler's List biographical drama film about Oskar Schindler
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^ Władysław Bartoszewski and Zofia Lewinówna, eds., Ten jest z ojczyzny mojej, Second revised and expanded edition, Kraków: Znak, 1969, pp.741–42.
^ Tadeusz Kozłowski, "Spotkanie z żydowskim kolegą po 50 latach," Gazeta (Toronto), May 12–14, 1995.
^ Frank Morgens, Years at the Edge of Existence: War Memoirs, 1939–1945, Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1996, pp.97, 99.
^ Władysław Bartoszewski and Zofia Lewin, eds., Righteous Among Nations: How Poles Helped the Jews, 1939–1945, London: Earlscourt Publications, 1969, p.361.
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- Joseph Kermish. The Activities of the Council for Aid to Jews (“Żegota”) In Occupied Poland. Yad Vashem Shoah Resource Center. Pg 28.
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Selected sources: Michał Grynberg, Księga sprawiedliwych (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, 1993); Ewa Kurek, Your Life Is Worth Mine: How Polish Nuns Saved Hundreds of Jewish Children in German-Occupied Poland, 1939–1945 (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1997)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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