80th anniversary of establishing "Żegota" Council to Aid Jews
On 4 December 1942, "Żegota" Council to Aid Jews was established—the only state organisation in Europe whose aim was to help Jews. Among its main activities were: looking for hideouts, issuing false IDs, providing medicines and financial aid to Jews in hiding.
"Żegota" member Władysław Bartoszewski wrote:
"It was the first organisation which united Zionists, Bundists, Catholics, Polish democrats and socialists, members of the people’s party and both Jews and Poles at one table to conspire against the Germans."
The idea of establishing a conspiratorial organisation whose aim would be to rescue Jews from the Holocaust in occupied Poland first surfaced as a response to the so-called Great Aktion (July-September 1942) in the course of which Germans deported nearly 300,000 Jews from Warsaw and murdered them in the extermination centre in Treblinka. As a reaction to this heinous crime, in August 1942, the underground Front for the Rebirth of Poland organisation published a leaflet titled "Protest!" written by Zofia Kossak, writer and Catholic activist. In it, she appealed to the Poles to aid Jews.
One month later, on 27 September, Zofia Kossak and Wanda Krachelska-Filipowiczowa appointed the Provisional Committee to Aid Jews which was transformed into "Żegota" Council to Aid Jews, part of the Government Delegation for Poland. The Council members were representatives of Polish and Jewish political groups, mainly the left-wing ones. The goals of the organisation were set out in a letter to the member of the Government Delegation for Poland:
"The Council's task is to help Jews as victims of the extermination campaign by the German occupying force by: saving them from death, legalising them, assigning them to specific locations, providing them with material aid or, wherever appropriate, finding employment as a basis for existence, managing and distributing funds".
"Żegota" provided aid to Jews in hiding first and foremost in Warsaw, and also through its local branches in Kraków and Lwów. The activities were financed by the Polish Government in Exile and worldwide Jewish organisations.
Historian Marcin Urynowicz wrote that:
"the whole institutionalised activities of 'Żegota', at least in Warsaw, could be described as activities of mainly Jewish organisations (ca 70%) and, to a lesser extent, Polish ones (ca 30%)."
It is impossible to determine precisely what was the scale of aid provided by "Żegota"—how many Jews it saved, in how many cases the rescue operation was successful. We know that the legal department provided 50,000 false identity documents and that at the beginning of 1943, three hundred people benefited from financial aid, at the end of that year—two thousand, and in the summer of 1944 about four thousand. It should be stressed, however, that "Żegota" was established at a time when the liquidation of ghettos, i.e. mass deportations of Jews to extermination centres, was already drawing to an end.
On the occasion of the 80th anniversary of establishing "Żegota" Council to Aid Jews, you can read more on the activities of this underground organisation at the Polish Righteous portal run by POLIN Museum. You will get acquainted with mechanisms behind the actions, life stories of "Żegota" members and of those whom it took under its wings. You will have an opportunity to admire the keepsakes from the POLIN Museum collection, among them false birth certificate and kennkarte of Leon Feiner, one of "Żegota" chairmen:
This year, we pay particular attention to the story of Maurycy Herling-Grudziński (1903-1966), a solicitor of Jewish origin, brother of Gustaw, a writer who gained recognition in Poland after the Second World War. Maurycy provided aid to Jews through the activities of "Felicja"—a cell within the "Żegota" structures—which provided aid to 1/5 of all Jews who remained in hiding within the limits of occupied Warsaw. This year marks 56th anniversary of Maurycy Herling-Grudziński’s passing.
The POLIN Museum core exhibition features keepsakes related to his activities in "Żegota"—the receipt of providing money to Jews in hiding, coming from the collection of the Ossoliński Library. The receipts were issued on pieces of paper—the smaller the safer. The guardians would wear them in their powder cases or under watch straps; the Jews signed receipts only by their first names. The receipts were backdated by a decade, and the sums of money were divided by 100. The receipts—which are among the very few documents testifying to "Żegota" daily operations—were kept by Herling-Grudziński. To read more about him, click here: