Date: 12 October 2022 Author: Dawid Krupa
Żegota Council to Aid Jews: How Poland Helped the Jews
The Żegota Council to Aid Jews was the only state-supported clandestine institution in the Nazi-occupied countries of Europe. It came in response to Operation Reinhard, a secret Nazi plan to exterminate Polish Jews.
On December 4, 1942, the Government Delegation for Poland created the Żegota Council to Aid Jews. The political initiative for the centralization of these individual acts came in September 1942 from two women – Zofia Kossak, a writer and member of the Catholic Front for the Rebirth of Poland, and Wanda Krahelska-Filipowicz, who was connected with the centrist Democratic Party.
In 1942, when the Germans began mass liquidations of ghettoes, it became clear that this was actually an extermination operation, with Jews being transported to death camps and killed there. Many Poles provided assistance to Jews––either individually or through dedicated institutions. However, there was no centralized effort to save them. When the Nazi German occupying authorities began to liquidate the Warsaw Ghetto, Zofia Kossak-Szczucka published a leaflet titled Protest! that urged all Poles to immediately condemn Nazi atrocities. “We must not stay indifferent and passive in such a tragic situation. Whoever remains silent in the face of murder becomes an accomplice of the murderer. He who does not condemn, condones,” her manifesto said. The pamphlet was an eye-opener for many Polish officials that took action. The Provisional Committee to Aid Jews was established and later renamed the Polish Council to Aid Jews.
Its full codename was Konrad Żegota, a somewhat fictional character made up by Kossak-Szczucka, possibly inspired by the names of characters from Part III of Adam Mickiewicz’s Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve). Before Żegota was founded, information about the fate of the Jews was collected. From 1941, this had been conducted by the Jewish Section of the Information Department of the Bureau of Information and Propaganda of the Home Army Command. Żegota brought together Poland’s right- and left-wing groups alongside Polish and Jewish social organizations.
The Council’s headquarters was in Warsaw but some branches of Żegota were set up in Cracow, Lviv, and Lublin. Żegota offered support that mainly took the form of financial assistance, providing food, organizing hiding places, and arranging false documents to move outside ghettoes. Its children’s section in Warsaw, headed by a Polish social worker Irena Sendlerowa, cared for 2,500 Jewish children, many of whom were placed with foster families or in Catholic convents. Żegota indeed cooperated with the Catholic Church whose priests provided Jews with Christian baptismal certificates, which helped them to survive. The Council to Aid Jews also provided information about the extermination of the Jews to the underground press. The organization received financial aid from the Delegation of the Polish Government-in-Exile, Jewish organizations, the Bund, and private donors. A total of 40,000–50,000 Jews received direct assistance from Żegota.
Members of the Council to Aid Jews have been honored in the Avenue of the Righteous at the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem, where in 1963 Władysław Bartoszewski planted a tree for the Council. In Warsaw, the organization’s activities are remembered with a Żegota monument, located in front of the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews. There is also a plaque on the wall of the building at 24 Żurawia Street, which once housed the Council’s headquarters.
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