Jews in hiding
In the autumn of 1943, Emanuel Ringelblum, a historian and founder of the Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto wrote: “When a Jew found himself on the Aryan side, there were two possible choices he could take: he or she could either remain »on the surface« or live underground”. He himself lived in hiding in the “Krysia” bunker at 84 Grójecka Street in Warsaw, owing his life to the Marczak family who gave him shelter. Some Jews did not surrender to the decree to move into the ghetto. There were also some who, having being imprisoned in the ghetto, took the risk of escaping to the so-called “Aryan side”. In order to survive, they had to hide or change their identity.
Jews on the so-called “Aryan side”
In compliance with the policy of Nazi Germany, Jews were gradually subjected to increasingly severe repressions in occupied Poland. They were publicly humiliated, sent to forced labour, deprived of their property, marked by the obligation to wear patches or bands with the star of David on their clothes, and from 1940 onwards, they were to move en masse to ghettos, where living conditions were extremely bad. The ghettos, especially those in larger cities, were overcrowded, with people dying of starvation and disease.
Some Jews did not give in to the order to move to the ghetto. There were also those who, having being locked in the ghetto, took the risk of fleeing to the so-called “Aryan side”. The biggest wave of escapes from the ghettos took place during the period of their liquidation (also before and after the liquidation actions commenced), i.e. mainly in 1942. The liquidation of the ghetto at that time meant transporting its inhabitants to death camps or murdering some of them on the spot. Jews were transported in cattle cars to their deaths, which took place mainly in the gas chambers.
Escapes from the ghettos were often planned, preceded by a series of arrangements concerning finding hideouts and food supplies. However, there were many spontaneous escapes, mainly from transports during the deportation actions. The escapees, who had no belongings with them, sought help among the Poles.
Hiding Jews who escaped from the ghettos during the liquidation actions, from the transport or extermination centres and found themselves on the so-called “Aryan side” in the second half of 1942 was extremely difficult, because they were exposed to the so-called Judenjagd (hunting for Jews), in which Poles also played a disgraceful role. Germans, with the help of some members of local communities, caught Jews who remained in hiding and killed them. Several dozen thousand to over one hundred and several dozen thousand Jews fell victim to Judenjagd. This number is being debated by historians.
What increased the chances of Jews surviving on the so-called “Aryan side”?
The main factors increasing the chances of survival of those who managed to find themselves on the so-called “Aryan side” were cultural assimilation, fluent use of the Polish language (before the war most Jews spoke Yiddish and Polish with a strong accent), the so-called “good looks” (fair hair, blue eyes), and knowledge on the practices of the Christian religion.
It was also crucial to have a Christian birth certificate and a false identity card, as well as financial resources that could be used to pay for food and shelter.
Having contacts among the non-Jewish community was vital, too. Jews with Polish acquaintances from work, school or neighbourhood could try to ask them for – paid or unpaid – shelter or any other kind of support.
“Once a Jew found himself on the ‘Aryan side’, he had two choices: stay ‘on the surface’ or go underground”
Living “on the surface” involved the necessity of a complete change of identity, which only a few could afford – those who had the required documents, knew the Polish language, had the so-called “good looks”. However, most Jews, being on the so-called “Aryan side”, had to remain “under the surface”, i.e. in hiding places. Some were hiding on their own, others were using the help of Poles.
Living “on the surface”
Jews with the so-called “good looks” and flawless command of the Polish language, familiar with Polish cultural and religious customs, could try to function “on the surface”, pretending to be Poles. Having obtained false documents (issued with a Polish-sounding name and surname), they were able to move around the city relatively freely, rent a flat and even take up a job. However, such a form of camouflage was available to a very small group – mainly assimilated or acculturated Jews, with broad contacts among Poles, with an appropriate financial status.
The so-called “Aryan documents” were obtained thanks to the activities of the anti-fascist underground movement, both left-wing and right-wing, both Polish and Jewish. These included the Polish Socialist Party – Freedom, Equality, Independence (PPS-WRN), the Polish Workers’ Party (PPR), the Workers’ Party of Polish Socialists (RPPS), the Democratic Party (SD), the Polish Revival Front (FOP), the General Jewish Workers’ Union (commonly referred to as the Bund), and the Jewish National Committee (ŻKN).
Many activists of these organizations were members of the “Żegota” Council to Aid Jews, which was responsible for obtaining false identity cards and, thanks to some priests, false baptism certificates. The document could also be obtained through personal contacts, e.g. by taking over the certificate of a deceased person. Acceptance of the document was tantamount to the necessity to adopt a new identity, and thus also to create a false, but well-known, life story. It was not uncommon to pay dearly for obtaining the “right papers”.
A place to live for people remaining in hiding, but “on the surface”, was arranged in various ways. Few rented them on their own, usually with the participation of Poles – both those earning their living by giving shelter and those, strangers or acquaintances, doing it selflessly. “Żegota” searched for and paid for some hideouts, mainly in Warsaw, Kraków and Lwów.
The knowledge of Polish customs was verified mainly on the basis of religious practices. Therefore, it was necessary to know prayers, church rituals and festive traditions. Children hidden among the clergy, in monasteries, usually received Catholic sacraments.
Physical adversity – dark hair – was overcome by dyeing blonde hair. Women and girls had more ease in these matters than boys and men who, marked by the Jewish tradition of circumcision, could be recognized. However, there have been cases of surgery to eliminate the effects of circumcision.
Often, the form of hiding “on the surface” was possible thanks to contacts with Poles, including the Polish underground movement, e.g. “Żegota”. Knowledge made it easier to find a job or a flat, secure property, obtain financial support and protect against denunciations. At the same time, the people in hiding were constantly exposed to the risk of being expelled (e.g. by a pre-war acquaintance met on the street) and often – in large cities – fell victim to blackmailers who extorted money in exchange for keeping quiet. The life “on the surface” was marked by constant stress.
Jews, who by the virtue of their appearance, speech or ignorance of Polish customs betrayed their true origins or did not have false documents at their disposal, had to hide. Majority of the few who found themselves on the so-called “Aryan side” were condemned to such a fate.
Staying in the hiding place was an exhausting effort, both physically and mentally. It deprived the people in hiding of the possibility to earn money, and often even to perform basic life activities. The hideouts were arranged in places such as barns, sheds, cellars, attics, dugouts, or in apartments - wardrobes, beds or masked rooms. Many Jews also hid in the forests.
Effective long-term hideout usually required the participation of Poles. For many, it was a way of earning money, sometimes taking advantage, both financially and psychologically, of the tragic situation of Jews. At the same time, however, we know of thousands of cases of selfless help that in some instances lasted for several years.
People hiding with the help of Poles in their homes had to live according to the established rules and regulations and observe them with rigid discipline – especially in emergency situations. They lived in constant, overwhelming fear. Every day there could be a search or denunciation, their presence could be discovered, even if only by accident. People in hiding lived utterly dependent on the rescuers – waiting for them to deliver food and water, take out a bucket of waste, tell them what was happening “on the surface”.
When deciding to provide shelter, the rescuers linked their fate with the tragic fate of the Jews. Subjected to terror by the German occupying force as Polish citizens, they simultaneously took on the burden of mystery and undertook the difficult logistical challenge. They lived in constant fear of the Germans and of their Polish neighbours. The threat of denunciation and of various German sanctions – from financial punishment or loss of a job or a property, through beatings, imprisonment, forced labour and a concentration camp, to death penalty – was indeed omnipresent.
How many Jews survived the war in hiding?
It is estimated that around 40,000–50,000 Jews survived in the occupied Polish lands.
Some of them survived in the camps, in partisan units, others survived thanks to the selfless help provided by Poles. It also happened that Jews survived only thanks to their own resourcefulness, or – much more frequently – they received support in return for financial gain.
- The Attitudes of Poles towards Jews during the Holocaust
- Helping Jews during the Holocaust
- Situation of Jews in occupied Poland