80th Anniversary of the Establishment of the Committee to Aid Jews

Redakcja/Editorial staff; English translation: Andrew Rajcher, 26 September 2022
On 27th September 1942, the Committee to Aid Jews was established in Warsaw – the first nationwide organisation to help Jews, in German-occupied Poland, during the Holocaust. It was called at the initiative of Zofia Kossak and Wanda Krahelska-Filipowiczow together with a small group of Polish underground activists. Thus began the history of the “Żegota” Council to Aid Jews (December 1942), which was established two months later. Marking the 80th anniversary, we present the history of this secret organisation and of the people who formed it. POLIN Museum has prepared new material on the Polish Righteous website. View memorabilia from the Museum's collection and the experts in discussion.

“Zofia Kossak was extrmely careless. She believed people”, recalls Janusz Jabłoński who, as a sixteen-year-old during the period of German occupation, worked together with Kossak in the underground. It was she, a writer and social activist from the Catholic organisation Front for the Rebirth of Poland, together with Wanda Krahelska-Filipowiczow, a Democratic Party activist and formerly a member of the legendary Fighting Organisation of the Polish Socialist Party, who founded the underground Committee to Aid Jews.

The Committee was established in Warsaw with the consent of the Delegation of the Republic of Poland to the Country. Apart from Kossak and Krahelska, others involved included Witold Bieńkowski, Ignacy Barski, Maria Lasocka and Władysław Bartoszewski, from the FOP, as well as Marek Ferdynand Arczyński and Janina Raabe-Wąsowiczowa from the SD. It is estimated that, between September and December 1942, the Committee's aid operation directly involved over 180 people (mainly in Warsaw). It operated under the codename Konrad Żegota – probably after one of the conspirators in the third part of Adam Mickiewicz's Dziady.

“On 27th September 1942, the Committee was established. In documents, it is referred to as the Commission for Social Aid to the Jewish Population and, for underground purposes, the Konrad Żegota. In later years, after its liquidation and the creation of the Council to Aid Jews (December 1942), it was to be called the Provisional Committee to Aid Jews”, explains researcher Teresa Prekerowa, author of the classic monograph The Underground Council to Aid Jews in Warsaw 1942-1945 (State Publishing Institute 1982, 2020).

The Committee struggled with financial and organisational problems. It was only on 31st October 1942 that the Polish government-in-exile, in London, was informed about its creation in a telegram from the Delegation of the Republic of Poland to the Country. At that time, the Deputy Prime Minister, Stanisław Mikołajczyk was asked for “an allowance of half a million złoty per month”. In autumn 1942, efforts were made to create a new organisation – one that was permanent, strong, equipped with the appropriate resources and based on a broad social representation. It was in December that the Żegota” Council to Aid Jews was established However, it did not include Zofia Kossak and Wanda Krahelska.

“The Protest! Appeal by Zofia Kossak.” – the premiere of the thematic study on the Polish Righteous portal (18th September 2022)

Janusz Jabłoński shared his memories of Zofia Kossak in an interview for the POLIN Museum. Among other things, he describes the hiding place in “Auntie's” apartment on ul. Radna in Warsaw. He descibes the beginnings of the underground work with his mother Maria Jabłońska who, like Kossak and Krahelska, was honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations.

He also recalls his involvement in the distribution of “Prawda” [“Truth”], edited by Kossak, the information organ of the Front for the Rebirth of Poland. It was this organisation that was responsible for the issuing of the Protest! appeal, which was crucial for the establishment of the Provisional Committee to Aid Jews. In it, Zofia Kossak called for opposition to the ongoing extermination of Jews: 

“The world is looking at this crime, more terrible than anything that history has seen – and remains silent. The slaughter of millions of defenceless people takes place amidst a general, sinister silence […] Whoever remains sillent, in the face of murder, becomes the murderer's accomplice. Those who do not condemn, condone,” were  Kossak's words.

Protest! was distributed, on the streets, on 11th August 1942. It was a response to the Germans' mass deportations of Jews, from the Warsaw ghetto, to the Treblinka extermination camp, which had already lasted twenty days. It was published as a leaflet with a circulation of 5,000. 

“Zofia Kossak's appeal is a foundation text for Polish thinking about saving Jews”, notes Tomasz Żukowski, a researcher into the issues of public discourse in Poland. “There is a dispute about it. Jan Błoński was surprised that it was a document which was ‘very pro-Jewish [...] and, at the same time… blatantly antisemitic’.”

The 80th anniversary of the establishment of the Provisional Committee to Aid Jews is an opportunity for the POLIN Museum to publish a thematic study, which is devoted to Protest!, one of the most important, cultural texts relating to the legacy of the Polish Righteous. View the text of the appeal, learn more about how it was received and the meaning of this text in discussions on the attitudes of Polish society towards Jews during the Holocaust. The author of the work is Dr. hab. Tomasz Żukowski of the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

» Read: The “Protest!” Appeal by Zofia Kossak (1942) [premiere]

One of the surviving copies of the Protest! leaflet is in the POLIN Museum collection – a gift from the National Library in Warsaw. Other memorabilia, relating to “Żegota” members, including the false identity card and birth certificate of Leon Feiner, and documents from the archives of the “Felicja” cell (deposited in the Ossoliński National Institute), are presented in the Museum's Core Exhibition.

New publications on the Polish Righteous website are not all that we have prepared to mark the 80th anniversary of the establishment of the Provisional Committee to Aid Jews.

What happened to the legacy of the Righteous? – a discussion by experts at the POLIN Museum (21st September 2022)

The second event in the series of discussions about the Polish Righteous, organised by the POLIN Museum, took place on 21st September. We discussed how the way the history of the Righteous has been presented has changed over the nearly 80 years since the end of World War II. We looked at what purposes it served during the years of the Polish People's Republic and, after 1989, how it was instrumentalised. We considered how the history of the Rightheous could serve the eduationof new generations.

Taking part in the discussion were Anna Bikont, author of the book Sendler in Hiding, Prof. Michał Bilewicz and Prof. Karolina Wigura from the University of Warsaw. The discussion was led by Michał Okoński of the “Tygodnik Powszechy”. This discussion can be viewed below:

The next event in the series of discussions about the Polish Righteous, entitled “Who are the RIghteous?”, will take place on 14th December 2022, marking the 80th anniversary of the founding of “Żegota”. Details of discussions and other events will follow shortly. 

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The above text was published, in abbreviated form, on the largest Polish historical website Histmag”, as part of the activities carried out by POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, to promote the Museum's public program.

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