80th Anniversary of the “Żegota” Council to Aid Jews

Redakcja / Editorial staff; English translation: Andrew Rajcher 4 December 2022
It was the only state-supported organisation in occupied Europe, established to help Jews during the Holocaust. Its member and collaborators - Poles and Jews - were active in the underground. They helped adults and children - Jews hiding in German-occupied Poland. Marking the 80th anniversary of the establishment of the "Żegota” Council to Aid Jews, we present the activities of this secret organisation, concentrating on a thread of its history which has, thus far, been rarely discussed.

"It was the first organisation in which Zionists, Bundists, Catholics, Polish democrats, Polish socialists and peasants, both Jews and Poles, sat together at one table, in a conspiracy against the Germans", wrote Władysław Bartoszewski (1922-2015), a member of the Council to Aid Jews, honoured after the War with the title of "Righteous Among the Nations.

"Żegota” was established, in Warsaw, on 4th December 1942, continuing the mission of the social Committee to Aid Jews, established a few months earlier by Zofia Kossak and Wanda Krahelska-Filipowiczow. That means, that this organisation was established at a time when the displacement of Jews from ghettos in occupied Poland was coming to an end. (This was the period of mass deportations to German-organised extermination centres.)

The activities of "Żegota”, conducted until January1945, consisted mainly of providing financial support to Jews in hiding, organising hiding places, finding work and supplying them with false documents. Those for whom they cared were both adults and children. The Council's first chairman was Julian Grobelny (1893-1946).

» Read: The tab relating to the "Żegota” Councilto Aid Jews [poprawione i uzupełnione wydanie]

It is not possible to precisely determine the scale of help provided by "Żegota” - how many Jews were saved. It is impossible to determine just how many of these rescue activities were succussful. It is known that "Żegota” supplied circa 50,000 false documents to those under its care. Initially, 300 people benefited from its financial support. At the end of 1943, it was 2,000 and, in the summer of 1944, circa 4,000.

Unlike its predecessor, the social Committee, the Council to Aid Jews was directly responsible to the Polish State Underground, being at the disposal of the Delegate of the Goverment of the RP for Poland. This was to ensure that its activities were financed by the Polish Goverment-in-Exile in London.

"Żegota”, also as a Jewish organisation - a publication premiering of the Polish Righteous Website on 4th December 2022

"The entire institutionalised activity of 'Żegota', at least in Warsaw, can be described as primarily activity by Jewish organisations (circa 70%) and, to a lesser extent, Polish organisations (circa 30%)”, emphasises Dr Marcin Urynowicz.

The anniversary of the establishment of the Council to Aid Jews is an annual opportunity for the POLIN Musuem to recall the stories of the members of this secret organisation. Over many years, on 4th December, the Museum has organised educational events for schools. In 2014, young people met with Władysław Bartoszewski, the last living member of "Żegota". After his passing, the met with Holocaust survivors Elżbieta Ficowska (2015-2018) and Katarzyna Meloch (2019).

This year, on the 80th anniversary of the establishment of "Żegota”, it is a special opportunity for us to draw attention to a rarely-discussed aspect of its history- the involvemenmt of Jews in "Żegota”. This is the extraordinary experience of Jews being helped by Jews who, themselves, have to be in hiding.

"The Council to Aid Jews had a federated structure - Jewish organisations took part in its activities on equal terms with Polish organisations. Each brought, to "Żegota", their own contacts and human resources - both those under their care and their carers”, wrote Prof. Barbara Engelking, in the introduction to the Polish Righteous website's thematic tab - Jews Aiding Other Jews on the "Aryan Side".

It is worth nothing that Jews performed important function in the presidium of the Council to Aid Jews. For example, Leon Feiner was its chairman until August 1944. The "Felicja” cell, which aided 20% of all Jews hiding in Warsaw, was headed by Maurycy Herling-Grudziński - Jewish lawyer, the brother of Gustaw, a well-known post-War writer.

In a new study of the story of Marian Rzędowski, we read:

"He rode on a crowded tram. The hand, upon which he wore his watch, grasped the descending handle. The tram jerked, passengers fell, the watch was gone. He guessed that it was the man with his back towards him. He grabbed his wrist. As the tram reached a stop, he leaned in. “We’re getting off”, he said. Outside, he demanded return of the watch. Years later, he explained to his wife, Zofia Rzędowska, why he had done that, quietly and calmly. He was protecting himself and those under the care of Felicja. He was taking money to Jews hiding on the Aryan side. In calling for help, he would have risked his papers being checked - they were false - and he was carrying large sums of money”.

One of Herling-Grudziński's regular co-workers was the engineer Marian Rzędowski. Probably, in the summer of 1942, together with his mother Gustawa, he emerged from the Warsaw ghetto. On the "Aryan side", he provided financial aid to Jews in hiding, although he, himself, had to hide the fact that he was also Jewish.

Rzędowski's pre-War watch - a witness to hiding on the "Aryan side" its owner's activity in "Żegota” -is now in the POLIN Museum collection.

» Read: Marian Rzędowski – "Felicja" co-worker” [premiere]

Rzędowski's watch is not the only artifact, in the POLIN Museum collection, which relates to the Council to Aid Jews. The Core Exhibition present Leon Feiner's false documents - his identity card (kenkarta) and birth certificate, as well as preserved "Felicja” cells receipts. 

The 40th Anniversary of the publication of the monograph by Teresa Prekerowa: The Underground Council to Aid Jews in Warsaw 1942-1945

"Many would have don  less and would have wwritten a whole brochure", assessed Władysław Bartoszewski, regarding Teresa Prekerowa's attitude towards Jews. "This is an interesting contribution to her attitude to matter from the past, the slightest accent externalising [her] merits”.

She was an editor and historian. She was the author of the first monographic work on the "Żegota” Council to Aid Jews, published by the State Publishing Institute in 1982. Readers of her book - which is today part of the canon of historiography on Polish-Jewish relation during the Holocaust - are usually unaware that the experience of helping Jews was also her own. She never boasted about it and rarely talked about it. In 1985, thanks to the testimonies of Holocaust survivors, Teresa Prekerowa was honoured with the title of "Righteous Among the Nations". 

On the 80th anniversary of the establishment of "Żegota and the 40th anniversary of the publication of her monograph about this organisation, we present the biography of this outstanding researcher on the subject. Her story of help has been prepared by Dr Aleksandra Namysło.

» Read: "If not you, then Me” - The Story of Teresa Prekerowa [premiere]

December 4th is the date which begins the cylce of anniversaries relating to the history of the Council to Aid Jews. In 2023, among others, we will celebrate the 80th anniversary of the "Żegota" branches in Kraków and Łódź. New thematic studies will appear, about them, authored by Dr Bartosz Heksel.

"Who are the Contemporary 'Righteous'?" - experts discussion in the Musuem on 14th December 2022

This is the third and last, discussion about the Righteous in 2022., organizowana w ramach cyklu spotkań w Muzeum POLIN w związku z 80. rocznicą powołania „Żegoty”. 14 grudnia (środa) o godz. 19:30 zastanowimy się, wspólnie z ekspertami, kim są Sprawiedliwi w dzisiejszych czasach.

Currently, there are international organisations that help those in need, with the support of government, NGOs and business partners. There is no shortage of private individuals who, from their hearts and guided by empathy, wish to support others. Sometimes, however, those who help encounter social ostacism and money difficulties.

The Russian aggression against Ukraine united Poles from various backgrounds. At the same time, however, helping the victims on the Poland-Belarus border was difficult and, in many circles, was met with misunderstanding. From the beginning of the refugee crisis in 2015, people helping refugees, from outside Europe, have faced various problems and opposition from a section of society.

To participate in this discussion, we invited Katarzyna Winiarska, an activist working on the Poland-Belarus border, Maria Złonkiewicz from the "Bread and Salt" Association and Igor Hórkow, who coordinates help for Ukrainian refugees in Przemyśl. The discussion ill be led by Michał Okoński - journalist, "Tygodnik Powszechny”.


The above text was published, in abridged form, on the largest Polish - historical portal" Histmag”, as part of the activities conduced by the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews to promote the Museum's public program.

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