“Żegota” Territorial Dept. was set up 75 years ago

Mateusz Szczepaniak / English translation: Andrew Rajcher, 28th June 2018
It was probably on 1st July 1943, that a Territorial Department was set up within the structure of “Żegota”, with the aim of collecting, for the Council, key information from the ghettoes and labour camps within the General Government area and to provide help to those inside them. The Department was headed by Stefan Sendłak (1889–1978), a Polish Socialist Party activist and founder of the Zamość-Lublin Committee for the Aid of Jews. He created a network of Polish and Jewish liaison personnel drawn from many regions of occupied Poland.

From July 1942 to November 1943, the Council to Aid Jews “Żegota” helped fugitives from ghettoes and transports to extermination camps, as well as those still alive following liquidation operations carried out by the Germans. Initially, their activities were limited to the Warsaw area and surroundings. Insufficient funds and organisational difficulties made it impossible to establish Council branches in other places within occupied Poland. Thanks to the involvement of local communities and members of Warsaw “Żegota”, after a few months, a few field units were created in Kraków in March 1943 and in Lwów, probably in May 1943.

Contact with other regions was initially sporadic. It was carried out through the help of intermediaries who travelled to cities where ghettoes and labour camps were located. Information was obtained on the number of Jews living there, the conditions under which they were living, as well as the potential for making contacts with the underground. The initiatives and financing of these trips came from representatives of the Jewish National Committee as well as from activists in the Bund (General Jewish Labour Bund in Poland) –members of the Council who, for fear of denunciation, limited this type of activity. Their work and, in the summer of 1943, an increase of 500,000 złotych in “Żegota's budget resulted in the Council's Presidium deciding to open a separate Territorial Department sometimes referred to as “Provincial Department”.

According to the minutes of the Council Presidium meeting on 16th August 1943 [original source: T. Prekerowa, Konspiracyjna Rada Pomocy Żydom w Warszawie 1942-1945, Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, Warsaw 1982, pp. 379-380]:

5. Territorial Department: Marek [Ferdynand Arczyński – ed.] stated that all activities which had place at the initiative of Stefan [Sendłak – ed.]. were very positive and valuable to the Council. He proposes that Stefan by an official member of the territorial organisation. Marek moved that Tadeusz [Sarnecki], together with his work unit, and Dionizy, be organisationally connected with the Council. He asks for the creation of an organisational-territorial uinit with Stefan at its head. The motion was adopted. Stefan, present at the meeting, declares his readiness to take on this position and speaks about the people already working in this unit, on the flexibility of the unit's budget and requests that the Council set a specific budget for the unit. Taduesz, present at the meeting, submits and reads reports from Łódż and Piotrków. He proposes a budget of at least 5,000 złotych for Łódź. It was agreed to provide Tad[eusz]'s liaison an amount of 2,000 złotych and lettes.

Stefan Sendłak became head of the department due to his extensive field contacts. He had already commenced activities helping Jews by the autumn of 1942, following the final liquidtion of the Zamość ghetto. It was at that time, that he established the Zamość-Lublin Committee for the Aid of Jews, mainly to help refugees who found themselves in Warsaw. Working together with “Żegota” began to his freindship with Ignacy Barski (pseudonym “Trzciński”) of the Government Delegation for Poland

Read the story of Stefan Sendłak

According to the minutes, the decision to create the department was taken in mid-August. However, there is no doubt that the new unit's work had begun several weeks earlier. Its tasks included the establishment of contacts, the provision of finances and medicines as well as aiding in escapes. Władysław Bartoszewski, a member of “Żegota”, recalled: “They travelled to the camps, to concentrations of Jewish labourers and to the remaining ghettoes, to the working ghettoes which, in 1943, could be found the the Radom area, in centre of the Małopolskie Province and in the Śląsk borderlands. Help was given, above all, by provinding false papers to those who wished to escape and to those who were helped to escape. They were individuals”. [See: Władysław Bartoszewski, O Żegocie. Relacja poufna sprzed półwieku, Państwowe Wydanictwo Naukowe, Warsaw 2013, pp. 116-118].

In the light of documents known to us, it is diffficult to estimate the exact number of people who worked with the Department. Among the most important were Tadeusz Sarnecki (1911–1981), pseudonym “Tadeusz”, writer and columnist and a teacher in schools in Zamość, Chełm and the Jewish high school in Łódź. Also worthy of mention is his future wife “Ewa” who, until July 1944, was active in Piotrków, Radom, Skarżysko-Kamienna, Pionki and, outside the Genral Government, in Łódź.

Other workers established contac with Białystok, Częstochowa, Starachowice, as well as other sub-camps of death camps in Majdanek, Budzyń, and with the camp in Trawniki. From there, liaison officer Teodor Pajewski, railway worker and Armia Krajowa (Home Army) officer, together with Róża Kossower (pseudonym “Emilka”) freed Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum (1900–1944) and brought him to Warsaw. Ringelblum created the underground archive of the Warsaw Ghetto. Several months later, while hiding in the “Krysia” bunker at 81 Grójecka Street in Warsaw (according to other sources 84), he wrote his famous article Stosunki polsko-żydowskie w czasie drugiej wojny światowej. Uwagi i spostrzeżenia (Polish-Jewish Relations During the Second World War. Comments and Observations) about the Pajewski, one of the “nameless” heroes. In 1977, he was honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations.

The Territorial Department, under the leadership of Stefan Sendłak, ended its work in July 1944. His activities were limited as they took place during the operations of the few remaining ghettoes, the result of liquidation operations in 1942. When the Department was dissolved, there was still a ghetto in Łódź. It was liquidated one month later. The Red Army had already commenced its offensive in eastern Poland.

Read the story of the Council to Aid Jews “Żegota”