The Death Penalty for Helping Jews

The 24th March, in Poland, is observed as the National Day of Remembrance of Poles Saving Jews During German Occupation. On that day, in 1944, in the village of Markowa in the Rzeszów region, probably as the result of being denounced by a Polish policeman, the Germans murdered the Ulma family and the Jews they were hiding. To this time, the number of people who, like the Ulmas, died while sheltering Jewish escapees from ghettoes and extermination camps, has not been determined precisely. Selected stories of Poles, affected by the worst of German repression, is presented on Polish Righteous Portal.

Terror in ocupied Poland

During World War II, terror was used in Poland under German occupation. There were ordinances regulating the daily lives of civilians and their non-compliance would result in draconian punishment. Among other restrictions, political and cultural activities were banned, farm animals could not be slaughtered and even the possession of a radio was forbidden.

Helping Jews, who were persecuted by the Germans and had to hide in order to survive, was also strictly forbidden. Despite these threats, hundreds of thousands of Poles were active in the underground and some (it is difficult to determine exactly how many) also provided Jews with refuge – selflessly, without payment, for a shorter or longer period.

Penalties, which could be the result of helping Jews, varied – from beatings or property confiscation, through prison, forced labour and a concentration camp, through to the death penalty. There are known cases of the implementation of all these penalties (see a register of facts about the repression of Polish citizens for helping the Jewish population during World War II, prepared by the Inistitute of National Remembrance). 

The subject of this most severe punishment has not as yet been thoroughly academically researched, taking into account the diversity of legislation adopted by the Germans in individual districts of the General Government and, above all, the diversity of its actual enforcement.

Without doubt, however, the death penalty was not merely a threat. In contrast to countries in Western Europe where supporting Jews was also punished, rescuers in Poland and in other Central and Eastern European countries could pay the highest price.

The Death Penalty, in German Ordinances, for Helping Jews

The first, legal act providing for the death penalty for Poles who helped Jews who were living outside a ghetto without permission, was introduced by Governor Hans Frank on 15th October 1941. It was intended to completelyisolate the Jews from the “Aryan side”, as well as to deprive them of any contact with the outside world:

“(1) Jews who, without authorisation, leave their designated area, will face the death penalty. The same punishment applies to persons who, knowingly, provide hiding places for such Jews.

(2) Instigators and helpers are subject to the same penaly as the perpetrators. An attempted act will be punishable and a completed act. Lesser cases will be punishable by imprisonment.

(3) Jusrisdiction is covered by the Special Courts”

In the months that followed, similar ordinances were issued in all of the districts of the General Government, similar to those announced by the Warsaw District Governor, Dr. Ludwig Fischer, on 10th November 1941. In this case, the ordinance covered not just people who hid Jews, but also those who provided any help whatsoever.

“The same penalty [ed. – death] applies to those who knowingly provide such Jews with shelter or help them in any other manner (e.g. providing overnight accommodation, support or transporting them in any type of vehicle, etc.)”

A second series of German regulations was announced during “Operation Reinhardt” – an extermination operation of Jews from the General Government and the Białystok District in 1942-1943. Trying to avoid death, some Jews escaped from liquidated ghettos and from transports heading towards extermination camps. It was then that the Germans began their Judenjagd (Jew Hunting). This consisted of tracking down those hiding in forests, fields or amongst local communities. The Germans encouraged Poles to take part in the catching of Jews offering, in  return, material goods and profit-sharing.

Announcements, similar to Frank’s in 1941, were issued in, among other places, the Przemyśl, Sanok and Dębicki Districts. Posters, bearing these announcements, were hung in city streets. One, issued in Częstochowa in September 1942, can be viewed in the Core Exhibition of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

In the following months of occupation, the German authorities reminded people that severe penalties were also imposed on those who did not report Jews who they knew were living illegally outside a ghetto.

The Enforcement of Penalties for Helping Jews

In practice, the enforcement of the German authorities’ laws varied – depending on the place, time and type of offence. Penalties were imposed during sessions of the German Special Courts, but could also be imposed in absentia or even without any trial. Often, the sentence would be discretionary. Sometimes, those arrested were permitted to return home but, usually, they were sent to prison, concentraion camp or sentenced to death. However, there were instances where there were variations from the most severe punishment (read the story of the Gargasz family).

On-the-spot executions in front of the rescuer’s home, without any trial or court judgment, were a cruel manifestion of the Germans’ cruelty. Poles and the Jews whom they were hiding were executed in this manner. Sometimes, these executions were carried out publically so as to frighten the local community (read the story of the Ciszewski family).

Contrary to popular belief, “collective responsibility” was not implemented where providing help was discovered. However, it is indicated that, in the cases of the Ulma and Kowalski families, an immediate death penalty was also imposed on the children and the neighbours of those providing the shelter.

The deaths of the rescuers and the rescued at the hands of the Germans and the Polish Police of the General Government (the “Blue Police”), often came as the result of being denounced. Prompted by various motives, e.g. prejudices against Jews, profit or fear, the informers would tell the occupation authorities about acts of hiding, this type of “help” being rewarded with cash or kind.

In an announcement, on 19th December 1941, by the Kreishauptmann (Ed: District Commissioner) of Grójec in the Warsaw District, rewards were offered for pointing out Jews who were in hiding or Poles who were helping them: “I have decided to provide rewards to District residents who will take an active part in the fight and who distinguish themselves with good results”. The reward was 100 kg of rye. 

In other places, the Germans rewarded informers with, among other things, sugar, vodka or firewood. The amount of these rewards varied greatly. For example, around Ostrołęka, the reward was 3 kilograms of sugar, while in the Kraśnik district, it was 2-5 kilograms. In Warsaw, the reward was 500 złotych, while in the western part of the Małopolskie Province, there was an additional kilogram of sugar.

The Death Penalty – Not Only in Poland

The often-emphasised uniqueness, of the Germans imposing the death penalty in occupied Poland for helping Jews, is most likely due to the relatively high, although still not fully-known, number of deaths that were investigated on the basis of archival and court documents and the accounts of witnesses to history.

Regulations establishing this harshest of penalties were not, however, limited to occupied Poland. The harshest possible penalties were also imposed against, among others, Belorusians, Ukrainians and Serbs.

The Number of Poles Who Died Helping Jews

The number of Poles murdered by the Germans, for helping Jews during the Holocaust, has not yet been precisely determined. The first attempt to draw up such a list was made in 1968 by historian Szymon Datner. He presented 105 such cases. The second attempt was made in 1987 by Prosecutor Wacław Bielawski from the Chief Commission for the Prosecution of Nazi Crimes – he named 872 people who had been murdered and nearly 1,400 anonymous victims. In 1997, another Commission staff member, Ryszard Walczak, verified that data, reducing the number of victims to 704.

These findings were again verified by the Institute of National Remembrance which, since 2005, has been building “An Index of Poles Persecuted for Helping Jews”. To date, the research team has been able to identify around 500 victims.

Poles Murdered For Helping Jews

The following are selected stories of people who died while helping Jews during the Holocaust in occupied Poland:

Józef and Wiktoria Ulma hid Jews in Markowa (Podkarpackie Province). From the autumn of 1942, their home sheltered the Goldman family (née Szall) from Łańcut, as well as Lea (Layca) Didner with her daughter and sister Genia (Gołd) Grünfeld of Markowa. On 24th March 1944, probably as the result of being denounced by a Polish “blue” policeman, the Ulma couple, together with their children and the Jewishthey were hiding, were murdered by the Germans. This crime was symbolic of the heaviest German repression against Poles saving Jews »

The Kowalski, Obuchiewicz, Skoczylas and Kosior families hid many Jews in Stary Ciepielów and in Rekówka (Mazowieckie Province). Those Jews in hiding included Elka Cukier and Berk Pinchas (Pinechas). On 6th December 1942, the Germans searched their homes. As a result, everyone – in total 34 people – were murdered. It was one of the largest executions carried out, during the occupations, of Poles rescuing Jews »

Wincenty and Łucja Baranek, their sons Henryk and Tadeusz, as well as Wincenty’s step-mother, Katarzyna Baranek (née Kopeć), hid Jews in Siedliska (Małopolskie Province). They helped the Gotfried brother of Miechów, together with their father. On 15th March 1943, the Baranek family, together with the Jews in hiding, were murdered by the Germans »

Jakub and Zofia Gargasz hid Henia Katz in Brzozów (Podkarpackie Province). On 9th February 1944, most probably as the result of being denounced by a neighbour, the Germans came to the Gargasz home, together with Polish “Blue Police” and a guide from the local council. Henia Katz was shot on the spot, while the Gargasz couple were arrested. On 19th April 1944, the verdict of a German court was death which, two months later, was commuted. Zofia was sentenced to three years imprisonment, while her husband was sentenced to one year »

Władysław Dec and his sons, Stanisław, Bronisław and Tadeusz, helped Berek Adler, Juda Harmfemst, Józef and Brandla Hoch, Jankiel and Hania Nadel and Małla Szinfeld. They were all hiding in a forest near their hometown of Pantalowice (Podkarpackie Province). In December 1942, one of those in hiding was detained by the Germans and, under severe torture, revealed the names of those who helped her. As a result, the Dec family were murdered »

In Wólka Czarnińska (Mazowieckie Province), Jan and Aleksandra Gawrych, together with their daughter Jadwiga, hid Mosze and Frania Aronson, Chaskiel and Teresa Papier, as well as Abram Słomka. On 18th March 1943, during a search of their home, the Germans arrested Jan Gawrych. He was shot several days later »

Małgorzata Wolska, her son Mieczysław, daughters Halina and Wanda and grandson Janusz hid Jews at ul. Grójecka 81 in Warsaw. From 1942, in an especially-prepared hiding place known as “Krysia”, forty people were hidden, among them historian Emanuel Ringelblum. On 7th March 1944, the  bunkier was discovered by the Germans and the Polish police. All the Jews in hiding, as well as Mieczysław Wolski and Janusz Wysocki, were shot »

Franciszek Raszeja provided medical help to Jews in the Warsaw ghetto. Together with Ludwik Hirszfeld, he organised blood donation campaigns. On 21st July 1942, when, using a pass, he was treating the sick Aba Gutnajer inside the ghetto, he was shot by Gestapo officers from the headquarters of SS-Sturmbannführer Herman Hoefle. The precise circumstances are unclear. He perished together with his patient, his family, Dr. Pollak and a nurse »

Jadwiga Deneko (née Sałek) was a member of the Polish Socialist Workers Party (RPPS). In Warsaw, she helped Jews, among them Katarzyna Meloch, Eugenia Sigalin, Maria Taglicht and Jan Szelubski. On 25th November 1943, together with the hidden Jews, she was arrested by the Germans at an RPPS underground point. After their interrogation, they were all shot on 6th or 8th Juanuary 1944 »

Henryk Sławik, as President of the Citizens’ Committee for the Care of Polish Refugees in Hungary, helped around 5,000 Polish Jews, providing them with false documents and arranging orphanages for the Jewish children. In July 1944, after the Germans entered Hungary, he was arrested, investigated and then sent to the camp at Mauthausen. He was shot on 25th or 26th August 1944 »

Klara Jackl, Mateusz Szczepaniak / English translation: Andrew Rajcher, March 2019


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