Helping Jews during the Holocaust

During World War II, the majority of Poles, absorbed by the hardship of their daily lives in a country under German occupation, remained passive in the face of the Holocaust. There were also those who showed hostility towards Jews. Few helped them. The rescuers acted under extremely difficult conditions – in full secrecy, in fear of the Germans and their of own neighbours.

Jews seeking refuge

According to the policy of Nazi Germany, Jews were destined for total extermination. From the beginning of the War in 1939, they were subjected to severe repression and were isolated from the Polish society. They were imprisoned in hundreds of ghettos, where they perished from hunger and disease. From mid-1941, with the German attack on the USSR, the Einsatzgruppen, i.e. special execution divisions which followed the German army, murdered more than one million Jews in the East. In 1942, the mass extermination of Jews began in Nazi-organised extermination centres.

For a Jew, the only way to avoid death was to hide. A few continued lives under a false identity, most of them had to remain in hiding. Contacts with Poles and opportunities to take advantage of their support significantly affected the chances to find a hideout and to survive in hiding. For many Poles, hiding Jews was a way to earn money, while others helped selflessly.

Forms of help provided to Jews

Assistance was usually provided by individuals or families, usually in their own homes or farms. The support consisted in the temporary or long-term hiding of a person or a group of people, organising and/or paying for the hideouts, organising escapes from ghettos or the provision of false identity documents, money, food, clothes or medicines.

Hiding Jews in one’s own home was an extremely difficult and demanding task, both physically, mentally and financially, especially when it lasted for many months. It involved arranging a hiding place, providing food, tending to the physiological needs of those in hiding,and keeping everything secret from the immediate surroundings.

Towards the end of 1942, helping Jews took on an organised form, when the Council for Aid to Jews (code name “Żegota”) began its activity. This underground Polish-Jewish organisation was established by the Polish Government Delegation for Poland (during the occupation, the Polish government remained in exile – initially in Paris, Angers, then in London) to help Jews, mainly those hiding outside the ghettos, on the “Aryan side”.

How many Poles helped Jews?

We will never know the exact number of the rescued and the rescuers. It is known that helping Jews was rare and did not meet with general approval within the Polish society. We know thousands of stories of aid, but there were many more rescuers of whom we will most likely never know.

Difficulties in documenting the stories of help result, among others, from the underground nature of the rescue operations, concealing the fact of providing aid for fear of social ostracism, postwar migration of the population and political conditions. These factors determined the disproportion between the cases of providing help which could be confirmed by infallible testimonies, and the probable, larger number of people who were involved in this helping of Jews.

To date, 28,217 people from fifty-one countries have been granted the title of Righteous Among the Nations, including 7,232 Poles (as at 1st January 2022).

The award is granted by the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem to gentiles who provided selfless help to Jews during the Holocaust. Estimates of the number of Poles, who provided shelter to Jews, are scarce, especially those based on solid calculations.

In the 1980’s, Teresa Prekerowa suggested the numbers between 160,000 and 360,000, considering that the number of surviving Jews was between 40,000 and 60,000 and each survivor received support from two or three people. In 2002, Gunnar Paulsson estimated the number of people helping Jews in Warsaw at 70,000–90,000 and those seeking shelter at 28,000. Based on Mordechai Paldiel’s assessment, Paulsson estimates the number of rescuers in Warsaw at a quarter of the total number, which in the scale of the entire country, is between 280,000 and 360,000.

Penalties for helping Jews

Hundreds of memoirs and other testimonies show that rescuing one person for a few years indeed required involvement of several or even a dozen or so people. At the same time, however, it happened that one person helped many Jews, so the disproportion between the above-mentioned numbers of rescuers and rescued is questionable.

The number of survivors that is most frequently quoted by historians, in referral to both survivors in hiding and in camps, is 40,000–50,000. Only some of them, we do not know how many, received help on the “Aryan side”. Some, on the other hand, received support, but nonetheless perished during the war. Due to the lack of complete sources, especially concerning paid aid, it is therefore impossible to determine the total number of those who provided help.

In Poland under Nazi occupation, all help provided to Jews was severely punished, even by death. We know of several hundreds of people who lost their lives for providing help to Jews.

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