To date, 6,992 Poles have been awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations (as at 1st January 2019). This number, although steadily growing, does not fully reflect the scale of aid provided to Jews in Poland during World War II. Many rescuers and the rescued are still unknown. We will never know how many Poles helped Jews or how many Jews received help from Poles. However, it is beyond any doubt that acts of selfless help were rare in occupied Poland. The tragic fate of the Jews was met with passivity and, sometimes, strong hostility. Help required great courage and perseverance, both from the rescuers and the rescued.
Applications to honour Polish Righteous Among the Nations
Since 1963, the Righteous have been honoured by the State of Israel on the basis of applications sent to the Yad Vashem Institute by people who received help during World War II. The highest number of medals was granted to Poles in the 1960’s, 1980’s and 1990’s. The title is still being awarded today, in most cases posthumously.
Not all applications result in the awarding of the title of Righteous Among the Nations. It often happens that the commission appointed by the Yad Vashem Institute rejects the application due to insufficient documentation on the case (usually lack of account of a survivor from the Holocaust) or due to accounts that testify to the fact that help was provided for financial gain.
At the same time, many stories of rescue have never reached the Yad Vashem Institute and the people involved remain unknown.
Why do many of the rescuers and rescuers remain unknown?
The help provided to Jews during the Holocaust was conspiratorial. For fear of severe punishment, it was never documented – on the contrary, all traces of it were covered up. Often, when the help was provided on an ad hoc basis or as part of a conspiratorial organisation, neither the helpers nor the Jews knew one another’s names for the sake of safety.
The difficulty in discovering and verifying the accounts of help provided to Jews was also affected by historical conditions in Poland, including postwar resettlement and migration of the population, as well as the breaking of diplomatic relations between the People’s Republic of Poland and the State of Israel in the years 1967–1989.
Moreover, many witnesses of dramatic events, for various reasons, never told their stories. After the war, the rescuers and the rescued went their separate ways.
The survivors usually emigrated from Poland and started a new life. The return to the traumatic wartime events was often too difficult for them, so they did not apply for the distinction for the rescuers. Others, nameless until today, perished during the war.
The title was sometimes also not awarded at the request of the rescuers themselves, who were afraid of social stigmatisation, a reluctance or a hostility of the environment resulting from antisemitism. The rescuers were afraid of accusations of getting rich from the hiding. To this day, there are still cases of Polish families refusing to accept the title or asking for the ceremony of honour to take place in discretion.
Another reason for the lack of recognition of some of the rescuers was the former criteria of the Yad Vashem Commission. Initially, the title of the Righteous was given only to the living. Therefore, in most cases, people, who perished due to German repressions awaiting those who helped Jews and those who did not survive the occupation or died shortly after the end of the war, were not recognised as Righteous. Today, the title is also awarded posthumously.
How many Poles helped Jews?
Difficulties in documenting the stories of help determined the disproportion between the cases of providing help which could be confirmed by infallible testimonies and probable, larger number of people who were involved in this helping of Jews.
To date, estimates concerning the number of those who provided shelter to Jews range between 160,000 and 360,000 and include both selfless and paid help.
Often hiding Jews was a way of earning a living, at times also involving vicious financial exploitation of people for whom they was no other way out. The above estimates were made on the basis of the number of surviving Jews, which is typically estimated at 40,000–50,000. At the same time, however, we know that only a part of this group, perhaps a small one, received help from Poles. Some, on the other hand, received support, but nonetheless perished during the war. Due to the lack of complete sources, especially concerning paid help, it is impossible to determine the total number of those who helped.
Honouring the Polish Righteous today
The title of the Righteous Among the Nations is continuously awarded to Poles, mostly posthumously. In recent years, this has been mainly due to children and grandchildren of both the rescued and the rescuers, who wish to commemorate their families’ past. For some survivors, the time which has passed since the war makes it easier for them to think back to that period of their lives and to talk about it.
The fact that the stories of help are present in the public debate also helps the discovery of stories which have, thus far, only remained in the family memory. There are also many institutions in Poland and abroad which preserve of the heritage of the Righteous and the Survivors, commemorating their deeds and making them more widely known.
Since 2007, POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews has been documenting stories of help provided to Jews during the Holocaust. All those featuring in these wartime stories of help deserve respect and commemoration. We invite you to discover these stories on Polish Righteous Portal and to share your memories with us.
Together, let’s restore the memory of these exceptional people.
- The title of Righteous Among the Nations
- Yad Vashem Criteria
- The Attitudes of Poles Towards Jews During the Holocaust