Leon Feiner: chairman of „Żegota”

At POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, we wish to remember those Jews who helped other Jews on the “Aryan side” in occupied Poland. The Yad Vashem Institute does not honour these people with the title of Righteous Among the Nations, as that title is only bestowed upon non-Jews. They, also, are Righteous, as understood in the broad and universal accepted sense of the word – they are people who opposed the totalitarianism of Nazi Germany. They also defended dignity and human rights. Read the story of Leon Feiner from the Polish Righteous website section: Jews helping other Jews on the “Aryan side”.

He was one of the most active members of  the General Jewish Labour Bund (Polish: Powszechny Żydowski Związek Robotniczy)  a lawyer who, before the war, often defended members of socialist organisations. During the German occupation, he was a member of the “Żegota”Council to Aid Jews and, from August 1944 until January 1945, was its Chairman.


He studied law at the Jagiellonian University. Even in his student days, he was politically active - first in the Galicia and Śląsk Cieszyński Polish Social-Democratic Party and later co-founded the Jewish Social-Democratic Party. At that time, he was also editor of that party's organ "Der Socjaldemokrat" and its weekly Nowe Życie (Polish: New Life).

Before the war, he was also involved in the development of Jewish culture and sport. He was Chairman of the Jewish Sports Club “Jutrzenka” in Kraków. He co-founded the Kraków Jewish Theatre Association. Because of his socialist activities, in 1939, he ended up in the Bereza Kartuska prison camp.

The activities of Leon Feiner in the Jewish Resistance

In the first weeks of September 1939, he found himself in Soviet-occupied territory. While attempting to cross the Lithuanian border, he was arrested by the NKVD and imprisoned in Lida. Following the Third Reich's invasion of the USSR in June 1941, while the Soviets were retreating from the city, he managed to escape from the prison. He came to Warsaw and lived on the so-called “Aryan side”. Straight away, he joined into the underground work of the Bund and became active in the Jewish resistance movement.

In August 1942, he turned to Henryk Woliński, head of the Jewish Department of the Home Army’s Bureau of Information and Propaganda, with the request that a telegram be sent to Szmul Zygelbojm, the Bund's representative on the Rada Narodowa RP (National Council of Poland), containing information about the situation of Polis Jews. That telegram was sent on 2nd October 1942.

From that time, Feiner, under the codename “Berezowski”, made reports, regarding the situation in the Warsaw Ghetto, which found their way to the Polish Government-in-Exile.

An appeal to the world for help for Jews during the Holocaust

In October 1942, he also met with Jan Karski. At that time, he made the following appeal:

„We want you to tell the Polish Government and the governments of the Allies and their leaders that we are helpless in the face of German crimes.

We cannot defend ourselves alone and no one else in Poland can defend us. The Polish underground authorities are able to save some of us, but they cannot rescue us en masse.

The Germans are not trying to make us slaves as they are doing with other peoples – we are being systematically murdered. Our entire people will be destroyed.

A few can probably be saved, but the fate of three million Jews is sealed. No force in Poland can prevent it – neither the Polish nor the Jewish underground. Put this responsibility onto the shoulders of the Allies.

Do not let it get to the point that any of the leaders of the united nations can say that they did not know that help could only come from the outside […].

Tell Jewish leaders that this is not a time for politics or tactics.Tell them that the earth should be shaken to its very foundations, that the world needs to be roused. Maybe then, it will wake up, understand and see.”

In his reports and letters, he demanded that the Polish Government call upon the Polish people to help the Jews – to provide material help for those still alive, to provide weapons, to punish blackmailers and for a stronger reaction against what was happening in the ghettos.

Activities in the “Żegota” Council to Aid Jews

Feiner took part in discussions with the Government Delegation for Poland on establishing a new organisation to replace the Provisional Committee to Aid Jews. After the “Żegota” Council to Aid Jews was established in December 1942, he became its Deputy Chairman and represented the Bund under the codenames of “Mikołaj” and “Lasocki”.

He was a representative of the Komisja Koordynacyjna (Steering Committee), established in the evening of 1st December 1942, the result of an agreement between the Jewish National Committee and the Bund. In January 1943, he became Chairman of the Bund Central Committee. Władysław Bartoszewski remembered Feiner thus:

“Dr Leon Feiner had excellent contacts with the Home Army High Command, with the PPS-WRN and with the Socialist Left. He was the author of one of the most important reports by the Jewish underground to the government in London. Before the war, he was a well-known, prosperous lawyer in Kraków. He was imprisoned in Bereza due to being falsely accused of being a communist. Perhaps that was the reason for one of his codenames, during the occupation, being ‘Berezowski’. He was doubtless a leftist. He was certainly not a communist. He had great communal experience, an immense intellect and a sense of humour. He looked like a country squire with his grey mop of hair and grey moustache – like a provincial noble who had come to the big city, similar to Michał Bałucki or Józef Bliziński from the world of literature.”

Hiding Jews on the so-called Aryan side

For a certain period, Feiner hid in the home of actor Aleksander Zelwerowicz. Following the collapse of the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, he endeavoured to help those who had ended up in forced labour camps. From August 1944, he was Chairman of the “Żegota” Council to Aid Jews. During the Warsaw Uprising until the end of the war, together with members of the Bund and the Home Army, he hid in the apartment of Eugenia Wąsowska-Leszczyńska.

He died in Lublin on 22nd February 1945 as the result of cancer. He was buried in the Jewish cemetery on Okopowa Street in Warsaw. Leon Feiner’s memorabilia (false identity documents) can be seen in the core exhibition at POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

Dr. Aleksandra Namysło, ed. Mateusz Szczepaniak, December 2017 (edit: March 2021)


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Bibliography


  • Marek Arczyński, Wiesław Balcerak, Kryptonim „Żegota”. Z dziejów pomocy Żydom w Polsce 1939–1945, Wydawnictwo Czytelnik, Warszawa 1979
  • Władysław Bartoszewski, Zofia Lewinówna, Ten jest z ojczyzny mojej. Polacy z pomocą Żydom 1939–1945, Wydawnictwo Znak, Kraków 1969 (and later editions).
  • Teresa Prekerowa, Konspiracyjna Rada Pomocy Żydom w Warszawie 1942–1945, Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, Warszawa 1982 (and edition extended and supplemented by A. Namysło in 2020).