Jews helping other Jews on the “Aryan side”: Introduction

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 historical study by Prof. Barbara Engelking, in which the phenomenon of Jewish self-help is discussed in a problematic manner. This text is from the Polish Righteous website section: Jews helping other Jews on the “Aryan side”.


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During the German occupation, Jews hiding in Warsaw (and elsewhere) received aid not only from Poles, but also – and perhaps above all – from other Jews. This encompassed all types of help – organised and individual initiatives, short- and long-term operations, material, emotional, and any other kind of support. The Jews who were helping their family members, acquaintances or complete strangers on the so-called “Aryan side” of Warsaw were either those who had refused to follow the German order to report to the ghetto or had escaped from the closed quarter. Others, primarily members of the Jewish underground, would routinely cross the border of the ghetto, operating on both sides of the wall. They all ran the risk of being denounced or blackmailed.


“Jews living on the Aryan side must behave like real conspirators. Nobody knows their addresses. A brother does not have his brother’s address, children do not know their parents’ address and use indirect addresses. Mutual visits are undesirable because they can result in denunciation. Jews usually meet at tram stops, in patisseries, etc.,” wrote historian Emanuel Ringelblum when he himself was hiding on the so-called Aryan side of Warsaw. “Jews […] preferably move after dusk because the low light makes it difficult for a blackmailer to distinguish between a Jew and a non-Jew. People cross to the Aryan side after sunset or at dawn. Blessed be the darkness!”.

Organised aid. Jewish National Committee and the Bund

During the German occupation of Warsaw, thousands of Jews were hiding on the so-called Aryan side. Emanuel Ringelblum estimated their number at 15,000 after the Ghetto Uprising, Israel Gutman at 15,000–20,000, and Havi Dreyfuss at 10,000 before the Warsaw Uprising. According to the latest estimates by Gunnar Paulsson, there were 28,000 Jews hiding in occupied Warsaw.

Many of them received help from underground organisations. The most prominent was the “Żegota” Council to Aid Jews (Polish: Rada Pomocy Żydom „Żegota”), established on 4 December 1942 and officially operating at the Government Delegation for Poland. It had a federative structure – various Jewish organisations involved in its activities operated on equal terms with Polish organisations. Each contributed its own network of contacts and human resources – both charges and guardians. Their representatives sat on the Presidium of the Council – from August 1944 until January 1945, the chairman was socialist activist Leon Feiner, the secretaries were Zionists Adolf Berman and Szymon Gottesman, and the head of the “Felicja” cell, which provided aid to a fifth of all Jews hiding in Warsaw, was headed by Maurycy Herling-Grudziński – Jewish lawyer and brother of Gustaw, a well-known post-war.

Jewish organisations that had the largest number of contacts among the Jews in hiding and had been helping them long before the foundation of Żegota. The most prominent bodies were the Jewish National Committee (Polish: Żydowski Komitet Narodowy), a cross-party political front formed in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942, and the General Jewish Labour Bund (Polish: Powszechny Żydowski Związek Robotniczy), commonly known as the Bund – the most numerous and strongest Jewish workers' party in pre-war Poland, which continued its operation underground during the German occupation. The two organisations provided aid to the largest number of Jews hiding in Warsaw – estimates range between 8,000–10,000 and as many as 12,000 people.

“[…] another meeting of the Jewish National Committee took place in the hideout at 58 Szóstego Sierpnia Street. […] Cups of ‘coffee’ and a bowl of biscuits were placed on a large table to give it an appearance of a social meeting. Sitting at the table were ‘Michał’ (Dr Adolf Berman), ‘Basia’ (Barbara Temkin-Bermanowa), ‘Bogusia’ (Klima Fuswerk-Krymko), ‘Czesława’ (Lotta Wegmeister), ‘Stasia’ (Helena Merenholc), ‘Wanda’ (Bela Elster), and ‘Józio’ (Józef Zysman). The conversation was held in hushed voices; every now and then someone got up from their seat, went to the window, and looked at the street through a gap in the closed curtains. After a short introduction made by ‘Michał,’ the attendees reported on their activities in the last period, especially on the efforts to deliver material aid. They then proceeded to develop a plan for further operations and divided funds allotted for the aid,” noted Józef Zysman (known as Ziemian after the war).

Every month, liaisons and messengers would hand over forged identity documents and pay out allowances to their charges. Many of them were Jews in hiding themselves, for example Feiga Peltel-Międzyrzecka (Władka Meed) from Warsaw or Maria Hochberg (Miriam Peleg) from Kraków.

Discussing organised aid to Jews in hiding, historian Marcin Urynowicz wrote that “the bulk of the institutionalised activities of ‘Żegota,’ at least in Warsaw, consisted primarily in the involvement of Jewish organisations (ca. 70%) and, to a lesser extent, Polish bodies (ca. 30%).”

Individual aid. Jews in Warsaw (1940–1945)

Almost every account of Jews hiding in Warsaw during the German occupation mentions help and support provided to them by other Jews: family members, acquaintances, neighbours from the same town or complete strangers.

They helped people find accommodation or work, lent them money, provided them with tips and information, shared their experience. They formed an informal aid network for Jews leaving the ghetto or arriving to Warsaw from other towns, despite the fact that they themselves had to hide after escaping from the ghetto. There were also those, like Janina Rechtleben-Wojciechowska, who had disregarded the German orders and never reported to the Warsaw Ghetto after it was sealed off on 16 November 1940, illegally remaining on the so-called Aryan side of the city.

“After the establishment of the ghetto […] neophytes and the assimilated intelligentsia were returning to the Aryan side; for them, the ghetto was a completely foreign area which they were forced into by hand of the occupant. Among those leaving were also individuals whose spouses were left on the Aryan side […]. Hundreds of Jewish children, mostly orphans or so-called ‘feral children’ making a living from smuggling food or begging, also sought work on the ‘other’ side. When the resettlement action [the so-called Grosskation or the ghetto liquidation action – ed.] began on 22 July 1942, Jews started to cross to the Aryan side en masse,” noted Emanuel Ringelblum.

In many cases, Jews were almost self-sufficient (Poles were often unaware to whom they were renting their flat or whom they were employing) – not only were they surviving themselves but also providing help to others and supporting those who were in an even worse predicament. They showed great courage, entrepreneurship, creativity, and commitment. Survival hinged on even the smallest reflex or turn of chance, death could be brought by human evil or an unlucky coincidence.

Hideouts and false papers. The case of Wiktor Hochberg (Witold Góra)

Some of the most spectacular stories are those of people who selflessly saved dozens of Jews at the risk of their own life. One of them was Wiktor Hochberg (using the name Witold Góra), who took care of about forty Jews hiding on the so-called Aryan side, staying in “supposedly empty flats.”

One of such premises, located at Radna Street in Powiśle district, was the hideout of Wiktor’s sister Anna Meroz and brother-in-law Fiszel Majnemer (Feliks Mrozowski). Hochberg had led them out of the ghetto and arranged “Aryan” papers for them – he had fifty blank Kennkarten at his disposal, having received them from a Jewish acquaintance working at the Municipal Board. Hochberg’s wife was hiding in Grochów district, at Fundamentowa Street; due to her so-called “bad” appearance, she did not leave the flat at all. Wiktor visited all of his charges, provided them with all necessities, supplied them with medicine, food, etc.



He also provided aid to other people – one day an acquaintance from the ghetto brought him a set of keys and told him that a Jewish couple was hiding in a padlocked room at 34 Żelazna Street. Hochberg recalled:

“[…] I sawed through the padlock so that I could open the room. I rented the flat under my false name, Majewski […], and registered it as my domicile. I had to bring them food and take out their shit. They had water in the flat but there was no toilet.”

Employing family and friends. The case of Wilhelm Bachner 

Wilhelm Bachner, an engineer hailing from Bielsko, graduate of German universities, crossed to the so-called Aryan side after a short stay in the Warsaw Ghetto. Posing as a Pole, he found employment in a German architecture and construction company holding lucrative military contracts. Bachner convinced Johannes Kellner, the company owner, that they could cheaply obtain building materials by buying rubble from demolished houses in the ghetto. Having received a pass allowing him to move between the ghetto and the so-called Aryan side, he delivered false documents and work certificates to Jews and led people out of the closed district.

The outbreak of war with the USSR (22 June 1941) made it possible for Kellner’s company to expand its activities, as it started to work for the army and German railways in the East. Bachner was tasked with supervising construction sites in Białystok and later in Ukraine – in Berdychiv, Kyiv, Kovel, Minsk, Zhytomyr, Vinnytsia. The company needed more and more blue-collar workers and white-collar staff, which made it possible for Bachner to hire his family and friends.

Bachner had to deal with numerous difficult situations and many unforeseen dangers but he always came out on top. He showed great courage, at time verging on bravado, but when necessary he was also able to keep cold blood and composure. He saved at least several dozen Jews.

Self-help of Jewish children. The case of “cigarette sellers from Trzech Krzyży Square”

“The square was bustling with people. The tramway workers had their terminus here. There were many newspapermen and cigarette sellers, as well as many German soldiers hanging around. […] The Trzech Krzyży Square – one of the busiest spots in downtown Warsaw before the war – formed part of the German district. Poles were reluctant to come there. The only visible trace of Polishness was St. Alexander’s Church, standing tall in the middle of the square,” wrote Józef Zysman.

A unique self-help network was set up in Warsaw by a group of at least a dozen orphans aged 8 to 16, known as the “cigarette sellers from Trzech Krzyży Square.” It all started with Josek and Teresa Szindler, young smugglers who had lost their entire family in the ghetto. They started off begging on the so-called Aryan side. They met Josek Szpiro out in the streets and together decided to follow the example of a group of Polish children selling cigarettes to German soldiers on Trzech Krzyży Square. The group grew to include some 20 Jewish orphans, including Peretz Hochman with his little brother Zanek, Szoszana Saksznajder, Ignacy Michlenberg, and others. Years later, Hochman recalled:

“Upon arriving at Trzech Krzyży Square, we were first introduced to all the different groups of vendors. Everyone explained where they were buying cigarettes and what prices we should quote to avoid competition. The price was roughly agreed upon by everyone. Each vendor had their own specific sales area and did not go into rival territory. Very quickly we found our place there too.”


Fragment niemieckiego planu Warszawy z 1941 r., widoczny pl. Trzech Krzyży (niem. Dreikreutzplatz). Fot. Biblioteka Narodowa (Polona); domena publiczna


Above (⇧) a fragment of “Stadtplan von Warschau / Plan miasta Warszawy” – German plan of the city of Warsaw from 1941. Visible: Trzech Krzyży Square (German: Dreikreuzplatz); a line marking the border of the ghetto (in the upper left corner). Photo: Biblioteka Narodowa. Click to enlarge the plan and see details 🔎


Jewish orphans were making ends meet on the so-called Aryan side in various ways: they sang in trams and in the streets, traded in cigarettes, sold newspapers, vodka or moonshine. They lived in constant danger, were repeatedly blackmailed, and often escaped a tragic fate by a thin thread – by jumping off trams, hiding, running away. The biggest issue was finding accommodation – the children spent the nights in cemeteries, allotments, attics, staircases, abandoned houses, ruins, parks, at “grandma’s from Krucza Street,” at Mrs Kalotowa’s, in shelters, periodically in the orphanage (until they were recognised as Jews and had to run away).

“When public announcements were being made, people of all social groups – from beggars to intellectuals – gathered around the loudspeaker [at Trzech Krzyży Square]. There were also Jews with a completely Aryan look, hiding on the Polish side. We, the cigarette sellers, were able to ‘sniff them out’ without fail and always tried to strike up a conversation with them after the announcement was over. Naturally, they would take us for blackmailers and disappear immediately. We never saw them again in the same place,” Hochman wrote.

“One day I was selling cigarettes on Marszałkowska Street. A handsome, dapper man approached me. […] He started asking about the price of cigarettes and if I had any pipe tobacco. Having obtained the information he wanted, he asked if I knew anyone who could get him a Kennkarte […]. Hearing the word, I realised that the man was Jewish […]. I asked him to come back in two days and promised that I would have an answer for him by then. I was very afraid to help him.”

With time, Józef Zysman of the Jewish National Committee took interest in the case of the Jewish children of Trzech Krzyży Square. Having overcome their initial mistrust, he began to systematically help the children by supporting them financially, finding accommodation or arranging their “papers”: “I looked at the boys carefully. The first one looked ten years old (in reality he was already thirteen). An oval face, laughing eyes, a slightly upturned nose, and a pointed peak of a dirty cycling cap. His protruding front teeth explained the nickname: Ząbal [Big Teeth – translator’s note]. He was dressed scantily. Skinny legs were visible under shabby rags reaching below his knees. His companion, Zbyszek, had an ‘Aryan’ appearance, a roguish look, and a no less roguish wit,” noted Zysman.

Some of the children took part in the Warsaw Uprising (as liaisons or nurses), some died. A few survived the war and wrote memoirs years later.

Agency, ingenuity, courage. Jews coming to the aid of others

There are many more examples of Jews providing aid to other Jews [read selected stories of rescue »]. Each of them bears testament to the unprecedented courage of Jews who were trying to save their loved ones and sometimes even complete strangers. They have not been honoured in any way, because the title of Righteous Among the Nations, awarded by the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem since 1963, is by definition only bestowed on gentiles who helped persecuted Jews during the Holocaust.

The cases of Jews coming to the aid of other Jews are also worth documenting in order to challenge the stereotypical view of Jews passively trying to survive the war and to undermine the prevailing narrative of Jewish people “sitting in their wardrobes,” assisted by a flock of selfless Poles. In reality, many Jews were coming to the rescue of others; they were resourceful, inventive, courageous, and determined. Though death was awaiting them at every turn, they were willing to risk their lives to save other Jews.

Prof. Barbara Engelking, ed. Mateusz Szczepaniak, March 2021


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Bibliography


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