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The Council to Aid Jews Żegota

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The story of the Council to Aid Jews "Żegota"

"Żegota" is the codename for the Council to Aid Jews, the only state-sponsored organisation in Europe which rescued Jews during World War II. "Żegota" was active in the underground in several parts of Poland, involving people of varying political persuasions, religions and beliefs.

In the summer of 1942, when the Germans began mass liquidations of ghettoes, it became clear that this was actually an extermination operation – that Jews were being transported to death camps and killed there. Until then, there was no organised help for Jews in occupied Poland. Jews were being supported by individuals or institutions which did not, however, act in concert.

The political initiative for the centralisation of these individual acts came from two social activists – Zofia Kossak, a writer and member of the Catholic Front for the Rebirth of Poland (FOP) and from Wanda Krahelska-Filipowiczowa who was connected with the centrist Democratic Partty.

In August 1942, just after the start of the massive liquidation operation in the Warsaw ghetto, FOP published a pamphlet entitled Protest! (written by Zofia Kossak), in which she appealed to Poles to take action against the crimes committed by the Nazis on the Jews. That initiative was taken up by various Polish underground groupings, among them being members of the Social Democrats and of the Związek Syndykalistów Polskich (left-wing workers resistance organisation). On 27the September 1942, the Provisional Committee to Aid Jews was established.

The Establishment of "Żegota"

The Council to Aid Jews was established on 4th December 1942. "Żegota" acted as an agency of the Office of the Delegate of the Government of the Republic of Poland to the Homeland, the main secret organisation of the administration authorities in occupied Poland. The Council continued the work of the Provisional Committee to Aid Jews.

The rise of "Żegota" was preceded by a mass collection of information about the fate of the Jews. From 1941, this had been conducted by the Jewish Section of the Information Department of the Bureau of Information and Propaganda of the Home Army Command.

The organisation's codename, "Żegota", was invented by Zofia Kossak. It derives from the name of one of the conspirators described by Adam Mickiewicz in Part III of Dziady.

"Żegota" consisted of representatives of political parties – both right-wing and left-wing, both Polish and Jewish. Years later, Władysław Bartoszewski, one of those who was active in the Council to Aid Jews, said, "I feel that Żegota was an exceptional phenomenon. Namely, it was the first underground organisation against the Germans in which Zionists, Bundists, Catholics, Social Democrats – both Poles and Jews – all worked together". Its first leader was Julian Grobelny from the Polish Socialist Party. The Council remained active, until January1945, in Warsaw, Kraków, Lwów and in the Lublin region.

The Organisation's Activities

"Żegota" extended aid to several thousand Jews. This support mainly took the form of financial assistance, organising hiding places and arranging false documents. Everything took place in secrecy, with the help of a wide network of underground contacts. Those who worked with "Żegota", in the main, were unaware of the activities of their co-workers.

Help was provided, primarily, to Jews in hiding on the "Aryan side", as well as to those in ghettos and camps. Those in hiding were provided with food and money. They were provided with false identity papers, thanks to which they could live safely outside the ghetto. Jews who had no hiding place were helped to find one. Many children were placed in care homes or with Polish families.

Structurally, "Żegota" was divided into sections. The field office looked after the production and delivery of false papers. The housing section looked for safe hiding places. The medical section was responsible for organising emergency medical care. The propaganda section printed and distributed leaflets encouraging people to help Jews.

An important part of "Żegota" work was the saving of children. The Council continued the work, conducted earlier, by the Social Welfare Department and by the Central Welfare Council. Children were led out of the ghetto and placed with Polish families, into care facilities or in convents. This operation was run by social worker Irena Sendler. Families who decided to take in Jewish children usually received funds to pay for their upkeep.

Working together with nuns was particularly important. Priests provided Jews with Christian baptismal certificates, which helped them to survive. "Żegota" delivered or issued more than 50,000 false documents.

As well as its aid activities, the Council to Aid Jews also performed an information function. It provided information about the extermination of the Jews to the underground press. In addition, it published its own leaflets and newsletters. It also reported, to the Government-in-Exile, on the situation of the Jews in occupied Poland, demanding the need for Allied military intervention.

The organisation was supported financially by the Delegation of the Polish Government-in-Exile, by Jewish organisations and by the Bund. There were also private donors who had no connection to those organisations.

Commemorating the Activities of "Żegota"

Members of the Council to Aid Jews have been honoured in the Avenue of the Righteous at the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem. In 1963, Władysław Bartoszewski planted a "Żegota" olive tree there which is still growing to this day. In Warsaw, the organisation's activities are remembered with a "Żegota" monument, located in the square in front of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. There is also a plaque on the wall of the building at 24 Żurawia Street, which once housed "Żegota”'s administrative headquarters.

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