The Holocaust in Poland: Zegota and Rescuing Jews

    July 2011          
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Jews, Poles and the Shoah

Book Review by Allen S. Maller

Code Name: Zegota - Rescuing Jews in Occupied Poland, 1942-1945
by Irenewski Tomaszewski and Tecia Werbowski
Santa Barbara, Ca. Praeger, 2010, 184 pp.

This is the second revised edition of a book first published in 1994, and written by two women: Tecia Werbowski, a Jewish girl who with her mother was rescued from the Lvov ghetto by Polish Catholics, later identified as members of Zagota; and Irene Tomaszewski, a Polish girl born in a Soviet labor camp in Siberia soon after her parents were deported there. These two met in Montreal in the early 1990's and joined together to relate this account of rescuing Jews in occupied Poland.

Both Jews and non-Jews sheltered Jews during the Shoah. Maurycy Herling-Grudzinski is an outstanding example of Jewish self-help. A wealthy Jewish lawyer who passed as a Pole throughout the occupation, he was able to hide 5-600 of his fellow Jews on his estate near Warsaw. The Council to Aid Jews, code-named Zegota, often misrepresented as only a Polish organization, was actually a joint Polish-Jewish organization, whose two Jewish member organizations, the Bund and the Jewish National Committee, between them (according to Gunner Paulsson in Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw 1940-1945) looked after twice as many Jews as the Polish branch did, and helped subsidized the Polish operation financially, although our authors state that 90% of the money came from the Polish Government in Exile and only 10% from Jewish organizations. Norman Davies, in the new forward to the second edition states that “At least half of all the Jews who survived the Holocaust in Poland did so thanks to the heroic efforts of Zegota.”

Political parties were the first to organize rescue efforts that naturally were directed to their own members and then to allied groups. For example, the Polish Socialists helped the Bund and the Zionist youth movements had some contacts with the Polish Scouts. Later, help was sometimes extended to outsiders, but it was hard to trust people without years of personal experience. The first slate of officers of Zegota included a representative of the Polish Socialist Party, the Peasant Party, the Bund, Zionist Poale Zion Party, the Democratic Party and two liaisons from the Front for Reborn Poland. All of these individuals were already in the underground and active in helping Jews.

The best known Polish rescuer of Jews was Irena Sendler, a young social worker, employed by the Welfare Department of the Warsaw municipality. After the German occupation, the department continued caring for a great number of Warsaw's poor and dispossessed people. Irena Sendler took advantage of her job in order to help Jews, but this became almost impossible once the ghetto was sealed off in November 1940. Irena Sendler, at great personal danger, managed to get a permit from the municipality that enabled her to enter the ghetto to inspect sanitary conditions. Once inside, she established contact with Jewish welfare organization activists and began to smuggle Jews, especially children, out of the ghetto and find hiding places for them.

When Zegota was established in the fall 1942, (after 280,000 Jews had already been deported from Warsaw to Treblinka) Sendler became one of its main activists. Zagota played a crucial role in the rescue of several thousand Jews who had survived the massive deportations in the summer of 1942. In September 1943, four months after the Warsaw ghetto uprising, Sendler was appointed director of Zegota’s Department for the Care of Jewish Children. Sendler exploited her contacts with orphanages and institutes for abandoned children, to send Jewish children to them. Hundreds of children were sent to the Family of Mary Orphanage in Warsaw, and to religious institutions run by nuns in nearby Chomotow, and in Turkowice, near Lublin. The exact number of children saved by Sendler and her partners is unknown, but it might be over 2,000. On October 20,1943 Sendler was arrested, tortured and sentenced to death, but four months later underground activists managed to bribe officials to release her.

Sendler was not the only Pole to be sentenced to death by the Nazis. Almost 2,800 (15%) of all Polish priests and monks were killed. Of them, 60 (2%) were executed for helping Jews. Of 17,000 nuns, 289 were killed. Of them, 10 (3%) were shot for helping Jews (p.6 & p.28). Some might say that 70 Polish clergy killed for helping rescue Jews was a small number, but that number is much higher than the the number of German or French clergy killed for the same 'crime'. Similarly, twice as many Poles as French were awarded Righteous among the Nations medals as of 1/1/10, (6,195 compared to 3,158) yet the percentage of Jews surviving in France was greater than in Poland. Because 90% of Poland's Jews were killed by the Nazis, and because 1,500 of the 200,000 plus Jews who returned from Soviet exile after the war were killed by Poles while fighting each other (p.99), many people have falsely concluded that Poles did not do anything to help Jews during the war. This is not true. The sad truth is that while great evils can be done by people in powerful organizations, great good is usually done by individuals who are few in number. The many personal accounts of Poles who rescued Jews in this book makes that evident.

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from the July 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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