ŻEGOTA: Logistics of saving a life… (Part I)

Associate Producing the episode of “Żegota” (Part of ‘Heroes of War’ series) was a very interesting opportunity to look into what actually, on a practical level, was required to help and save a Jewish life in WW2 occupied Poland. (I shall in this post also try to give some brief background / context.)

In September 1942 the Polish Underground Government established “Żegota” – code name for the Council to Aid the Jews. This was on the initiative of Zofia Kossak-Szczucka and Wanda Krahelska-Filipowicz. Many prominent individuals worked in this organization, both Catholic (etc.) Poles and Polish Jews from across the political spectrum, amongst them Władysław Bartoszewski and Irena Sendlerowa – who’s network is known to have saved 2500 Jewish children.

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Photograph of Władysław Bartoszewski /JHI Archives.

The main aim of “Żegota” was to provide financial assistance for food and shelter to Jews in hiding (90% of the funds came from the Polish Government in Exile). However, it is also important to remember that the majority of people that helped to shelter and hide Jews were not connected to any organisation – but did this in complete secrecy, on their own initiative and risk.

It’s sometimes easy to think that in all that ‘chaos of war’ a person could somehow get intentionally ‘lost’ or become ‘invisible’ in the mass confusion – but this is an illusion: in reality the very opposite was true.

In German-occupied Poland every Polish citizen (Catholic, Jewish or other) was forced to constantly carry with them several documents: This was not only the Kennkarte / Ausweis (Photo ID with fingerprints) but also proof of residence and Arbeitskarte (labour / work card).

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If you were part of the resistance you would quite regularly need to have these forged. (The various reasons are obvious; A need to hide real identity or change accommodation to a new ‘safe’ location, work permits covering resistance assignments or to prevent being sent off to forced labor…etc.)

Specialist forgery cells of the AK (Armia Krajowa) the Polish Home Army, like “Agaton” had photographers, printers, paper and stamp makers producing an estimated 1000 documents per month.

The same kind of forged documents were needed if you were Jewish – and hiding on the ‘Aryan’ side.

In occupied Warsaw, some districts were announced to be for Germans only – and Polish residents were forced to move out, many more were forced to rent or share accommodation. Food rations were severe. (See ‘The Civilian Population and the Warsaw Uprising of 1944” by Joanna K.M. Hanson) This, of course also made the possibilities of hiding and sheltering people on a practical level very difficult.

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For the “Żegota” programme we looked at many different documents in the archives at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.

At the JHI they also keep the original German Bekanntmachung General Government poster announcement from Częstochowa 1942.

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The document – written in both German and Polish – states a reminder of the death penalty for Jews found outside of “Jewish districts” as announced in 1941 and also of the death penalty for any Poles who provide Jews with shelter or food.

When talking of WW2 Poland – it is very important to understand what occupation in Poland actually meant. In England, far to often assumptions on both the occupation and resistance in Poland, are based on the generally more known conditions in France. This is an error that often leads to very inaccurate conclusions.

It is also important to remember that civilians in occupied Poland did not live with simple black and white choices between ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’. This way of thinking belongs to glossy Hollywood movies. To feed or give shelter to anyone wanted by the Gestapo or a Jewish person living on the ‘Aryan’ side, was not only punishable by death for the person providing this help – but also for their entire family. For civilians in occupied Poland, every day actions were constant ‘choices’, if you can call them that, of trying to choose between lesser evils.

Many people would – and did – risk their own life to save somebody else’s. And although this in itself is very brave, it is not that unusual. But would you help somebody else if that meant the death of your own children? This is of course a question beyond reason. Yet, the answer is, many people did.

It has been estimated that around 10-12 people were needed to save one Jewish life.

During our filming in Warsaw I interviewed a lovely, passionate and very exuberant group from ‘The Polish Society for the Righteous Among the Nations’. We spent a day talking about their experiences and of the many difficulties in physically hiding someone, providing them with food – and how to do this for a sustained period of time – sometimes for years.

Their different stories are very interesting and some of them – like the very charming gentleman Józef Walaszczyk’s – are so adventurous and romantic they would even make James Bond jealous!

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Wartime photograph of Józef Walaszczyk  – and his portrait today.

Many from this group were children at the time of the war and it was very interesting to discuss how they perceived the dangers and the actions of their parents as well as the roles they themselves had played in sheltering Jewish people.

Interviewing and talking with Tadeusz Stankiewicz, who was 9 years old when the war broke out, was very moving. Along with his father, a forester and his whole family – They helped to hide over 200 Jewish people in the area around their forest lodge.

But most of the stories had tragic outcomes.

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Portrait of Tadeusz Stankiewicz today.

After the war Tadeusz’s father was arrested and put in jail for his involvement in the AK – the Polish Home Army. He was brutally interrogated and died after being pushed out of a prison window. The UB* claimed his death was suicide. The family was not allowed a proper burial.

This was a brutally unjust fate – but not unusual, in post-war Poland.

*The UB (Urząd Bezpieczeństwa) / MBP (Ministerstwo Bezpieczeństwa Publicznego) was the Ministry of Public Security in Poland: A communist secret police and intelligence service operating between 1945- 1954 under Jakub Berman. Its main objective was to eliminate anti-communist structures and the Polish Underground State as well as persecuting soldiers of the Polish Home Army and WiN.

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