Among number of nations awarded for saving Jews by the Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, Poles are the unquestioned leaders. Over seven thousands of them were recognized as heroes risking their lives – and in many cases giving their lives – to save those most tormented by Germans. Poland, in contrast to a number of European countries (e.g. France, Belgium, Switzerland) – rejected all proposals of collaboration with Nazi Germany and created Polish Underground State – with separate department for rescuing Jews: Council to Aid Jews “Żegota”. Polish resistance within the department managed to save over 60,000 Israelites. Due to fact that the amount of given help was massive, Adolf Hitler made German-occupied Poland the only country during World War II with the law penalizing with death any help offered to the Jews. To his surprise it did not work. The amount of aid, given by both: Polish officials as well as civilians, did not decrease till the very end of the war. The Polish resistance is most notable for saving more Jewish lives than any other Western Allied organization or government.
Couple of stories of thousands of heroes from Poland below.
Polish nurse and social worker who served in the Polish Underground State (the largest underground resistance movement in Europe) during World War II in German-occupied Warsaw.
She organized, with dozens of other Poles a whole network smuggling Jewish children out of the German ghetto and then providing them with false identity documents and shelter with willing Polish families or in orphanages and other care facilities, including Catholic nun convents. She managed to rescue about 2,500 of them. This work was done at huge risk, as – since October 1941 – giving any kind of assistance to Jews in German-occupied Poland was punishable by death, not just for the person who was providing the help but also for their entire family or household, even neighbours. From October 1943 she was head of the children’s section of Żegota, the Polish Council to Aid Jews (Polish: Rada Pomocy Żydom “Żegota”) – created as a separate department of the Polish Underground State.
In 1943 she was arrested by the German Gestapo and during a brutal interrogation was tortured and beaten almost to death – but she still didn’t give up the list of saved children Germans wanted. Sendler was sentenced to death but on the day of her scheduled execution Polish resistance managed to rescue her. When she recovered she carried on saving Jews until the very end of the war.
Polish politician and diplomat, who during World War II joined Polish resistance. He organized underground network between Poland and Hungary – providing Jewish with new identity papers with “typically Polish” first names and surnames, baptism certificates and number of other documents. Polish and Hungarian Roman Catholic Church played an extremely important role here, readily issuing Catholic baptism certificates for those who needed them. In 1943 Sławik also established the orphanage for Jewish children in Vác-on-the-Danube (Hungary). Officially, it was called the “Orphanage for Children of Polish Officers”. The children there were taught basic Catholic prayers and, on Sundays, they were openly led to the church so that Germans could see what the children’s faith was. The whole operation was supervised by Polish teacher serving in the Polish Underground State – Franciszek Świder. Thanks to precautions and an excellent evacuation plan prepared by the carers, none of the children in the orphange were killed or arrested even though, on 19th March 1944, Hungary came under German occupaiton.
Sławik managed to rescue over 5,000 Jews. In 1944 he was arrested. Beaten and tortured during brutal interrogation he didn’t give up any information about saved Jews and his service in the Polish Underground State. He was murdered with his fellow Polish resistance fighters in the German concentration camp in Gusen in August 1944.
Polish writer and World War II resistance fighter. In 1942, when the liquidation of the German Ghetto in Warsaw began – revealing Nazis’ plan to put to death Polish Jews, she published a manifesto entitled “Protest,” of which 5,000 copies were printed. Kossak-Szczucka described in graphic terms the conditions in the Ghetto, and the horrific circumstances of the deportations then taking place: “All will perish … Poor and rich, old, women, men, youngsters, infants, Catholics dying with the name of Jesus and Mary together with Jews. Their only guilt is that they were born into the Jewish nation condemned to extermination by Hitler.”
As the world was silent in the face of this atrocity, she wrote: “England is silent, so is America, even the influential international Jewry, so sensitive in its reaction to any transgression against its people, is silent…”. She realised the only help Jews can count on must be given by Poles. She co-founded the Council to Aid Jews (Żegota) – as a department of Polish Underground State. Żegota was set up to assist Polish Jews to escape the Holocaust. Her organisation rescued about 60,000 Jews, which accounts for half of all the Jews who survived the Holocaust in occupied Poland.
In 1943, she was arrested by a German street patrol. The Nazis, not realising who she was, sent her first to prison and then to Auschwitz-Birkenau German Concentration Camp. In April 1944 when her true identity became known, she was sent back to the capital for interrogation and sentenced to death. End July 1944 the Polish Underground State managed to rescue her and just a few days later she joined the Warsaw Uprising.
Polish cavalry officer, intelligence agent and resistance leader. During the Second World War he volunteered for a Polish Underground State operation that involved being imprisoned in the Auschwitz concentration camp in order to gather intelligence. While in the camp, he organized a resistance movement and informed the Western Allies of Nazi Germany’s Auschwitz atrocities as early as 1941. He escaped from the camp in 1943 after nearly 2½ years of imprisonment and prepared the first comprehensive Allied intelligence report on the Auschwitz Death Camp and the Holocaust (known as Witold’s Report), consisting of over 100 pages. The document includes details about the gas chambers, “selektion”, and the sterilization experiments. It states that there were three crematoria in Birkenau able to burn 8000 people daily. But the British government, which received the report, filed it away with a note that there was no indication as to its reliability. Pilecki did not give up and supplemented the document with the reports of two other eyewitnesses of Holocaust who escaped from Auschwitz (Jerzy Tabeau and Roman Cieliczko) – known jointly as the Auschwitz Protocols – and delivered them to the Allies but they again refused to take any action.
He took part as a soldier in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. He remained loyal to the London-based Polish government-in-exile after Soviet Russia takeover of Poland. He was arrested in 1947 by the Stalinist secret police and executed in 1948. Information was suppressed about his exploits and fate until 1989 by the Communist regime.
Polish World War II resistance-movement soldier. In 1942 Karski performed a secret mission to obtain information about Nazi atrocities in occupied Poland. In order to gather evidence, Karski was twice smuggled by the Jewish underground into the Warsaw Ghetto for the purpose of directly observing what was happening to Polish Jews. Also, disguised as an Estonian camp guard, he visited Durchgangslager transit camp and Bełżec death camp.
In 1942 and 1943 Karski repeatedly reported to Poland’s Western Allies about the situation in German-occupied Poland, especially about Germany’s destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto and about Germany’s extermination camps on Polish soil that were murdering Jews, ethnic Poles, and other nationalities. He had also carried out of Poland a microfilm with further information from the underground movement on the extermination of European Jews in German-occupied Poland.
Karski in person met with the British Foreign Secretary, giving a detailed statement on what he had seen in Warsaw and Bełżec. He then travelled to the United States, and in 1943 personally met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Oval Office, telling him about the situation in Poland and becoming the first eyewitness to tell him about the Jewish Holocaust. Roosevelt did not ask one question about the Jews, just said that would be checked after the war, and ended the meeting. Karski did not give up and went on to meet with many other government and civic leaders in the United States, including Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, Cordell Hull, William Joseph Donovan, and Rabbi Stephen Wise. Karski presented his report also to media, members of the Hollywood film industry and artists, but without any result.
Polish family: Józef Ulma, his wife Wiktoria, and their six children, living in Markowa near Rzeszów in south-eastern Poland during the Nazi German occupation. They were the Righteous who attempted to rescue Polish Jewish families by hiding them in their own home during the Holocaust. They were caught by Germans in 1944 and whole family – parents and their children were summarily executed on 24 March 1944 for doing so – along with the eight Jews whom they had been sheltering from the very beginning of the war. Notably, despite the murder of Ulmas meant to strike fear into the hearts of Polish villagers, their neighbours continued to hide Jewish fugitives. At least 21 Polish Jews survived in Markowa during the occupation of Poland by Nazi Germany.
Polish family: Jan Kawczyński, his wife Helena and their daughter Magdalena, who sheltered eight Jewish families on their farm near Warsaw. They were murdered by the Germans, who first killed their 10-year old daughter in front of them, before forcing Jan to watch his wife being murdered – prior to being shot himself. Just like with Ulma family and many other cases the execution meant to strike fear into the hearts of Polish nation. To Germans surprise it did not work. The amount of aid, given by both: Polish officials as well as civilians, did not decrease till the very end of the war.
◄ No photo of Kawczyński family survived. Presented picture became a symbol of genocide of Poles: Ten-year-old Kazimiera Mika with her sister, killed by the Germans, as photographed by American reporter Julien Bryan. Hitler ordered the „destruction of the enemy” beyond military objectives: Nazi Germany classified Poles as „subhuman” and war crimes were committed against them from the outset of the invasion of Poland.
Polish family of zoo-keepers: Jan Żabiński, his wife Antonina and their son Ryszard, who from the beginning of World War II used their house and the zoo itself to shelter hundreds of Jews. Availing himself of the opportunity to visit the Warsaw ghetto ostensibly to inspect the state of the flora within the ghetto walls, Żabiński maintained contact with his Jewish colleagues, friends and their families from before the German invasion, helped them escape and sheltered them. The Polish Underground State kept helping him with maintenance costs and provided false passports for those who sought refuge elsewhere. They saved over 300 Jews.
Jan Żabiński was also an active member of the Polish Underground movement – the Home Army. In the rank of lieutenant he participated in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. Upon its suppression, he was taken as a prisoner to camps in Germany. His wife continued their work, looking after the needs of the Jews.
Franciscan Sisters of the Family of Mary
Polish Catholic nuns of Warsaw Provincial House run by Sister Matylda Getter. During Second World War 120 sisters cooperated with Irena Sendler and the Polish Underground State in saving Jewish children from the German Ghetto in Warsaw. They risked their lives by taking the children into orphanages, hiring adults to work with them and caring for them in facilities scattered around Poland. They also took responsibility of obtaining false birth certificates for the little Jews and hiding them in the order’s educational institutions. Franciscan Sisters rescued approx. 750 Jewish children.
Prepared by Kajetan Soliński
Agata and Tom Summerell
Patronat Honorowy nad projektem objął Ambasador Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej
w Zjednoczonym Królestwie Wielkiej Brytanii i Irlandii Północnej.
- Linked articles: Erasing Poles from history
- This article in Polish HERE