“Żegota” also known as the “Konrad Żegota Committee,” was a codename for the Council to Aid Jews (Rada Pomocy Żydom), an underground organization in German-occupied Poland from 1942 to 1945. It operated under the auspices of the Polish Government in Exile through the Government Delegation for Poland, in Warsaw. Żegota’s express purpose was to aid the country’s Jews and find places of safety for them in occupied Poland. Poland was the only country in occupied Europe where, throughout the war, there existed such a dedicated secret organization.
The Council to Aid Jews, Żegota, was the continuation of an earlier secret organization set up for this purpose, called the Provisional Committee to Aid Jews (Tymczasowy Komitet Pomocy Żydom), founded in September 1942 by Zofia Kossak-Szczucka and Wanda Krahelska-Filipowicz (“Alinka”) and made up of democratic as well as Catholic activists. Its members included Władysław Bartoszewski, later Polish Foreign Minister (1995, 2000). Within a short time, the Provisional Committee had 180 persons under its care, but was dissolved for political and financial reasons.
Founded soon after in October 1942, Żegota was the brainchild of Henryk Woliński of the Home Army (AK). From its inception, the elected General Secretary of Żegota was Julian Grobelny, an activist in prewar Polish Socialist Party. Its Treasurer, Ferdynand Arczyński, was a member of the Polish Democratic Party. They were also the two of its most active workers. Żegota was the only Polish organization in World War II run jointly by Jews and non-Jews from a wide range of political movements. Politically, the organization was formed by Polish and Jewish underground political parties.
Jewish organizations were represented on the central committee by Adolf Bermann and Leon Feiner. The member organizations were the Jewish National Committee (an umbrella group representing the Zionist parties) and the socialist General Jewish Labor Union. Both Jewish parties operated independently also, using money from Jewish organizations abroad channelled to them by the Polish underground. They helped to subsidize the Polish branch of the organization, whose funding from the Polish Government-in-Exile reached significant proportions only in the spring of 1944. On the Polish side, political participation included the Polish Socialist Party as well as Democratic Party (Stronnictwo Demokratyczne) and a small rightist Front Odrodzenia Polski. Notably, the main right-wing party, the National Party (Stronnictwo Narodowe) refused to participate.
Kossack-Szczucka withdrew from participation from the onset. She had wanted Żegota to become an example of pure Christian charity and argued that the Jews had their own international charity organizations. She went on to act in the Social Self-Help Organization (Społeczna Organizacja Samopomocy - SOS) as a liaison between Żegota and Catholic convents and orphanages, where Catholic clergy hid many Jews.
Żegota had around one hundred (100) sections. According to a letter by Adolf Berman, the Jewish Secretary of Żegota, dated February 26, 1977, there were other activists especially meritorious. He mentioned theatre artist Prof. Maria Grzegorzewski, psychologist Irena Solski, Janina Buchholtz-Bukolski*, educator Irena Sawicki*, scouting activist Dr. Ewa Rybicki, school principal Irena Kurowski, Prof. Stanislaw Ossowski and Prof. Maria Ossowski, zoo director Dr. Jan Zabinski* and his wife Antonina*, a writer, the unforgettable director of children’s theatres Stefania Sempolowski, Jan Wesolowski*, Sylwia Rzeczycki*, Maria Laski, Maria Derwisz-Parnowski. Great merits had former Senator Zofia Rodziewicz, Zofia Latallo, Dr. Regina Fleszar and others. Beside the university educated people there were commoners like Waleria Malaczewski, Antonina Roguski, Jadwiga Leszczanin, Zofia Debicki*, tailor Stanislaw Michalski, farmers Kajszczak from Lomianki and Pawel Harmuszko, laborer Kazimierz Kuc and many others. (Those with the asterix (*) after their name have been recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations up to the end of 1999.)
Żegota helped save some 4,000 Polish Jews by providing food, medical care, relief money and false identity documents for those hiding on the so-called “Aryan” side of German-occupied Poland. Most of its activity took place in Warsaw. The Jewish National Committee had some 5,600 Jews under its care, and the Bund an additional 1,500, but the activities of the three organizations overlapped to a considerable degree. Between them, they were able to reach some 8,500 of the 28,000 Jews hiding in Warsaw, as well as perhaps 1,000 elsewhere in Poland.
Help in the form of money, food and medicines was organised by Żegota for the Jews in several forced labour camps in Poland as well. Forged identity documents were procured for those hiding on the “Aryan side” including financial aid. The escape of Jews from ghettos, camps and deportation trains occurred mostly spontaneously through personal contacts, and most of the help that was extended to Jews in the country was similarly personal in nature. Since Jews in hiding preferred to remain well-concealed, Żegota had trouble finding them. Its activities therefore did not develop on a larger scale until late in 1943.
The German occupying forces made concealing Jews a crime punishable by death for everyone living in a house where Jews were discovered. Over 700 Poles murdered by Germans as a result of helping and sheltering their Jewish neighbors were posthumously awarded the title Righteous Among the Nations. They were only a small part of several thousand Poles reportedly executed by the Nazis for aiding Jews. It is estimated that some 200,000 Poles were engaged in helping Jews even though the threat of death did act as a deterrent.
Żegota did play a large part in placing Jewish children with foster families, public orphanages and church institutions (orphanages and convents). The foster families had to be told that the children were Jewish, so that they could take appropriate precautions, especially in the case of boys. (Jewish boys, unlike Poles, were circumcised.) Żegota sometimes paid for the children’s care. In Warsaw, Żegota’s children department, headed by Irena Sendler, cared for 2,500 of the 9,000 Jewish children smuggled from the Warsaw Ghetto.
Medical attention for the Jews in hiding was also made available through the Committee of Democratic and Socialist Physicians. Żegota had ties with many ghettos and camps. It also made numerous efforts to induce the Polish Government in Exile and the Delegatura to appeal to the Polish population to help the persecuted Jews.
Many members of Żegota were memorialized in Israel in 1963 with a planting of a tree in the Avenue of the Righteous at Yad Vashem. Władysław Bartoszewski was present at the event.