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Polish Righteous Among the Nations

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Polish Righteous
Medals and diplomas awarded at a ceremony in the Polish Senate on 17 April 2012
Ceremonia wręczenia medali Sprawiedliwy wśród Narodów Świata Senat RP 2012 02.JPG
There are 6,706 Polish men and women recognized as Righteous by the State of Israel

The citizens of Poland have the world's highest count of individuals who have been recognized by Yad Vashem of Jerusalem as the Polish Righteous Among the Nations, for saving Jews from extermination during the Holocaust in World War II. There are 6,706 Polish men and women recognized as Righteous to this day, over a quarter of the total number of 26,513[1] awards internationally.

It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of Poles concealed and aided hundreds of thousands of their Polish-Jewish neighbors.[2][3] Many of these initiatives were carried out by individuals, but there also existed organized networks of Polish resistance which were dedicated to aiding Jews – most notably, the Żegota organization.

In German-occupied Poland the task of rescuing Jews was especially difficult and dangerous. All household members were punished by death if a Jew was found concealed in their home or on their property.[4] It is estimated that the number of Poles who were killed by the Nazis for aiding Jews was as high as tens of thousands, 704 of whom were posthumously honored with medals.[2][5][6]


"The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland", by the Polish government-in-exile addressed to the wartime allies of the then-United Nations, 1942

Before World War II, Poland's Jewish community had numbered between 3,300,000[7] and 3,500,000 people – about 10 percent of the country's total population. Following the invasion of Poland, Germany's Nazi regime sent millions of deportees from every European country to the concentration and forced-labor camps set up in the General Government territory of occupied Poland and across the Polish areas annexed by Nazi Germany.[8] Most Jews were imprisoned in the Nazi ghettos, which they were forbidden to leave. Soon after the German–Soviet war had broken out in 1941, the Germans began their extermination of Polish Jews on either side of the Curzon Line, parallel to the ethnic cleansing of the Polish population including Romani and other minorities of Poland.[8]

As it became apparent that, not only were conditions in the ghettos terrible (hunger, diseases, executions), but that the Jews were being singled out for extermination at the Nazi death camps, they increasingly tried to escape from the ghettos and hide in order to survive the war.[9] Many Polish Gentiles concealed hundreds of thousands of their Jewish neighbors. Many of these efforts arose spontaneously from individual initiatives, but there were also organized networks dedicated to aiding the Jews.[10]

Most notably, in September 1942 a Provisional Committee to Aid Jews (Tymczasowy Komitet Pomocy Żydom) was founded on the initiative of Polish novelist Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, of the famous artistic and literary Kossak family. This body soon became the Council for Aid to Jews (Rada Pomocy Żydom), known by the codename Żegota, with Julian Grobelny as its president and Irena Sendler as head of its children's section.[11][12]

It is not exactly known how many Jews were helped by Żegota, but at one point in 1943 it had 2,500 Jewish children under its care in Warsaw alone. At the end of the war, Sendler attempted to locate their parents but nearly all of them had died at Treblinka. It is estimated that about half of the Jews who survived the war (thus over 50,000) were aided in some shape or form by Żegota.[13]

In numerous instances, Jews were saved by the entire communities, with everyone engaged,[14] such as in the villages of Markowa[15] and Głuchów near Łańcut,[16] Główne, Ozorków, Borkowo near Sierpc, Dąbrowica near Ulanów, in Głupianka near Otwock,[17] Teresin near Chełm,[18] Rudka, Jedlanka, Makoszka, Tyśmienica, and Bójki in Parczew-Ostrów Lubelski area,[19] and Mętów, near Głusk. Numerous families who concealed their Jewish neighbours paid the ultimate price for doing so.[15] Several hundred Poles were massacred in Słonim for sheltering Jews who escaped from the Słonim Ghetto. In Huta Stara near Buczacz, all Polish Christians and the Jewish countrymen they protected were burned alive in a church.[20]


Warning of death penalty
for supporting Jews
Bekanntmachung General Government Poland 1942.jpg

the Sheltering of Escaping Jews.
   There is a need for a reminder, that in accordance with paragraph 3 of the decree of 15 October 1941, on the Limitation of Residence in the General Government (page 595 of the GG Register) Jews leaving the Jewish Quarter without permission will incur the death penalty.

   According to this decree, those knowingly helping these Jews by providing shelter, supplying food, or selling them foodstuffs are also subject to the death penalty.

   This is a categorical warning to the non-Jewish population against:
         1) Providing shelter to Jews,
         2) Supplying them with Food,
         3) Selling them Foodstuffs.
Częstochowa 9/24/42     

Der Stadthauptmann
Dr. Franke

During the occupation of Poland (1939–1945), the Nazi German administration created hundreds of ghettos surrounded by walls and barbed-wire fences in most metropolitan cities and towns, with gentile Poles on the 'Aryan side' and the Polish Jews crammed into a fraction of the city space. Anyone from the Aryan side caught assisting those on the Jewish side in obtaining food was subject to the death penalty.[21][22] Capital punishment and collective responsibility of entire families for aiding Jews, was the most draconian such Nazi practice against any nation in occupied Europe.[4][23][24] On 10 November 1941, the death penalty was expanded by Hans Frank to apply to Poles who helped Jews "in any way: by taking them in for the night, giving them a lift in a vehicle of any kind" or "feed[ing] runaway Jews or sell[ing] them foodstuffs". The law was made public by posters distributed in all major cities. Polish rescuers were fully conscious of the dangers facing them and their families, not only from the invading Germans, but also from betrayers (see: szmalcowniks) within the local, multi-ethnic population and the Volksdeutsche.[25] The Nazis implemented a law forbidding all non-Jews from buying from Jewish shops under the maximum penalty of death.[26]

Gunnar S. Paulsson, in his work on history of the Jews of Warsaw, has demonstrated that, despite the much harsher conditions, Warsaw's Polish residents managed to support and conceal the same percentage of Jews as did the residents of cities in safer countries of Western Europe, where no death penalty for saving them ever existed.[27]

Over 700 Polish Righteous Among the Nations received their medals of honor posthumously, having been murdered by the Germans for aiding or sheltering their Jewish neighbors.[5] Current estimates of the number of Poles who were killed by the Nazis for aiding Jews range in the tens of thousands.[2][5]


There are 6,706 officially recognized Polish Righteous – the highest count among nations of the world. At a 1979 international historical conference dedicated to Holocaust rescuers, J. Friedman said in reference to Poland: "If we knew the names of all the noble people who risked their lives to save the Jews, the area around Yad Vashem would be full of trees and would turn into a forest."[3]

Hans G. Furth holds that the number of Poles who helped Jews is greatly underestimated and there might have been as many as 1,200,000 Polish rescuers.[3] Władysław Bartoszewski, a wartime member of Żegota, estimates that "at least several hundred thousand Poles... participated in various ways and forms in the rescue action."[2] Recent research supports estimates that about a million Poles were involved in such rescue efforts,[2] out of the total prewar population of Poland estimated at 35,100,000 including Jews along with all national minorities, and 23,900,000 Poles,[7] "but some estimates go as high as 3 million."[2]

How many people in Poland rescued Jews? Of those that meet Yad Vashem's criteria – perhaps 100,000. Of those that offered minor forms of help – perhaps two or three times as many. Of those who were passively protective – undoubtedly the majority of the population. — Gunnar S. Paulsson [28]

Scholars still disagree on exact numbers. Father John T. Pawlikowski (a Servite priest from Chicago)[29] remarked that the hundreds of thousands of rescuers strike him as inflated.[30]


The Polish rescuers and the Jewish survivors plant Trees of Memory during the ceremony at the Park of the Rescued (pl) inaugurated in Łódź in August 2009

The Republic of Poland was a multicultural country before World War II, with almost a third of its population originating from the minority groups: 13.9% Ukrainians; 10% Jews; 3.1% Belarusians; 2.3% Germans and 3.4% percent Czechs, Lithuanians and Russians. A number of Polish Germans joined the Nazi formations already in 1940.[31] The presence of sizeable German and pro-German minorities constituted a grave danger for the Catholic Poles who attempted to help ghettoised Jews.[32]

The local population in Soviet occupied eastern Poland prior to German Operation Barbarossa of 1941, had witnessed the repressions and mass deportation of up to 1.5 million ethnic Poles to Siberia, conducted by the NKVD,[33] The Anti-Semitic attitudes had been exploited by the Nazi Einsatzgruppen who induced anti-Jewish pogroms on the order of Reinhard Heydrich.[34][35] A total of 31 deadly pogroms were carried out throughout the region in conjunction with indigenous auxiliary police.[36] The Ukrainian People's Militia spread terror across dozens of cities with the blessings of the SS,[37] including Lwów (Lemberg), Tarnopol, Stanisławów, Łuck, Drohobycz, as well as Dubno, Kołomyja, Kostopol, Sarny, Złoczów and numerous other towns.[38] Further north-west, during the massacre in Jedwabne, a group of ethnic Poles in the presence of German gendarmerie and the SS men of Einsatzgruppe B under Schaper set fire to a barn with over 300 Jews burned to death.[39]

There were also a number of criminal or opportunistic locals of various ethnicities,[40][41] including the Jewish ghetto extortionists themselves,[42] known in Polish as szmalcownicy, who blackmailed the Jews in hiding and their Polish rescuers for profit, or in rare cases turned them over to the Germans for financial gains. Official collaboration did not exist in Poland as it did in other countries such as France (see World War II collaboration and Poland for details). As Paulsson notes, "a single hooligan or blackmailer could wreak severe damage on Jews in hiding, but it took the silent passivity of a whole crowd to maintain their cover."[27]

The fact that the Polish Jewish community was decimated during World War II, coupled with publicized collaboration stories, has contributed to a stereotype of the Polish population having been passive in regard to, or even supportive of Jewish suffering.[28][43] Also, the postwar portrayals of Holocaust perpetrators based on court testimonies greatly contribute to this multifaceted distortion in perspective, because the German Orpo policemen remained silent about the Polish help to Jews and their own brutal punishment meted out for such help.[44]

Notable rescuers

See also


  1. ^ "About the Righteous: Statistics". The Righteous Among The Nations. Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority. 2017-01-01. Retrieved 2017-03-11. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f Richard C. Lukas, Out of the Inferno: Poles Remember the Holocaust University Press of Kentucky 1989 – 201 pages. Page 13; also in Richard C. Lukas, The Forgotten Holocaust: The Poles Under German Occupation, 1939–1944, University Press of Kentucky 1986 – 300 pages.
  3. ^ a b c Furth, Hans G. (1999). "One million Polish rescuers of hunted Jews?". Journal of Genocide Research. 1 (2): 227–232. doi:10.1080/14623529908413952. Thousands of helping acts were done on impulse, on the spur of the moment, lasting no longer than a few seconds to a few hours: such as a quick warning from mortal danger, giving some food or water, showing the way, sheltering from cold or exhaustion for a few hours. None of these acts can be recorded in full detail, with persons and names counted; yet without them the survival of thousands of Jews would not have been possible.[228] If these people are anywhere typical of non-Jews under the Nazis, the percentage of 20 percent [rescuers] represents a huge number of many millions. I was truly astonished when I read these numbers...[230] 
  4. ^ a b “Righteous Among the Nations” by country at Jewish Virtual Library
  5. ^ a b c The, "Righteous of the World: Polish citizens killed while helping Jews During the Holocaust." By Chaim Chefer. Source: Those That Helped, 1996.
  6. ^ Gunnar S. Paulsson. Secret City. The Hidden Jews of Warsaw, 1940–1945. Yale University Press, 2002.
  7. ^ a b London Nakl. Stowarzyszenia Prawników Polskich w Zjednoczonym Królestwie [1941] ,Polska w liczbach. Poland in numbers. Zebrali i opracowali Jan Jankowski i Antoni Serafinski. Przedmowa zaopatrzyl Stanislaw Szurlej.
  8. ^ a b Franciszek Piper. "The Number of Victims" in Gutman, Yisrael & Berenbaum, Michael. Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp, Indiana University Press, 1994; this edition 1998, p. 62.
  9. ^ Martin Gilbert. The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust. Macmillan, 2003. pp 101.
  10. ^ Tadeusz Piotrowski (1997). "Assistance to Jews". Poland's Holocaust. McFarland & Company. p. 117. ISBN 0-7864-0371-3. 
  11. ^ John T. Pawlikowski, Polish Catholics and the Jews during the Holocaust, in, Google Print, p. 113 in Joshua D. Zimmerman, Contested Memories: Poles and Jews During the Holocaust and Its Aftermath, Rutgers University Press, 2003, ISBN 0-8135-3158-6
  12. ^ Andrzej Sławiński, Those who helped Polish Jews during WWII. Translated from Polish by Antoni Bohdanowicz. Article on the pages of the London Branch of the Polish Home Army Ex-Servicemen Association. Last accessed on 14 March 2008.
  13. ^ Tadeusz Piotrowski (1997). "Assistance to Jews". Poland's Holocaust. McFarland & Company. p. 118. ISBN 0-7864-0371-3. 
  14. ^ Dariusz Libionka, "Polska ludność chrześcijańska wobec eksterminacji Żydów—dystrykt lubelski," in Dariusz Libionka, Akcja Reinhardt: Zagłada Żydów w Generalnym Gubernatorstwie (Warsaw: Instytut Pamięci Narodowej–Komisja Ścigania Zbrodni przeciwko Narodowi Polskiemu, 2004), p.325. (in Polish)
  15. ^ a b The Righteous and their world. Markowa through the lens of Józef Ulma, by Mateusz Szpytma, Institute of National Remembrance
  16. ^ Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, Wystawa „Sprawiedliwi wśród Narodów Świata”– 15 czerwca 2004 r., Rzeszów. "Polacy pomagali Żydom podczas wojny, choć groziła za to kara śmierci – o tym wie większość z nas." (Exhibition "Righteous among the Nations." Rzeszów, 15 June 2004. Subtitled: "The Poles were helping Jews during the war – most of us already know that.") Last actualization 8 November 2008. (in Polish)
  17. ^ Jolanta Chodorska, ed., "Godni synowie naszej Ojczyzny: Świadectwa," Warsaw, Wydawnictwo Sióstr Loretanek, 2002, Part Two, pp.161–62. ISBN 83-7257-103-1 (in Polish)
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  19. ^ Bartoszewski and Lewinówna, Ten jest z ojczyzny mojej, Kraków: Wydawnictwo Znak, 1969, pp.533–34.
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  22. ^ Antony Polonsky, 'My Brother's Keeper?': Recent Polish Debates on the Holocaust, Routledge, 1990, ISBN 0-415-04232-1, Google Print, p.149
  23. ^ Holocaust Survivors and Remembrance Project: Poland
  24. ^ Robert D. Cherry, Annamaria Orla-Bukowska, Rethinking Poles and Jews: Troubled Past, Brighter Future, Rowman & Littlefield, 2007, ISBN 0-7425-4666-7, Google Print, p.5
  25. ^ Mordecai Paldiel, The Path of the Righteous: Gentile Rescuers of Jews, page 184. Published by KTAV Publishing House Inc.
  26. ^ Iwo Pogonowski, Jews in Poland, Hippocrene, 1998. ISBN 0-7818-0604-6. Page 99.
  27. ^ a b Unveiling the Secret City H-Net Review: John Radzilowski
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  29. ^ Margaret Monahan Hogan, ed. (2011). "Remembering the Response of the Catholic Church" (PDF file, direct download 1.36 MB). History 1933 – 1948. What we choose to remember. University of Portland. pp. 85–97. Retrieved 21 June 2013. 
  30. ^ John T. Pawlikowski. Polish Catholics and the Jews during the Holocaust. In: Joshua D. Zimmerman, Contested Memories: Poles and Jews During the Holocaust and Its Aftermath, Rutgers University Press, 2003.
  31. ^ Wojciech Roszkowski (4 November 2008). "Historia: Godzina zero". weekly. Archived from the original on 12 May 2012. Retrieved 18 May 2014. 
  32. ^ The Erwin and Riva Baker Memorial Collection (2001). Yad Vashem Studies. Wallstein Verlag. pp. 57–. ISSN 0084-3296. 
  33. ^ Jerzy Jan Lerski, Piotr Wróbel, Richard J. Kozicki, Historical Dictionary of Poland, 966–1945, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1996, ISBN 0-313-26007-9, Google Print, 538
  34. ^ Christopher R. Browning, Jurgen Matthaus, The Origins of the Final Solution, page 262 Publisher University of Nebraska Press, 2007. ISBN 0-8032-5979-4
  35. ^ Michael C. Steinlauf. Bondage to the Dead. Syracuse University Press, p. 30.
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  37. ^ Dr. Frank Grelka (2005). Ukrainischen Miliz. Die ukrainische Nationalbewegung unter deutscher Besatzungsherrschaft 1918 und 1941/42. Viadrina European University: Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. pp. 283–284. ISBN 3447052597. Retrieved 17 July 2015. RSHA von einer begrüßenswerten Aktivitat der ukrainischen Bevolkerung in den ersten Stunden nach dem Abzug der Sowjettruppen. 
  38. ^ Р. П. Шляхтич, ОУН в 1941 році: документи: В 2-х частинах Ін-т історії України НАН України (OUN in 1941: Documents in 2 volumes). Institute of History of Ukraine. Kiev: Ukraine National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, 2006, pp. 426-427. ISBN 966-02-2535-0. Abstract, with links to PDF files.
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  • Polish Righteous at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews
  • Anna Poray, "Saving Jews: Polish Righteous. Those Who Risked Their Lives," at the Wayback Machine (archived 6 February 2008) with photographs and bibliography, 2004. List of Poles recognized as "Righteous among the Nations" by Israel's Yad Vashem (31 December 1999), with 5,400 awards including 704 of those who paid with their lives for saving Jews.
  • Piotr Zychowicz, Do Izraela z bohaterami: Wystawa pod Tel Awiwem pokaże, jak Polacy ratowali Żydów,, 18 November 2009 (in Polish)
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