Righteous Among the Nations: Poles Who Saved Jewish Lives

The Holocaust witnessed the genocide of six million Jews by the Nazi German regime. During this grim era, however, there were rays of hope in the form of individuals and groups who, at immense personal risk, sought to save Jewish lives. 

One institution, Yad Vashem in Israel, recognizes these brave, selfless individuals under the title Righteous Among the Nations. While these heroes hail from various nations, Poland holds a unique position. Despite being under brutal German and Russian occupation, with the Germans threatening execution for anyone (and their families) caught aiding Jews, many Poles, driven by compassion and a sense of justice, stepped forward to rescue their Jewish neighbours.

The following blog briefly introduces this hugely important part of WW2 history. Studying the mass murder and wanton destruction of the Second World War can, understandably, be emotionally exhausting; it is vital – especially today – that we remember the self-sacrifice and courage of those who stood up against the forces of evil, those who refused to be bystanders while the world around them was dragged into hell.

If you are travelling in Poland and would like to explore the country’s wartime history with expert historian guides, please consider booking a place on one of our World War Two Tours of Poland.

(Warsaw, 1925: Source/License

The Social Climate in Poland Before and During WWII

Before World War II, Poland was home to Europe’s largest Jewish community. Jews had resided in Poland since 966 AD, and the country was home to a rich Jewish history and unique culture. 

Though multifaceted and sometimes strained, this relationship had seen centuries of successful coexistence, with Poland offering more security and acceptance for Jews than many neighbouring countries. 

However, the outbreak of the war and the subsequent German occupation of Poland drastically changed the dynamics. The Nazi German occupiers implemented severe anti-Jewish policies and, with time, established ghettos and concentration camps across Poland. 

The act of aiding Jews, be it offering shelter, food, or any form of assistance, was met with nightmarish penalties. The German authorities didn’t just target individual helpers; often, their entire families and sometimes even their communities faced brutal reprisals, including immediate execution without trial. 

In this atmosphere of pervasive fear, the decision of many Poles to help their Jewish counterparts wasn’t just a simple act of kindness — it was an act of unparalleled courage.

(Władysław Bartoszewski)

Famous Poles Who Saved Jewish Lives

Irena Sendler

Irena Sendler, a social worker by profession, orchestrated the rescue of around 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto. Collaborating with a network of helpers, she masterminded the smuggling of these children to safety, often employing innovative methods such as using ambulances and toolboxes. Once outside the Ghetto, these children were given false identities and placed with Polish families or Catholic institutions.

You can learn the story of the Warsaw Ghetto with our Warsaw Ghetto Walking Tour

Jan and Antonina Żabiński

Jan Żabiński, the director of the Warsaw Zoo, and his wife, Antonina, utilized their unique position to provide refuge to Jews. When the zoo was largely closed due to the war, its empty animal cages and underground tunnels became hiding spots for those escaping persecution. The Żabińskis offered shelter and played an active role in the underground resistance, aiding in more covert operations to undermine the German occupation.

Władysław Bartoszewski

A stalwart figure in the resistance movement, Władysław Bartoszewski co-founded the Council to Aid Jews, condemned as Żegota. This underground organization, working under the aegis of the Polish underground state, provided financial, medical, and legal support to Jews. Bartoszewski’s efforts were instrumental in saving thousands, often bridging the divide between Jewish and non-Jewish resistance activities in Warsaw.

Learn about wartime resistance activities and the Warsaw Uprising on our Guided Tour of Historical Warsaw.  

Lesser-known Stories of Heroism

While prominent figures like Sendler and the Żabińskis have received due recognition for their extraordinary acts, countless unsung heroes from all walks of life played crucial roles in saving Jewish lives. 

In the rural areas, the Ulma family from the village of Markowa stands out. Despite the palpable risks, they sheltered eight Goldman, Gruenfeld, and Didner family members. Tragically, their act of courage was discovered, leading to the execution of the entire Ulma family, including their six children and the Jews they protected.

These stories, just a fraction of the myriad acts of bravery, highlight that the will to do good can emanate from any corner, irrespective of one’s standing in society.

Read the List of Poles recognized as Righteous Among the Nations and discover various inspiring stories. 

(Polish Civilians Rounded Up During WW2)

Challenges Faced by Polish Rescuers

The act of saving a Jewish life during the German occupation in Poland was fraught with unimaginable peril. The German authorities were relentless in their pursuit to eliminate all Jews and anyone assisting them. Poles caught helping Jews faced death. This brutal policy extended to their families, making harbouring a Jewish individual or family a life-threatening decision for entire families and communities.

Beyond the physical dangers, Polish rescuers grappled with moral dilemmas. They had to navigate issues of trust, with the constant threat of informers ready to betray them to the Germans. 

Emotionally, the weight of carrying such a secret, especially when the life of another human being was at stake, was immense. Yet, amid this grim atmosphere, the resilience and determination of these heroes shone brightly.

(Yad Vashem Museum in Israel: Source/License)

Post-War Recognition and Remembering the Righteous

After the war, the global community began the long process of healing and remembrance. In Israel, the Righteous Among the Nations honour was established by Yad Vashem to recognize non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. As of today, more Poles have been recognized with this honour than individuals from any other nation.

In Poland, these heroes’ memory is kept alive through various commemorations, museums, and educational initiatives. Streets and schools bear the names of the Righteous, ensuring that future generations are cognizant of their nation’s legacy of courage and compassion.

If you would like to explore the history of the Holocaust in Poland, consider taking our Auschwitz-Birkenau Guided Tour from Warsaw

In the face of unparalleled adversity, the Righteous Among the Nations chose empathy over apathy, courage over fear. Their legacy is a powerful reminder that even in the darkest of times, there exists a light within humanity that can never be fully extinguished. 

By remembering and honouring these heroes, we pay tribute to their sacrifices and pledge to uphold the values of understanding and tolerance in our lives.

If you have any questions, please get in touch.

If you want to continue reading about Polish history and culture, read our blog Was Warsaw Totally Levelled During WW2? next.

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