Polish relations with Jews
– Irena Sendler

In Polish-Jewish relations, World War II served as a catalyst of behaviors both heroic and deeply compassionate, as well as brutal and inhumane.

Through the isolation of Jews, stripping them of freedoms even more so than the Poles, an aggressive propaganda campaign and criminalizing any aid given to Jews, Germany succeeded in destroying the fabric of Polish-Jewish solidarity in the face of a common enemy which had been established in the first days of the conflict.

Abraham Grinbaum, who for three years was hidden by the Grabarow Family in Gabin. Photo taken in 1946, recreating the conditions which existed during wartime. Photo: Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute.
Abraham Grinbaum, who for three years was hidden by the Grabarow Family in Gabin. Photo taken in 1946, recreating the conditions which existed during wartime. Photo: Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute.

On the other hand, as the rescued Jew Henryk Schoenker attested, no Jew known to him would have survived without the aid of Poles. Some helped for money, other completely interest free, risking their life and that of their loved ones in the process. On the territories of the General Government, a law was issued in October 1941 which made aiding Jews a crime punishable by death not only for the aid giver, but for their entire family as well. Such was the case of the eight members of the Ulma Family, from the village Markow near Lancut, who from 1942 to March 1944 hid several Jews. There are documented examples of incredible assistance given by individuals who before the war held views rather unfavorable towards Jews. As early as December 1939 the Franciscan Convent in Niepokalanow outside of Warsaw gave refuge to over 1000 Jews who had been expelled from Western territories annexed by the Reich. Before the war this convent had published a publication unsympathetic to the Jewish people. The most important underground organization which rescued Jews, Zegota – the Council to Aid Jews – was established on the initiative of writer Zofia Kossak-Szczukiecki, who before 1939 did not hid her views which were critical of Jews. Catholic priests regularly distributed “Aryan” birth certificates to those in need. Many female convents hid Jewish children. Irene Sendler (1910-2008) acting within the framework of “Zegota” rescued 2,500 Jewish children by placing them with Catholic families and in orphanages, often organized by the Catholic Church.

In the second half of the Nazi German occupation (1942-1944) there were ever more frequent instances of vile behavior such as denouncement or the blackmail of Jews in hiding as well as reporting on Poles who were hiding or otherwise aiding Jews. The assistance of Polish policemen and firefighters in the liquidation of ghettos was reprehensible. German gendarmes or SS units as well as Jewish Ghetto Police also participated in these operations. In the countryside, peasants would assist in searching for Jews in hiding. This was done both in fear of repression, as well as for material reimbursement. There were also instances where Jews were murdered by units of the underground. On territories occupied by the Soviet Union in 1939-1941, the claim of communist collaboration became a pretext for German motivated pogroms. The most infamous, although not the only ones, was the murder of Jewish neighbors in Jedwabne, Wasosz and Radzilow in July 1941.

The Polish Government in Exile also acted in the interest of their Jewish citizens as did the pro-London Polish underground, who dispensed death sentences on those who blackmailed Jews and appealed to Poles to aid Jews. In the name of the Polish Underground State and the Polish Government in Exile Jan Karski informed British and American leaders about Germany’s extermination of Jews (see Jan Karski). Several hundred thousand Poles were involved in aiding Polish Jews. There are 700 documented instances of Poles paying the highest price for aiding Jews. Poles make up the largest group of recipients of the Righteous Among the Nations title given by the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem (numbering over 6,500 out of a total 25,700 as of 2015).