Polish Heroes: Righteous in the face of Atrocity

In German-occupied Poland, an inhumane law was put in place by the Germans. Entire Polish families would be executed in punishment for the slightest form of support rendered to the Jewish population. Despite the risk of death, thousands of Poles saved their Jewish neighbours from extermination.

“Jews who leave their assigned area without suitable authorisation shall be punished by death. Those individuals who make a conscious effort to hide Jews shall be punished by death. Those who instigate or are complicit in the crime shall be punished as offenders; an attempted crime shall be punished as a committed crime”. This is a passage from the directive issued in October 1941 by Hans Frank, the administrative chief of the General Government in German-occupied Poland. The law was ruthless. The smallest gesture of help to the Jewish population was punishable by death: sharing food, purchasing goods, and even withholding information on where the Jews were hiding.

The support for the Jewish residents of the German-occupied Poland was provided both individually and collectively. In December 1942, Żegota, or the Polish Council for Jewish Aid was established. The organisation worked hand-in-hand with the structures of the Polish Underground State to provide the Jews with medication, food supplies, shelter and fake documents.

It is difficult to estimate exactly how many Poles helped the Jews. Numerous historians claim that more than ten people were sometimes involved in saving one Jewish life. Little is known on how many people lost their lives in the process. To date, it has been established that about 760 Polish people were executed for helping the Jews.  The number of people who were either imprisoned or sent to concentration camps was much larger. The story of the Ulma family from the little village of Markowa, now in south-eastern Poland, recalls one of the most dramatic and symbolic episodes in the history of the “Polish Righteous”.  Józef Ulma, his pregnant wife, and their six little children were murdered for hiding eight Jewish people.

The heroism of the thousands of Poles who saved Jews from their German tormentors is well reflected in the sheer number of distinctions bestowed upon them by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, and remembered on the martyrs’ and heroes’ national Remembrance Day. To date, well over 6,000 Poles have been awarded the title of “Righteous Among the Nations”. The medal presented bears the following inscription: “He Who Saves One Life Saves the World Entire”. The Poles constitute the largest proportion of all the Righteous. The trees planted in the Yad Vashem Institute garden are the living memorials to their heroism.