Interview # 5. Zegota
Why are the actions of Zegota, the clandestine Council for Aid to Jews, and other help offered to the Jews by Poles in Nazi occupied Poland virtually unknown in the West?
Wladyslaw Bartoszewski replies: This question should not be addressed to a Pole from Poland, certainly not to a Pole who wrote hundreds of pages on the subject. The answer, though, is quite simple.
I think that the post-war political situation of Poland is mainly to blame for the long silence surrounding Zegota. Zegota was a creation of the Polish democratic intelligentsia of various backgrounds ? ranging from social democracy to staunch Catholicism. The members of Zegota were all inspired by different motives, but these were always honest and humanitarian. Zegota operated with the help of the Government Delegation, i.e. the local representatives of the Polish Government-in-Exile in London, and the High Command of the Home Army. They were the ones who gave the first impulse to create this organization. Both the Delegation and the Home Army, as well as political parties and organizations loyal to the so called ?London camp?, were condemned in post-war Poland. During the Communist era, any positive mention of them in political or historical books, as well as in articles and textbooks, was forbidden.
For several decades the heritage of independence movements was belittled. Not only of military operations carried out by the broad spectrum of organizations within the so called ?London camp?, but also of civilian, noble endeavors in the realms of culture, education and humanitarian aid. It was General Władysław Sikorski, the Prime Minister of the Polish Government-in-Exile, who received Jan Karski?s reports, and sent Karski on a mission to the US in order to pass on to the Americans as much information on the plight of the Jews as possible. Sikorski, while addressing the Poles in Poland, shared with them the information about the atrocities raging in the ghetto. He was the one who initiated the call to patriotically minded Poles to take a moral stand in support of the Ghetto insurgents in 1943, and it was he who made radio addresses to the nation on the subject and called on everyone to do all in their power to offer defiance.
Unfortunately, at the same time the Poles were themselves persecuted by the Nazi Germany and the penalty for helping Jews was death for the entire family. Thus, there was little the Poles could do.
To me it seems obvious that political reasons lay at the roots of the vicious fight against the Polish Government-in-Exile in post-war Poland. And for this very reason, its activities were neither coordinated with nor sponsored by the Communist party, which under German occupation was small, had no resources and was not supported by London. Furthermore, only those activities which could be credited to the Communists, were given attention and praise in Poland after the war.
At this point, I would like to remind - Americans especially - that Jan Karski
lived quietly for more than twenty years in obscurity as a professor of political science at one of US universities, and his name was never even mentioned as that of a person conspicuously merited with helping Jews during the war. It was only as late as 1985 that Karski planted a tree in Jerusalem as one of the "Righteous"
And then came the fateful year of 1968, with spectacular and brutal action of the Communist state against Jews. All issues began to mount and overlap. I was the first to write and speak publicly about organized help to Jews in occupied Poland and I started this back in the late 1950's.
In 1967 in Krakow I published the book Ten jest z Ojczyzny mojej. Polacy z pomoca Zydom (He is my Compatriot. Poles Helping Jews) , 1939-44, written in collaboration with Zofia Lewin. In it we wrote not only about Zegota. We also wrote about the attitudes and actions of various individuals: peasants, workers, priests, people of conservative and liberal opinions, landed gentry, railway workers, even some Polish policemen who helped the Jews. We also wrote about blackmailing and denunciations of Jews. About death sentences carried out by the Polish underground on Poles, for despicable deeds perpetrated against Jews. All of this took place - both good and bad things.
In my opinion, Zegota was an unusual phenomenon. For the first time, Zionists, Bundists, Catholics, Polish democrats, socialists, and peasants. Jews and Poles, united in conspiracy against the German occupier acted together. This was not a Polish organization to aid Jews. It was the Council for Aid to Jews in which Poles and Jews acted together. These included religious and secular-minded Jews; leftist, moderate and conservative Poles. And all this was made possible precisely because of the broad consensus based on tolerance and humanitarian convictions.
Today, I am the last surviving co-organizer of Zegota. In 1942, I was the youngest among all supporters in Warsaw, Cracow and Lvov. The Council was established independently in those three cities and only later united in a network. I should mention here that Americans have a person historically connected with Zegota right within their reach: Piotr Ogrodzinski - who until quite recently was Minister Councillor with the Polish Embassy in Washington D.C. - is the son of Przemysław Ogrodzinski, a co-organizer of the Council for Aid to Jews in Lvov.
The meagerness of information about Zegota in the West can be explained, but still it is deplorable. Icchak Cukierman (Antek) in his memoirs published in Hebrew, English, German and in 2000, for the first time in Polish, talks little about Zegota, although he knew many of its members. He writes positively about co-organizers of Zegota, but very little about the Council itself. Unfortunately, a book by Teresa Prekerowa Konspiracyjna Rada Pomocy Zydom w Warszawie (Clandestine Council for Aid to Jews in Warsaw), 1942-45), published by PIW in 1982, has not yet been translated into English. Its French translation by Marian Apfelbaum (Zegota, Commission d'Aide aux Juifs, Editions du Rocher) appeared in 1999.
In serious Western sources, the best description of Zegota, concise, yet containing several hundred lines, is to be found in the four-volume English-language edition of the Holocaust Encyclopedia. Besides the general entry of Zegota, it contains references to many people. Separate entries in this encyclopedia are to be found for Aleksander Kaminski, Henryk Wolinski, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski and several other individuals connected with Zegota. The Encyclopedia's editor-in-chief is Israel Gutman, presently Professor Emeritus of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and doctor honoris causa of Warsaw University.