Resistance against the Holocaust by Catholic Laypeople: Zegota
Introduction: Zegota (back to top)
The Catholic population in Europe during the time of the war was a substantial one, with countries such as France, Italy, Germany and Poland possessing Catholics as their majority population. Coupled by the fact that Catholicism was rooted in moral and humanitarian principles of righteous behaviour, of sacrifice and love, one could and would expect resistance as substantial as the population figures. On the contrary, however, the Catholic response to the Holocaust remained a passive one, and attempts to actively oppose the Nazi regime were sparse and often organised only on local levels. A Catholic response to the Holocaust is thus difficult to measure due to its sporadic nature. Compounding this problem was the fact that the responses varied according to their proximity with the Nazi government, both physically and ideologically. Regardless, these circumstances did not prevent the rise of a movement that involved the involvement and efforts of many Catholics in an underground anti-Nazi movement known as the Zegota.
Zegota – The Council for Aid to Jews
Founded in December 1942, Zegota was the successor to the Provisional Committee for Aid to Jews. The latter was established in September 1942, set up by two Polish Catholic activists Zofia Kossak-Szczucka and Wanda Krahelska-Filipowicz (http://www1.yadvashem.org). It was an underground resistance movement that was run by both Catholics and non-Catholics, and Jews from various political movements.
Humanitarian impulses alone, however, would not have been able to ensure the survival of Zegota throughout the war years without both an extensive support network and tight organisation. The Zegota administration was split up into a number of different sections in order to provide organised aid to the thousands of Jews under its patronage, namely: Housing; Medical; Legalisation; Children; Liaison; the AK and Finances. The housing section set up emergency shelters for Jewish escapees where they were provided with food and sanitation before another home was found for them, and was constantly in search of places where the escapees could be housed; a network of doctors from every specialisation was formed to provide the healthcare that many Jewish escapees needed, for the Ghetto was overrun by typhus; the legalisation section helped with the procurement of documents needed for the Jews to escape routine identity checks unscathed(Tomasszewski and Werbowski, 52-60). The Children’s section, in which Zofia Kossak herself was personally active in, helped Ghetto children escape and took care of the welfare of these children, of which many of whom were orphans (Tomasszewski and Werbowski, 60-65). The Liaison department was in charge of couriers who helped with shopping for food supplies and escorting new Jewish escapees to their emergency shelters; the AK carried out executions of the szmalcowniks and German collaborators; and the Finance Department was in charge of gathering and seeking funds for the rescue efforts, which mainly came from the Polish government in exile and partly from Jewish organisations (Tomaszewski and Werbowski, 67-69, 75-79)
Involvement by Catholics in Zegota
Although an organisation unaffiliated to diocesan structures or officially tied to the Church, Michael Phayer noted that the movement received considerable support from the church locally, and "priests and nuns were vital to its operation" (Phayer, 129). Tomaszewski and Werbowski have also noted in their book that help of the lower clergy were especially crucial and substantial in the Children and Legalisation Departments, where many priests helped in the destruction of death certificates, the release of birth certificates, and the nuns not only harboured Jewish children in their convents, but even travelled by foot, train or tram to get them. (Tomaszewski and Werbowski, 58-59, 65-67) In addition, the organisation was founded by Catholics and enlisted the involvement of numerous ordinary Catholic people as well, one of the most prominent being Irena Sendlerowa, head of the Children’s department who used her special permit to the Warsaw Ghetto under the Social Welfare Department Municipality to smuggle Jewish children out of the Ghetto (http://info-poland.buffalo.edu/classroom/sendler/). She also wore the Star of David as a symbol of her identification with the Jews and her disdain for the Nazi government (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shtetl/righteous/gentilesbios.html).
It is difficult, and perhaps meaningless to list the number of Catholics involved in Zegota for the simple reason that there were too many of them. From the standpoint of historical analysis though, we might want to query and examine more closely the motivations of Zegota as a political organisation in helping the Jews, and also the driving force behind an individual’s decision to help, and in this case, particularly that of Zofia Kossak. Given that Poland was a predominantly Catholic country, it could be easy to mistake nationalistic motivations for religious altruism in such a resistance effort. It is therefore useful to ask ourselves if it was moral and ethical principles grounded in the Catholic belief that spurred such heroic action, or was it plainly a matter of Polish nationalism and anti-Nazism at work?
Zofia Kossak-Szczucka and the Protest (back to top)
Zofia Kossak was born into a Polish Catholic family in 1890. Most of her career was spent as a writer, where she wrote mainly for the Catholic press. Later in 1936, she received the Golden Laurel Award from the Polish Academy of Literature. During the war years, she went underground and began writing for underground newspapers under the code-name "Weronika" (Tomaszewski and Werbowski, 43). Later in 1941, she co-founded the Catholic lay organisation known as Front Odrodzenia Polski (Front for Reborn Poland) and became editor of its newspaper, Prawda (The Truth). Before her involvement in Zegota, she was also extensively involved in assisting Jews on an individual level.
In the summer of 1942, when the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto (wikipedia) began, Kossak published a leaflet entitled "Protest," and printed it in 5,000 copies (Tomaszewski and Werbowski, 43). In the leaflet she described in graphic details the living conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto and made known the deportations that were taking place, describing how the world remained silent in the face of such atrocities. By appealing to both religious and nationalistic sentiments, she urged the Polish people to actively oppose and resist such brutalities inflicted on the Jews by the Nazi Germans. Her call to action through the Protest thus became Zegota’s principal inspiration.
Front of National Rebirth of Poland
In the Warsaw Ghetto, behind walls separating from the external world, several hundred thousand convicts are awaiting death. There is no hope for any rescue, help comes from nowhere. Streets are patrolled by executioners, which fire at anyone who dares to go out of his house. They also fire at all who show in windows. On pavements besmear unburied human corpses.
Daily shipments as ordered by the authorities are set at 8-10 thousand of victims. Jewish policemen are ordered to deliver them to the hands of German executioners. If they fail, they will be killed. Children unable to walk themselves are loaded on wagons. The loading process is so cruel, that only a small number of them reaches the railway platform alive. Mothers looking at it go insane. The number of the insane from despair and horror equals the number of the shot-down.
There are railcars waiting at the platform. The executioners are forcibly packing over 150 convicts in each one. Thick layers of lime and chlorine are put on the floor of railcars and splashed with water. The doors of the railcar are being permanently bolted. Trains sometimes start immediately after the load, however sometimes wait one or two days on the side rail... It doesn't mean anything. From the people packed so densely that the dead cannot fall down and are standing arm to arm with the living, from the people dying of the lime and chlorine gases, without air, a drop of water, without food - nobody will survive. These death-trains, whenever and wherever they will arrive they will bring only dead human corpses.
Confronted with such suffering, quick death seems to be an answer. The executioners have foreseen it. All the drugstores in the ghetto have been closed, to avoid supplying with a poison. There are no guns. The only solution is to jump down out of the window to the street. Therefore a lot of convicts choose to "escape" their executioners in this way.
The same that is happening in the Warsaw Ghetto, has been happening for half a year in hundreds of smaller or larger Polish towns and cities. The total number of murdered has already exceeded one million and the number grows each day. All perish. Poor and rich, old, women, men, youngsters, infants, Catholics dying with the name of Jesus and Mary together with Jews. Their only guilt is that they were born to the Jewish nation condemned to extermination by Hitler.
The world is looking at these atrocities, the most horrible throughout the whole history of mankind, and is silent. Slaughter of the millions of people is happening in ominous silence. The executioners are silent, they do not boast with what they are doing. England is silent, so is America, even the international Jewry is silent, before so sensitive to all harm to their people. Silent are Poles. Polish political friends of Jews limit themselves to journalistic notes, Polish opponents of Jews show no interest in a matter that is alien to them. Dying Jews are surrounded only by Pilates washing their hands. Silence shouldn't be tolerated anymore. If for no other reason -- it is mean. Those who are silent in the face of murder - become partners of the killer. Those who do not condemn - approve.
We Catholic Poles, form our voice. Our feelings toward Jews have not changed. We do not stop thinking about them as political, economic and ideological enemies of Poland. Moreover we do realize, that they still hate us more than Germans, that they make us co-responsible for their misfortune. Why? On which basis? It remains the secret of the Jewish soul. Nevertheless, that is a fact that is continuously confirmed. Awareness of those feelings, doesn't relieve us from the duty to condemn the crime.
We don't want to be Pilates. We have no power to actively prevent German murders, we cannot help, we cannot save anyone, but we protest from the bottom of our hearts overwhelmed with mercy, fury and horror. We are required by God to protest. God who forbids us to kill. We are required by out Christian consciousness. Every human being has the right to be loved by his fellowmen. Blood of the defenseless cries to heaven for revenge. Those who oppose our protest - are not Catholics.
Being Polish, we also protest. We do not believe that Poland can benefit from German cruelties. On the contrary. The continuing silence of the international Jewry, the German propaganda that tries, even now, to put the blame for the slaughter of Jews on Lithuanians and... Poles, we sense a plot of the enemy against us. We also know how poisoned is the fruit of the crime. The role of forced observer in the bloody spectacle taking place on the Polish soil, might promote immunity to pain and suffering and what is the most important, conviction that to murder your neighbour without any punishment is permisssible. Those who do not understand it and want to connect the proud and free future of Poland, with contentment of grief of fellowmen, is neither a Catholic nor a Pole.
Nationalist and Religious Motivations (back to top)
At the end of Zofia Kossak’s famous protest, she stressed that:
Being Polish, we also protest.
We do not believe that Poland can benefit from German cruelties. On the
contrary. The continuing silence of the international Jewry, the German
propaganda that tries, even now, to put the blame for the slaughter of
Jews on Lithuanians and... Poles, we sense a plot of the enemy against
us. We also know how poisoned is the fruit of the crime. The role of forced
observer in the bloody spectacle taking place on the Polish soil, might
promote immunity to pain and suffering and what is the most important,
conviction that to murder your neighbour without any punishment is permissible.
Deeply entrenched ideas of anti-Semitism pervaded Polish history. Coupled by the Nazi offers of substantial rewards for Poles who turned in Jews, many Poles who were motivated either by greed or racist ideology aided the Nazi killing machine by turning in their own Jewish countrymen. Such acts placed the Polish national honour at stake, as it would make Poland seem like a nation of cold-blooded conspirators of the Nazis’ abominable Final Solution. Zegota would, therefore, fulfil the role of a redeeming factor for the co-operation of the Polish population with the Nazis. This was possibly one of the reasons why Zegota not only dedicated itself to the mission of helping and saving Jews, but also to the assassination and targeting of the szmalcowniki – the marginal elements of society who were responsible for the deaths of many Jews and of their Polish protectors for quick profits (Tomaszewski and Werbowski, 40). Furthermore, what bolsters the opinion that Zegota’s motivations were more nationalistic than religious was the imperative role of the Polish government in exile in London, where it supported the Zegota Committee both ideologically and financially.
While on one hand Zofia’s message and the organization bore a strong nationalist slant, the religious motivations were equally strong as well. Kossak-Szczucka expressed this as an issue of religious ethics in her protest. She writes:
"We are required by God to protest," she wrote. "God who forbids us to kill. We are required by our Christian consciousness. Every human being has the right to be loved by his fellow men. The blood of the defenceless cries to heaven for revenge. Those who oppose our protest, are not Catholics."
Nationalism or Religiosity then?While nationalism certainly played a role in galvanising an organised resistance movement, I am more predisposed to believing that religious altruism was the chief locomotive behind the formation and work of Zegota, in spite of its secular character. Firstly, it is noteworthy to point out that the founder, Zofia Kossak had a reputation as an ardent anti-Semite who did not falter in her opinion that Jews were "political, economic and ideological enemies of Poland." But this did not relieve Polish Catholics of their duty to oppose the crimes being committed in their country, because "those who are silent in the face of murder - become partners of the killer. Those who do not condemn – approve". As such, the founder of the Council was certainly motivated by ethical Catholic conduct in the galvanisation of efforts to resist Nazi Germany. Secondly, and more pertinently, if Zegota had been founded on nationalistic principles more than religious ones, its focus of activities would have then taken on a very different form. Resistance against Nazism did not have to take place in the form of helping and saving Jewish lives. Confronted by circumstances where hiding or helping Jews was punsihable by death, and compunded by the deep roots of anti-Semitism in Polsih society, it would certainly have made more sense and been more appropriate if resistance efforts took the form of sabotage and armed resisistance against the Gestapo or even the German troops in Poland. However, it was the moral obligation to help one’s neighbour (or even enemy) in the face of brutality that inspired and spurred the risky business of saving and helping Jews.
Conclusion (back to top)
Where does Zegota stand in the chart of Resistors and Bystanders?
Zegota’s active and enthusiastic rescue of the Jews as a form of resistance to the Nazis makes it deserving of a place under the ‘resistor’ category, where the members voluntarily put their lives on the line to resist and work against the Nazi implementation of the Final Solution on the basis of (Christian) morality. Being Polish, a nation of people who were subjugated to the brutality and oppression of the Nazi regime as well (though not to the extent of the Holocaust victims) places them within the ‘intermediate groups.
Although in itself not a Catholic organisation, Zegota has demonstrated how, contrary to the silence Catholics have often been accused of, Catholic laypeople have sought to resist the Nazi regime by participating in the Zegota network, either through a diocesan structure like the priests and nuns did, or on an individual basis of morality like Irena Sendler and many of those unnamed did. As such, although Zegota cannot speak for all Catholics, its persistent endeavours to rescue Jews and challenge Nazi authority demonstrates how, just as ordinary people under ordinary circumstances could be subjected to pressure by the Nazis, there are those who can and have accepted the challenges of heroic proportions, and many Catholics were certainly part of them.
Bibliography (back to top)
About the page author (back to top)
I am Rachel Teo, a third year History major from Singapore and am currently on the EAP Reciprocity Programme in UCSB. A study of World War II in high school was what sparked the interest in the Holocaust ever since. Being Catholic myself and fully aware of the Church’s structural and influential ability to counter the Nazi genocidal programme (but did not) was the reason why I was interested in examining resistance to the Nazi regime, and in particular, Catholic responses to the Holocaust.