In Warsaw, a group of Polish Christians put their own lives at risk when they set up the Council for the Assistance of the Jews. The group was led by two women, Zofia Kossak and Wanda Filipowicz.
Since the German invasion of Poland in 1939, the Jewish population had been either thrust into ghettos, transported to concentration and labor camps, or murdered. Jewish homes and shops were confiscated and synagogues were burned to the ground. Word about the Jews’ fate finally leaked out in June of 1942, when a Warsaw underground newspaper, the Liberty Brigade, made public the news that tens of thousands of Jews were being gassed at Chelmno, a death camp in Poland—almost seven months after the extermination of prisoners began.
Despite the growing public knowledge of the “Final Solution,” the mass extermination of European Jewry and the growing network of extermination camps in Poland, little was done to stop it. Outside Poland, there were only angry speeches from politicians and promises of postwar reprisals. Within Poland, non-Jewish Poles were themselves often the objects of persecution and forced labor at the hands of their Nazi occupiers; being Slavs, they too were considered “inferior” to the Aryan Germans.
But this did not stop Zofia Kossak and Wanda Filipowicz, two Polish Christians who were determined to do what they could to protect their Jewish neighbors. The fates of Kossak and Filipowicz are unclear so it is uncertain whether their mission was successful, but the very fact that they established the Council is evidence that some brave souls were willing to risk everything to help persecuted Jews. Kossak and Filipowicz were not alone in their struggle to help; in fact, only two days after the Council was established, the SS, Hitler’s “political” terror police force, rounded up 23 men, women, and children, and locked some in a cottage and some in a barn—then burned them alive. Their crime: suspicion of harboring Jews.
Despite the bravery of some Polish Christians, and Jewish resistance fighters within the Warsaw ghetto, who rebelled in 1943 (some of whom found refuge among their Christian neighbors as they attempted to elude the SS), the Nazi death machine proved overwhelming. Poland became the killing ground for not only Poland’s Jewish citizens, but much of Europe’s: Approximately 4.5 million Jews were killed in Poland’s death and labor camps by war’s end.