Founded soon after, in October 1942, Żegota was the brainchild of Henryk Woliński of the Home Army (AK). From its inception, the elected General Secretary of Żegota was Julian Grobelny, an activist in prewar Polish Socialist Party. Its Treasurer, Ferdynand Arczyński, was a member of the Polish Democratic Party. They were also the two of its most active workers. Members included Władysław Bartoszewski, later Polish Foreign Minister (1995, 2000). Żegota was the only Polish organization in World War II run jointly by Jews and non-Jews from a wide range of political movements. Structurally, the organization was formed by Polish and Jewish underground political parties.
Jewish organizations were represented on the central committee by Adolf Berman and Leon Feiner. The member organizations were the Jewish National Committee (an umbrella group representing the Zionist parties) and the socialist General Jewish Labor Union. Both Jewish parties operated independently also, using money from Jewish organizations abroad channelled to them by the Polish underground. They helped to subsidize the Polish branch of the organization, whose funding from the Polish Government-in-Exile reached significant proportions only in the spring of 1944. On the Polish side, political participation included the Polish Socialist Party as well as Democratic Party (Stronnictwo Demokratyczne) and a small rightist Front Odrodzenia Polski. Notably, the main right-wing party, the National Party (Stronnictwo Narodowe) refused to participate.
Kossack-Szczucka withdrew from participation from the onset. She had wanted Żegota to become an example of pure Christian charity and argued that the Jews had their own international charity organizations. She went on to act in the Social Self-Help Organization (Społeczna Organizacja Samopomocy - SOS) as a liaison between Żegota and Catholic convents and Catholic and secular orphanages, which hid many Jewish children. Żegota's children's section was headed by Irena Sendler, a socialist activist, who was nominated for a Nobel Prize before her death in 2008.
Żegota had around one hundred (100) cells, operating mostly in Warsaw where it distributed relief funds to about 3,000 Jews. The second-largest branch was in Krakow, and there were smaller branches in Wilno (Vilnius) and Lwow (L'viv). In all, 4,000 Jews received funds from Zegota directly, 5,600 from the Jewish National Committee and 2,000 from the Bund (because of overlaps, the total number of Jews helped by all three organizations in Warsaw was about 8,500). This aid reached about one-third of the Jews in hiding in Warsaw, but mostly not until late 1943 or 1944. .
According to a letter by Adolf Berman, the Jewish Secretary of Żegota and head of the Jewish National Committee, dated February 26, 1977, there were other activists who were especially meritorious. He mentioned theatre artist Prof. Maria Grzegorzewski, psychologist Irena Solski, Janina Buchholtz-Bukolski*, educator Irena Sawicki*, scouting activist Dr. Ewa Rybicki, school principal Irena Kurowski, Prof. Stanislaw Ossowski and Prof. Maria Ossowski, zoo director Dr. Jan Zabinski* and his wife Antonina*, a writer, the unforgettable director of children's theatres Stefania Sempolowski, Jan Wesolowski*, Sylwia Rzeczycki*, Maria Laski, Maria Derwisz-Parnowski. Former Senator Zofia Rodziewicz, Zofia Latallo, Dr. Regina Fleszar and others had great merits. Beside the university educated people there were commoners like Waleria Malaczewski, Antonina Roguski, Jadwiga Leszczanin, Zofia Debicki*, tailor Stanislaw Michalski, farmers Kajszczak from Lomianki and Pawel Harmuszko, laborer Kazimierz Kuc and many others. – Those with the asterisk (*) after their name have been recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations up to the end of 1999.
The largest cell of Żegota was led by Mieczysław Herling-Grudziński, a wealthy lawyer, who hid 600 Jews (out of the 3,000 helped by Żegota in Warsaw) on his suburban estate in Boernerowo (today Bemowo).
Help in the form of money, food and medicines was organised by Żegota for the Jews in several forced labour camps in Poland as well. Forged identity documents were procured for those hiding on the 'Aryan side' including financial aid. The escape of Jews from ghettos, camps and deportation trains occurred mostly spontaneously through personal contacts, and most of the help that was extended to Jews in the country was similarly personal in nature. Since Jews in hiding preferred to remain well-concealed, Żegota had trouble finding them. Its activities therefore did not develop on a larger scale until late in 1943.
The German occupying forces made concealing Jews a crime punishable by death for every Pole living in a house where Jews were discovered. Over 700 Polish heroes, murdered by Germans as a result of helping and sheltering their Jewish neighbors, were posthumously awarded the title Righteous Among the Nations. They were only a small percentage of thousands of Poles reportedly executed by the Nazis for aiding Jews. According to differring research "the number of Poles who perished at the hands of the Germans for aiding Jews" was as high as fifty thousand. Nonetheless, "Władysław Bartoszewski, who worked for Żegota during the war estimates that 'at least several hundred thousand Poles... participated in various ways and forms in the rescue action.' Recent research suggests that a million Poles were involved" in giving aid, "but some estimates go as high as three million" of those passively protective. More specific estimates indicate that some 100,000 of those who meet Yad Vashem’s criteria, to 300,000 Poles were directly engaged in rescuing Jews even though the threat of death did act as a deterrent.
Żegota did play a large part in placing Jewish children with foster families, public orphanages and church institutions (orphanages and convents). The foster families had to be told that the children were Jewish, so that they could take appropriate precautions, especially in the case of boys. (Jewish boys, unlike Poles, were circumcised.) Żegota sometimes paid for the children's care. In Warsaw, Żegota's children department, headed by Irena Sendler, cared for 2,500 of the 9,000 Jewish children smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto. Sendler attempted to return them to their parents at the end of WWII. However, almost all had been murdered in one way or another at Treblinka.
Medical attention for the Jews in hiding was also made available through the Committee of Democratic and Socialist Physicians. Żegota had ties with many ghettos and camps. It also made numerous efforts to induce the Polish Government in Exile and the Delegatura to appeal to the Polish population to help the persecuted Jews.