A wide variety of groups comprise world Jewry, each with physical traits ranging from blond-hair to black skin. Despite this diversity, there were unique characteristics that frequently betrayed a person of Jewish origin, particularly in Eastern Europe where the Jews were less assimilated than in Western Europe.
Rescuers found it dangerous to help Jews "pass" as Christians if the Jews possessed stereotypical "Jewish looks." For example, red hair was a telltale sign of Jewish ancestry. And few Hasidic Jews, with their long beards and earlocks, survived.
Little habits, almost unnoticeable, gave the Jews away. In Poland, where the majority of Jews spoke Yiddish as their first language, the wrong Polish accent, or a typical Yiddish phrase translated into Polish, was enough to betray a person as Jewish. Drinking vodka was a Polish habit, but not a Jewish one. If a "passing" Jew did not accept a drink, he might arouse suspicion. Jews appeared to have a facility with language which Poles lacked. The ability to pick up the German language quickly was perceived as a Jewish trait, often leading to dire consequences.
It was frequently difficult for "passing" Jews to hide their sadness. Their world had been uprooted, their families destroyed. Even though Poles also suffered, a mournful expression was seen as particularly Jewish. Eyes betrayed the inner sadness. The "passing" Jew had to avoid what became known as "Jewish eyes."
Miriam Peleg-Marianska, a Jewish woman who had blue eyes and blond hair, often travelled by train in her work for Zegota. Her typically "Aryan" features gave her a sense of confidence and security, but the Jewish tragedy took its toil. "My ability to hide my despair," she wrote, "was failing me. I noticed that people were looking at me with interest on tram journeys and it made me nervous: This was dangerous."
The practice of circumcision was largely restricted to Jews prior to World War II, consequently making it easy for Nazis to identify Jewish men. As Miriam Peleg-Marianska has said, "Men carried their death sentence with them, ready for inspection."
Essential for a Jew "passing" as a Christian was a complete set of documents, including a birth certificate, a ration card, a work card, a residence card, a travel permit, etc. All of these documents had to forged by an expert in the field, but if a Jew had "Jewish features," the best documents were of little value. These conditions made it hazardous for rescuers to conceal the identity of Jews they might take into their homes.
One of Zegota's tasks was supplying illegal documents to Jews. By the time Zegota began its operations, however, the majority of Polish Jewry was already dead.