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Szmul Mordekhai Zygielbojm

Last Update 21 April 2006

As one of 10 children, Szmul Mordekhai Zygielbojm was born on 21 February 1895 in the village of Borowice. In 1899 his family moved to Krasnystaw, where he endured an upbringing of hardship and privation. The family’s circumstances were such that at the age of 10 he was forced to leave school and began working in a factory manufacturing boxes. In 1907, aged 12, Zygielbojm moved to Warsaw, working at various trades. On the outbreak of the WW1, he came back to Krasnystaw and, with his family, moved to Chelm. It was at that time he began his communal activities.

Now aged 20, Zygielbojm dedicated himself wholeheartedly to the flourishing Jewish workers' movement. In December 1917, the first convention of the Bundist movement in Poland took place in Lublin and Zygielbojm attended as a delegate. He met the most important leaders of the movement at the convention, which resulted in a radical change in his life. The Bund leaders were impressed by Zygielbojm, and in 1920 with the establishment of an independent Poland, he was summoned back to Warsaw. He was appointed as secretary to the Professional Union of Jewish Metal Workers and a member of the Warsaw Committee of the Bund. From that moment his star was on the rise. In 1924, Zygielbojm was elected to the Central Committee of the Bund, and remained a member until the end of his life. At the same time he was appointed secretary of the Central Council of Jewish Trade Unions. From 1930 he also edited Arbeiter Fragen (Worker’s Issues), the trades unions’ journal. A good speaker and writer, he was both well-liked and greatly admired by the Jewish workers of Warsaw. In 1936 Zygielbojm was sent by the Central Committee in Warsaw to become the leader of the Jewish workers'movement in Lodz, and in 1938 he was elected to the Lodz city council.

On the outbreak of WW2, Zygielbojm hurried back to Warsaw, where he became a member of the defense committee that functioned at the time of the siege and defense of the capital, as well as editor of the Folkszeitung (People's Newspaper).

At the beginning of the occupation the Germans demanded 12 representatives of the population to be kept as hostages; they would be held responsible for the maintenance of order in the city. The City President, Stefan Starzynski, proposed that the Jewish worker population provide one of the hostages and that this should be Ester Ivinska. Zygielbojm was totally opposed to a woman being held as a hostage and instead suggested himself as a candidate. Thus Zygielbojm became one of two Jewish hostages (the other was Abraham Gepner). On his release Zygielbojm was among the group of Bund members who organized an underground centre of the party. In addition, yet another function was imposed upon on him; he represented the Bund in the new Warsaw Judenrat.

One of the earliest functions of the Judenrat was to deal with the German order to create a ghetto. On 4 November 1939, the Germans demanded that the Jews carry this out within three days. In the ensuing debate, Zygielbojm strenuously opposed the idea.
When a majority decision of the Judenrat resulted in a motion to carry out the decree, on the basis that not to do so would only result in greater hardships for the Jewish population, (“Nazi soldiers will turn up at Jewish homes and evict the Jews from their apartments by force. What will they do to our women and children?”), Zygielbojm declared:
A historic decision has taken place here. I was, it seems, too weak to communicate that we must not do this. I feel, however, that I do not have enough moral strength to be able to take part in this. I feel that I would not have the right to continue living if the ghetto is carried through and my conscience does not remain clear. I declare, therefore, that I resign my appointment. I know that it will be the duty of the chairman to report my resignation to the Gestapo at once and I consider the consequences that this will have for me personally. I can, however, not act differently.

Subsequently Zygielbojm spoke to an audience of assembled Jews who, having learned of the decree concerning the formation of the ghetto, came to the building of the Judenrat. He called on the Jews not to go voluntarily to the ghetto, not to lose courage and to remain in their homes until they were removed by force. His declaration at the meeting of the Judenrat and his opposition to the forming of a ghetto, rapidly came to the attention of the Germans. Zygielbojm was ordered to attend the Gestapo in order to discuss important matters. What the order meant was clear. He did not report to the Gestapo, hiding himself instead. The underground committee of the Bund decided that he must escape from Poland. In particular, a vital mission became ancillary to his escape – to present to the world details of the atrocities that the Nazis were perpetrating on the Jewish population. And so, at the end of December 1939, Zygielbojm left Poland, and travelling through Germany and Holland with a false Dutch passport, reached Belgium. There, before a Socialist International meeting in Brussels, he described the persecution of the Jews during the early stages of the Nazi occupation of Poland. His report had a tremendous impact. For the first time, the world heard an authentic description of the German atrocities.

With the fall of Belgium, Zygielbojm fled to France, and in September 1940 he left there for the United States. He travelled around that country, helping to arouse the awareness of the American public to the barbarous nature of the Nazi regime in Poland. In March 1942, he was sent to London as the representative of Polish Jewry in the National Council of the Polish government–in–exile, a position he was to hold for the next year. Zygielbojm never abandoned the anti-Zionist hard line of his party, and in meetings of the National Council, accentuated his belief in a just and non-discriminatory Poland in which the evil of anti-Semitism would be eradicated. But as more and more reports came to him from the Jewish underground about the annihilation of the Jews of Poland, Zygielbojm concentrated instead on informing the world of what was happening there.
Working tirelessly, he organized aid for the oppressed Jews, and assisted by the Polish government–in– exile, appealed to public opinion, and the Socialist movement in particular, to provide support and an effective means of rescue.

In May 1942, a report reached Zygielbojm from the Bund in Warsaw concerning the annihilation of Polish Jews. This report was one of the first to provide details of the nature and scale of the slaughter. It contained a list of places where Aktionen had occurred, identified the sites of extermination camps and provided an estimate of the number of Jews who had by then been murdered – some 700,000. Zygielbojm strove constantly to bring the plight of the Jews to the attention of the public and to appeal to world opinion. In a BBC broadcast on 2 June 1942, he spoke of “the Jews in the ghettos who day-by-day see their relatives dragged away en masse to their death, knowing only too well that their own turn will come.

Addressing a meeting of the British Labour party, Zygielbojm described the Jewish predicament:
Today, you have heard the frightening news from Poland; these are facts that make blood curdle in the veins. I have in my hand an excerpt from a letter that a Jewish woman in one ghetto wrote to her sister in another ghetto in Poland. The letter is a shocking call to the world. The woman writes:
`My hand shakes. I cannot write, our minutes are numbered; only God knows if we will see each other again. I write and I cry; my children lament. They want so much to live… We all say goodbye to you.'.
Zygielbojm continued:
This is the atmosphere in which the Jews live in the ghettos of Poland. Try to imagine the people who see their nearest being dragged away to their death every day and each one knows that their turn must come. Imagine the thousands of Jewish mothers, the mothers who look at their children and know that their death is inevitable … Imagine the great crime of methodically massacring an entire people. Each of us who understands the cruelty of the crime must be shocked by the feeling of shame that we find ourselves among the living, to belong to the human genus, if means are not found to stop the greatest crime in human history. The conscience of every person must be shaken; the serenity of those who ignore the facts must be exploded … Each of us who does not do everything possible to stop the mass slaughter will take upon themselves moral co-responsibility for the dead. In the name of the hopeless innocent people sentenced to death in the ghettos of Poland, whose hands stretched out to the world unseen, I call on all people, to all nations whose conscience is still weak, to erase the burning shame that is directed at the human race - force the Nazi murderers to stop the systematic massacre of a people!

Zygielbojm drafted a resolution of the National Council containing three proposals
1) The National Council demands of the government that it ask all of the Allied nations, particularly America and England, to immediately devise a plan of special acts against Germany that will force an end to the slaughter of Jews.
2) The dropping of precise descriptions of the slaughter of Jews in the German language in large numbers from airplanes over Germany.
3) The government should take steps for a special conference of all of the Allied governments to be called quickly to publish an uncompromising protest and a powerful warning in the name of all the fighting nations to the German people and their government.

He had already drafted proposals concerning the undertaking of sanctions against Germany on two earlier occasions, which he had submitted to Churchill and Roosevelt. The responses were diplomatically evasive. Now he sent the President and the Prime Minister a final appeal:
As the plenipotentiary representative of the Jewish workers' movement in Poland and in the name of the Jews who are being murdered in vast numbers behind the gates of the ghetto, I turn to your governments with this last desperate appeal. Here is an excerpt from the last report that has again come from Warsaw:
`A fierce storm is raging on the heads of Polish Jewry and the terrible storm gets stronger with each day. The entire Jewish population is being exterminated, the men, the women and the children. Of the three and a half million Jews from before the war, there now remain alive no more than a few thousand and the mass murder continues further. The surviving Jews in Poland beg you to find the means to save the remnant of Polish Jews who remain alive.’
As a man who represents the unfortunate Jewish population of Poland, I give you their last appeal for rescue.

On 2 December 1942, Jan Karski, a courier from the Polish underground to the government in exile, met with Zygielbojm in London. Apart from eye-witness testimony about the extermination of the Jews, Karski brought with him a message from Leon Feiner, a member of the Bund:
… We here feel hate for those who were saved there because they are not saving us … They are not doing enough. We know that there, in the humane and free world, it is absolutely impossible to believe what is happening to us here. Let them do something that will force the world to believe … We are all dying; they will also die there. Let them lay siege to Churchill's government and others, proclaim a hunger strike, let them even die of hunger rather than budge until they believe and take measures to save the last remnants who are still alive. We know that no political action, no protests or proclamations of punishment after the war will help. None of these make any impression on the Germans …

Zygielbojm was distraught on hearing Karski’s evidence and Feiner’s message. Despite his anguished appeals for action to save at least a fragment of Polish Jewry, Zygielbojm became haunted by his inability to communicate the true nature of the disaster in influential circles. For the next five months he continued his desperate efforts, even as news emerged of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the ghetto’s destruction. Finally, upon learning of the death of his wife and son in Warsaw, Zygielbojm decided to heed Feiner’s call for an act of self-sacrificing protest. On 12 May 1943, he committed suicide in London, leaving letters addressed to the president of the Polish republic, Wladyslaw Rackiewicz, and the prime minister of the Polish government-in-exile, Wladyslaw Sikorski, which included these words:
"I know how little a human life is worth today. However, while I could not do anything during my life, perhaps with my death I will help to break the indifference of they who have the ability to save now, perhaps at the last moment, the still living Polish Jews.
My life belongs to the Jewish people in Poland and, therefore, I give it to them.

A post-war biography of Zygielbojm was entitled "Faithful unto Death". Few have been deserving of a more appropriate epitaph.

For further information on Szmul Zygielbojm and Jan Karski, see What was known, what was done by the Allies

Gutman, Israel, ed. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1990
Gutman, Yisrael. The Jews Of Warsaw 1939-1943, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1989
Wood, E. Thomas & Jankowski, Stanislaw M. Karski – How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust, John Wiley & Sons Inc, New York, 1994 #1 #2

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