This year’s Warsaw Ghetto Uprising anniversary felt especially poignant. Eighty years on from the most unequal of battles, so few ghetto survivors are here to convey their experience. And those still alive know how few lessons have been learned, as several European countries, including Poland, are once again led by right-wing, ethnonationalist regimes that care little for minorities and trample on democratic rights.
Hitler’s birthday was on 20 April. When heavily armed Nazi forces entered the ghetto in the early hours of 19 April 1943 to burn it down and kill its remaining inhabitants or deport them to death camps, they envisaged that their Führer would soon receive his birthday present—a Judenfrei (Jew-free) Warsaw. It actually took the Nazis three weeks to suppress the guerrilla war of a few hundred insurgents, mostly in their 20s, initially armed with a few weapons, some improvised grenades and Molotov cocktails. The youngest resister was just 13 years old. Their arsenal grew after the first combat. The Nazis retreated, abandoning their dead and wounded. The fighters seized their weapons.
Marek Edelman, the lifelong Bundist and last surviving member of the uprising command group, described fighters doing their duty ‘to the last drop of blood that soaked into the pavements of the Warsaw Ghetto.’ His memoir, The Ghetto Fights, ends: ‘We who did not perish, leave it up to you to keep the memory of them alive—forever.’
Studio portrait of Szmul Zygielbojm with his first wife, Golda Sperling Zygielbojm and their infant son, Yosef.
Edelman wanted to ensure that this included a courageous campaigner for the ghetto Jews who died a lonely death far away in London as the uprising was crushed. This campaigner’s name was Szmul Zygielbojm. He was 48 years old and, like Edelman, also a Bundist. Zygielbojm was a prominent trade unionist, especially among Poland’s Jewish workers and the wider Polish labour movement. Jews were just 10 percent of the entire 1930s Polish population but comprised 25 percent of its trade unionists.
After an act of anti-Nazi defiance in November 1939, the SS demanded that Zygielbojm report to them for ‘discussions’. But his Bundist comrades hid him while they sought visa papers enabling him to reach Western Europe. In January 1940, Zygielbojm embarked on a perilous journey across Nazi Germany with a mission to expose what was happening to the Jews in Poland and lobby those with power to undertake extraordinary action to assist them. He emerged in Belgium and gave the Executive Committee of the Socialist International a shocking first-hand account of the daily brutality Jews were suffering in Warsaw.
From March 1942 he was the Bund’s representative on the National Council of the Polish Government in Exile in London. Then, on 10 May 1943, he received the devastating news at his flat in Paddington that the Ghetto Uprising had been destroyed.
The next day Zygielbojm made a distressed phone call to his friend, Isaac Deutscher, the Polish Jewish Marxist, a correspondent for a Polish Jewish newspaper in London since 1939. Deutscher went to Zygielbojm’s flat, where Zygielbojm proposed making a dramatic protest action—a hunger strike outside 10 Downing Street until the British government helped the surviving Jews in Poland. He wanted Deutscher to protest with him. Deutscher asked him to consider alternatives. Zygielbojm promised he would ring the next day.
He didn’t. Instead, he wrote a series of letters, then took an overdose of sodium amytal. His letters explained that his suicide was an act of protest, not against the Nazis whose atrocities he exposed daily, but against the Allied powers whose indifference and failure to act permitted the extermination of the Jews in Poland.
I cannot remain silent. I cannot live while the remnants of the Jewish people, whose representative I am, are being exterminated. My comrades in the Warsaw Ghetto perished with their weapons in their hands in their last heroic battle. It was not my destiny to die as they did, together with them. But I belong to them and in their mass graves.
By my death I wish to make the strongest possible protest against the passivity with which the world is looking on and permitting the extermination of the Jewish people…
My life belongs to the Jewish people in Poland, and, therefore, I give it to them. I wish that the surviving remnants of the several millions of Polish Jews could live to see, with the Polish population, the liberation that it could know in Poland, in a world of freedom and in the justice of socialism.
Zygielbojm’s story deserves to be much more widely known and appreciated. It is a discomforting one for the British state, which still lies to itself about its efforts before, during and after the Holocaust. It’s embarrassing for Britain’s Jewish establishment too, which made no effort to memorialise Zygielbojm.
A monument to Zygielbojm in Warsaw, Poland.
Since 1988 a set of engraved memorial stones leads across the site of the former Warsaw ghetto, from the Ghetto Fighters monument towards the Umschlagplatz (deportation point) memorial. Only one of those stones celebrates an individual who perished outside Poland: Szmul Zygielbojm. As the Polish art historian Halina Taborska recalledt, ‘the only weapon he fought with was the word—spoken and written. It served the Jewish people throughout his whole adult life, and at its end, it was used in his desperate efforts to save the remnants of the Jewish people from annihilation.’
In 1997 a two-part monument for Zygielbojm was added near his memorial stone by the artist Marek Moderau. A stone tablet depicting a shattered world stands in front of a haunting relief in black granite on a wall. Shadows of people are visible against softer lines depicting smoke and flames, with a quote in Yiddish and Polish from Zygielbojm’s suicide letter. Paula Sawicka of Open Republic, an anti-racist civil society association, emphasises that the monument to Zygielbojm was largely financed by ‘collections all over the world, mainly from Bundists, on the initiative of Marek Edelman… it was not an initiative of the Polish state.’
Zygielbojm was born into a poor family in Borowica, Poland, in 1895. When he was four, the family moved to Krasnystaw. From age ten, he worked in a factory making wooden containers for pharmaceutical products. His nascent trade union consciousness revealed itself at a young age. The glue used for the boxes was composed of flour and cheese. He called a secret meeting and told his fellow workers to insert less cheese into the mixture and partake of it themselves. The glue was less efficient. Their boss realised what was happening and spat into the mixture in front of the children.
At 12 years old, Zygielbojm went to Warsaw and was apprenticed as a glovemaker. Despite long working hours, he educated himself and developed a love for music, art, literature and theatre. By his late teens, he had joined the Bund, a Jewish socialist party focused on workers’ struggles and strongly committed to secular Yiddish culture. It fought for full civil and political rights for minorities and opposed all nationalism, including Zionism. its slogan was ‘Where we live, that is our country’. Zygielbojm, usually known by his party name ‘Comrade Artur’, became a key organiser for the Bund and was elected to its Central Committee.
His main arena was the labour movement, a leader at different times of the Leatherworkers Union and the Metal Workers Union. Zygielbojm was also elected as a town councillor for the Bund, first in Warsaw, and from 1936 in Łodz, the most industrial town in Poland and home to its second-largest Jewish community.
When war broke out in September 1939, Zygielbojm and his eldest son Joseph headed back to Warsaw to help defend the city, but on the way, they came under air attack. Zygielbojm and his son became separated. They never saw each other again. Zygielbojm helped to organise volunteer battalions to defend the city, but by the month’s end, the Nazis had taken control. To facilitate their programme of separating and discriminating against Warsaw’s Jews, they created a Judenrat (Jewish Council) to enforce their laws. They appointed 24 members to this body, including Zygielbojm. In November 1939, they instructed the Judenrat to oversee the ghettoisation of Warsaw’s 375,000 Jews.
Zygielbojm understood what this meant and urged the Judenrat not to comply. After failing to win sufficient support, he declared that ‘I would no longer have the right to go on living if a ghetto were set up and my head remained whole. Therefore, I must relinquish my mandate.’ Thousands of Jews had gathered outside the Judenrat offices, anxious to know about their deliberations. Zygielbojm came out onto the balcony and addressed the crowd, urging them to resist the Nazis’ attempts to move them by force.
His life was now in danger, and the train of events followed that ended with Zygielbojm reaching Belgium, then France, Spain and Portugal. In September 1940, he left for New York. Looking back at his act of defiance against the order, he wrote, ‘it is the total readiness to die which provides you with the indomitable strength to fight for life.’
Zygielbojm spent 18 months in America, where the Bund already had a significant presence. A Jewish Labour Committee was formed in New York in 1934 in response to the rise of Nazism. Its main roles were to assist anti-Hitler underground movements in Europe and aid victims of Nazism seeking sanctuary in America. It organised a speaking tour for Zygielbojm so he could share his knowledge of what was happening to the Jews under Nazi occupation in Poland.
Zygielbojm in London
A poster promoting a talk by Zygielbojm in Kansas City, Missouri.
In March 1942, Zygielbojm moved to London to be a Bund delegate on the Polish Government in Exile’s National Council. Through resistance channels, he received detailed information from Poland. In May 1942, he received a report from Warsaw Bundists with a list of mass murder sites. It estimated that 700,000 Jewish civilians had already died through starvation, shootings and gassing. Zygielbojm released this report to the Daily Telegraph and other newspapers before the Jewish press, as he believed this would ensure it reached a wide audience who would accept its authenticity.
He sent telegrams to diplomats and political leaders, addressed public meetings and bombarded the press with letters and information. In a BBC radio broadcast in July 1942, Zygielbojm asked his listeners to ‘imagine the people who see their nearest ones being dragged away to their death every day.’ Each one, he said, ‘knows that their turn must come. The conscience of every person must be shaken; the serenity of those who ignore the facts must be exploded.’
In September 1942, he was the first speaker at an international Labour Party rally in Caxton Hall, Westminster. He described how ‘the barbarians are applying modern methods in slaughtering tens of thousands… in poison gas chambers… In the town of Chelmno, 40,000 people were gassed within 50 days.’ As the representative of ‘the remaining Jews in the ghettoes awaiting their doom,’ he said, ‘I echo their outcry of pain and protest, and their call to mankind that means should be found to stop the greatest crime in human history.’
Three months later, Zygielbojm was visited at his Paddington flat by Jan Karski, a remarkable Polish resistance figure who had smuggled himself into the ghetto to relay and collect messages. He handed Zygielbojm a letter from Leon Fajner, a Bundist in the Warsaw Ghetto, asking Jewish leaders in the West to go on hunger strikes outside British and American government offices until they took action to save the Jews. ‘Let them die a slow death while the world is looking on… This may shake the conscience of the world.’ Zygielbojm told Karski that Jewish leaders in London would never undertake such action, but he would do everything he could.
In early April 1943, Zygielbojm wrote to his brother Fayvel in South Africa, expressing frustration that his efforts had failed and grief for his wife and children, who he presumed had perished. In fact, Joseph had survived and was a Red Army partisan. In that same letter, he wrote, ‘I am tired and almost at the end of my tether… my work seems to be ineffective and just leaves me with an unbearable feeling of helplessness.’ He vented about his political opponents within the Jewish community, writing, ‘According to the latest news that reached me this week, some 300,000 Jews are still alive in Poland, but the slaughter continues steadily. The Zionists are using the martyrdom as part of their fundraising campaign: “another 100,000 Jews murdered, give more money for Palestine”.’
On the same day that the Nazis entered the Warsaw Ghetto to destroy it, American and British diplomats convened in Bermuda to discuss the plight of Jews in Poland. They spent 11 days ruling out any significant action or offers of sanctuary. This political failure hit Zygielbojm viscerally. It confirmed his frustration that those with the power to act lacked the will to do so.
When he wrote his suicide letters, he addressed Polish political leaders—and through them, leaders of the Allied states. He also wrote to the American representation of the Bund in Poland and to two close Bundist friends, Leon Oler and Lucjan Blit. There was one more letter—to his landlady apologising for what she was about to discover.
The Americans who don’t know
In America, older Bundist circles have always honoured Zygielbojm, but beyond that, few American Jews remember him. Irena Klepfisz—a poet, writer and activist—reached New York in the late 1940s. She was born in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941 and hidden in a Catholic orphanage when she was a year and a half old. Her father Michal, who made improvised weapons and smuggled them into the ghetto, was killed on day two of the uprising. Irena’s mother retrieved her after the uprising, and somehow survived together. Irena first encountered Zygielbojm’s story when she attended Bundist ghetto memorials in her early teens. His photo was always there alongside her father’s.
‘His story made an enormous impression on me. I was very young. It was the directness of it. He tried so hard but couldn’t get anything done. The whole thing about suicide is interesting. The uprising was a suicidal mission, but it’s not talked about that way. His was very open. He was very, very clear. The letter is an incredible piece of writing. On a certain level it was very personal—he could not bear to live any longer. He saw everyone he knew [before his eyes]. His wife was probably dead, his children dead… but he didn’t want to waste it. He wanted it to count for something. It was extremely personal and extremely political.’
How London gained a plaque
Szmul ‘Artur’ Zygielbojm’s plaque in Westminster, London.
Yet despite this legacy, Britain’s post-war Jewish community failed to commemorate Zygielbojm in the country in which he died. The grassroots initiative that mounted a plaque for him began in 1991 at a Jewish Socialists’ Group commemoration, with a talk by Majer Bogdanski, a Bundist refugee who knew Zygielbojm in late 1930s Łodz.
Afterwards Majer asked me, ‘Should there not be memorial for Zygielbojm in London?’ ‘Of course, there should be,’ I replied, and promised to help bring this about. Zygielbojm had lived in Westminster, a hard-right Tory council. As chair of the Zygielbojm Memorial Committee, I had to ask them to honour a refugee anti-fascist, trade unionist and socialist. We found a sympathetic council officer and presented her with a list of individuals who endorsed the plan: writers, historians, academics, rabbis and MPs.
Through Bundists in America we made contact with Zygielbojm’s surviving family. His son Joseph, who lived in California, was thrilled by our plan to commemorate his father. But we hit many obstacles. We couldn’t place the plaque on the actual building. This needed consent from the five private households there. We feared one antisemite would refuse. Ironically, the refuser was a Jewish Holocaust survivor afraid that the plaque would attract fascist vandals. The late historian, David Cesarani, failed to persuade him.
Behind the flats was a public garden, which Zygielbojm surely used. We were told that it could not be used for any ‘racial, religious, political or memorial’ purposes. Across the road was a library with a white façade on which the plaque would stand out. The library was keen, but the council informed us that plaques on libraries could only celebrate authors. Zygielbojm, of course, was a factory worker at 10 years old. In the 1930s, his theatre reviews were frequently published in the Folkstsaytung, the Bund’s newspaper, but that did not make him an ‘author’.
The breakthrough came when the council confirmed that the wall at the end of the terrace facing the main road was council-owned, so we could place the plaque there. But there was one further hitch. The whole terrace was due for refurbishment. It would be covered in scaffolding for months, delaying us a further year.
Tragically, Joseph Zygielbaum died that year. But his wife Adele, their two sons Arthur and Paul, and their families flew to London for the unveiling. I spoke of Zygielbojm’s life, his enduring message of practical solidarity with the oppressed, and why no London memorial for Zygielbojm already existed. Zygielbojm cast ‘an uncomfortable shadow over how Britain’s military objectives were prioritised. For the Allies it was a costly victory, for the Jews of Europe it was an irrecoverable loss.’
Perhaps I was being too diplomatic. The truth is that the British establishment colluded in dismissing Zygielbojm’s evidence as exaggerated, down to their distrust or dislike of Jews. It was consistent with their failure to respond to most asylum applications by Jews in the 1930s, or let in more than a pitifully low numbers of Holocaust refugees after 1945.
Esther Brunstein, a Bundist veteran on our committee who survived the Łodz Ghetto, Auschwitz and Belsen, read Zygielbojm’s suicide letter in Yiddish, while Julia Bard of the Jewish Socialists’ Group read it in English. Esther had frequently visited Zygelbojm’s home in 1930s Łodz; she was friends with his youngest son Artek. Adele Zygielbaum, her sons Arthur and Paul, and the Polish Ambassador Ryszard Stemplowski, representing a then more social-democratic Polish government, unveiled the plaque. We then held a reception and celebration of Zygielbojm’s life at a local African-Caribbean community centre.
Sadly, only one of the Bundists who were part of the Zygielbojm committee is still alive today: Wlodka Blit Robertson, daughter of Zygielbojm’s close comrade Lucjan Blit. Aged 11, Wlodka and her twin sister (now in America) were smuggled over the ghetto wall several weeks before the uprising, hidden by the same Catholic family that was sheltering Irena’s father Michal Klepfisz. Wlodka remembers the day the plaque was unveiled: ‘It was so right to do. It was a big occasion. I was very pleased and proud to be part of it.’ She also knew Zygielbojm’s youngest son Artek when the family returned to Warsaw from Łodz. Wlodka’s father Lucjan Blit was one of six speakers at Zygielbojm’s cremation.
Now in her early 90s, Wlodka could not go to Warsaw for this year’s commemorations, but several generations of her family from different countries did attend. I was there too, part of a 7-strong delegation from the Jewish Socialists’ Group, and met Wlodka’s family members on the Grassroots Commemoration on 19 April, organised independently of the official state commemoration. While the presidents of Poland, Germany and Israel gathered with their chosen guests at the Ghetto Fighters monument, protected by snipers on rooftops, our assembly point was by Zygielbojm’s memorial. The cracks in his monument were filled with yellow daffodils. As we gathered, a student choir from a humanist, multicultural school sang the Bund’s hymn, Di Shvueh, and a song of the Bund’s youth movement.
I renewed contact with Zygielbojm’s surviving grandson, Arthur, recently, and asked him what he was most proud of about his grandfather and the abiding message of his grandfather’s life:
His perseverance and strength of character. He was up against incredible odds, and up until the end, he kept trying to get the message out. The information he got must have been uncannily horrible to deal with, but he had to try to convey to others that this was occurring. The very last thing he wrote is a statement of hope, just a very few minutes before he is going to die. This new world will come… he believed that things had to get better.
Arthur is uneasy about Holocaust commemorations that focus too narrowly on ‘never forget’. He says, ‘The unstated part is that there are things we have to remember. We are obligated to help prevent such occurrences in the future, whether to us or anybody else. There have been 15 genocides that have killed 100,000 or more people since 1900. How do we stop that? It is easier to fight the disintegration of democracy when the seeds of disintegration are planted than it is when they have taken hold.’
In the alarming political climate in Europe and beyond, we can remember Zygielbojm by telling his story, sharing his values, fighting oppression, responding to the testimony of refugees, and giving solidarity to all who are fighting for sanctuary, for freedom and equality.Original post