By New Worker correspondent
SZMUL ZYGIELBOJM was a Jewish socialist political activist – a Bundist – in Poland in the 1930s who went on to become a representative of the Jewish community in Poland under Nazi occupation.
His activities meant he had to flee to London where he was a part of the Polish government in exile.
He was a man on a mission, a desperate mission to communicate to the western powers what was going on in the Warsaw Ghetto, in the death camps and what was about to happen with the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and to plead for intervention and for rescue.
But his words fell on deaf ears. Those conducting the war on the Allied side had their own plans and agendas and did not want to hear the horror stories of what was happening to Zygielbojm’s comrades and community.
So he committed suicide as an act of protest, to draw attention to the plight of Jews and others under Nazi occupation, leaving a letter that is a remarkable political statement.
Today he is remembered and honoured around the world for his sacrifice. In May 1996, a plaque in memory of Zygielbojm was dedicated on the corner of Porchester Road and Porchester Square in London, near Zygielbojm's home while in London.
And last weekend, to commemorate the anniversary of his death on 12th May 1943 members and supporters of the Jewish Socialist Group packed into a meeting room in London near Euston Station for a moving evening of memories, poetry and song, chaired by Julia Bard.
David Rosenberg, who had done most of the organising for the event, opened with a brief account of the Warsaw Ghetto and the uprising and Szmul Zygielbojm’s efforts to secure a rescue.
Speakers included two veterans of those terrible struggles. Wlodka Blit Robertson was eight-years-old in 1940 when her family was forced to move into the Ghetto that the Nazi occupiers had created to house all the Jews in Warsaw and others from other parts of Europe.
She spoke of life in that ghetto: the random beatings, shooting and hangings and also the incredible level of social activity inside, with self-help committees, cultural groups – and active resisters.
Communists, socialists, Bundists and anarchists worked together – all sectarianism vanished in the struggle to survive. Food and messages were smuggled in – including information about what was really happening in the “work camps” they had been told they would soon be sent to.
Many children were involved in the smuggling – they could get through smaller gaps – and many were simply shot out of hand if they were discovered.
Wlodka was lucky – her family were able to get her smuggled out with false identification documents – to live with a non-Jewish family on the “Aryan side” of the wall.
The young people on the inside realised that whatever they did they were doomed and decided they would prefer to die resisting and so they organised the uprising, which took the Nazis by surprise but drew down a terrible revenge as the whole area was torched.
Wlodka could see the fires from the outside, knowing her friends and family were on the inside.
“There was billowing smoke; people were running out of buildings and being shot. A woman jumped from the window of a burning building; there were bits of burning paper everywhere. She was shot too. A terrible moment,” Wlodka said.
The family sheltering Wlodka became afraid of being caught harbouring a Jewish child. So the underground resistance moved her to a different family, in a rural area, and did not tell them she was Jewish, though she thinks they guessed.
Esther Brunstein, a survivor of the camps, told the gathering in London of her memories of Szmul Zygielbojm, who was her school-friend’s father when they lived in Lodz.
Robert Szaniawski, the Press Councillor at the Polish Embassy, who also is responsible for Polish-Jewish relations, told the meeting that Szmul Zygielbojm was “a man of honour and a member of the Polish government in exile”.
He recounted the events that left Zygielbojm feeling helpless as all his comrades in Poland were being killed; he wanted to be with them.
Now he is commemorated with a plaque and annual ceremonies in Warsaw. A museum of Jews in Poland is to open soon.
The speeches were interspersed with traditional songs from the Polish Jewish community under occupation sung by Rachel Weston, accompanied by Carol Isaacs on the accordion. Most of the audience joined in and sang along with the familiar strains.
It was a moving meeting, commemorating terrible events but it was never heavy or mawkish but inspiring instead, especially the accounts of the two veteran women who retain their vitality and their humour.
Zygielbojm’s suicide letter
May 11, 1943
To His Excellency The President of the Republic of Poland, Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz Prime Minister, General Wladyslaw Sikorski
President, Mr Prime Minister, I take the liberty of sending you my last words and through your intermediary to the Polish Government and to the Polish people, to the governments and peoples of all Allied States and to the conscience of the world. From the latest reports received from Poland it is clear that the Germans are now destroying with terrible ferocity the remaining Jews still living there.
Within the ghetto walls the last act of tragedy, unprecedented in history, is now being played: The responsibility for the crime of murdering the whole Jewish population of Poland rests in the first place upon the murderers themselves but indirectly it rests also upon all humanity, the governments and peoples of the Allied States which have not yet undertaken any concrete action to stop this crime.
By passively watching the extermination of millions of defenceless children, women and men being tortured to death, those countries become accomplices of the murderers. I also wish to declare that although the Polish Government has contributed to a large extent towards influencing world opinion, it has done nothing commensurate with the scale of the drama now taking place in Poland.
Out of some 3,500,000 Polish Jews and 700,000 Jews deported to Poland from other countries, only 300,000 remained alive in April 1943, according to information from the leader of the underground Bund organisation transmitted to us by the Government's Delegates. And the extermination continues without pause. I cannot remain silent.
I cannot go on living when the remnants of the Jewish people in Poland of whom I am a representative are being eliminated. My comrades in the Warsaw ghetto died with arms in hand in their last heroic stand. It was not my destiny to perish as they did and with them. But I belong to them and to their mass graves.
By my death I want to express my strongest protest against the passivity with which the world looks on and permits the extermination of the Jewish people. I know how little human life means in our times but since I could do nothing when alive, perhaps by my death I can help destroy the indifference of those who could save, perhaps at the last moment, those Polish Jews who are still alive.
My life belongs to the Jewish people in Poland and that is why I am giving it to them. My wish is that the remnants of the several million Polish Jews may live to see liberation in a world of freedom and socialist justice, together with the Polish people. I believe that there will be such a Poland and that such a world will come. I am certain that you, Mr President and Mr Prime Minister, will transmit my words to all to whom they are addressed and that the Polish Government will immediately take appropriate action in the diplomatic field for the sake of those who are still alive. I send my farewell to everyone and everything that I hold dear and that I have loved.