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Szmuel Mordekhai "Artur" Zygielbojm
Szmuel Mordekhai "Artur" Zygielbojm

From; The Terrible Choice
Some Contemporary Jewish Responses to the Holocaust

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 for his dedication 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 defence committee that functioned at the time
of the siege and defence 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 the 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." Marek Edelman commented: "The
only member of the Judenrat who had the courage to leave that agency
despite the death penalty for such an act was Comrade Artur (Szmul

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

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
barbaric 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 (he refused to take part in joint action with the
other Jewish member of the council, Ignacy Isaac Schwarzbart), 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.

Zygielbojm strove constantly to bring the plight of the Jews to the
attention of the public and to appeal to world opinion. 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 released this
information to the Daily Telegraph and several other British
newspapers rather than to the Jewish press, in the belief that in
doing so the story would gain a wider audience, who would also be more
likely to accept the authenticity of the report. In a BBC broadcast on
2 June 1942, Zygielbojm 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) That the National Council of the Polish government demand all of
the Allied nations, particularly America and Britain, to immediately
devise a plan of special acts against Germany that will force an end
to the slaughter of the Jews.
2) That airplanes over Germany drop large numbers of leaflets
containing precise descriptions in the German language concerning the
slaughter of the Jews.
3) That the Polish government 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
As a man who represents the unfortunate Jewish population of Poland, I
give you their last appeal for rescue."

Zygelbojm released the text of a speech he had made on 1 September
1942, the third anniversary of the outbreak of war. As he had reported
earlier, 700,000 Jews had been murdered by May 1942. Some had been
shot, some starved, some gassed. 7,000 Jews were being deported daily
from Warsaw. Zygelbojm appealed for immediate help, before Europe
became a cemetery. In another speech broadcast by the BBC earlier that
year, he had said:

"It will be a disgrace to go on living, to belong to the human race,
unless immediate steps are taken to put a stop to this crime, the
greatest that history has known."
Zygelbojm spoke again on the BBC in December 1942, saying:

"If Polish Jewry's call for help goes unheeded, Hitler will have
achieved one of his war aims – to destroy the Jews of Europe
irrespective of the final military outcome of the war."
On 2 December 1942, Jan Karski, a courier from the Polish underground
to the government in exile, met with Zygielbojm in London. Karski
described his first impressions: "(Zygielbojm) had the hard,
suspicious glance of the proletarian, the self-made man who could not
be cajoled, and was constantly on the alert for falsehood. His early
life had probably been severe -- he may have started out by running
errands for a tailor or perhaps had been a street cleaner, I shall
have to be careful and exact, I thought."

Apart from eye-witness testimony about the extermination of the Jews,
Karski brought with him a message from Leon Feiner, a member of the

" … 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 Manya and
his 16 year-old son Tuvia 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 by turning on the gas in his apartment.
He left 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:

"Responsibility for the murder of the entire Jewish population lies
primarily with the murderers themselves, but indirectly humanity as a
whole is responsible – all of the Allied nations and their
Governments, who to date have done nothing to stop the crime… By their
indifference to the killing of millions of hapless men, to the
massacre of women and children, these countries have become
accomplices of the assassins … Of the three and a half million Polish
Jews, no more than three hundred thousand remained alive in April
1943… And the extermination continues…
… I cannot keep quiet; I cannot live while the remnants of the Jewish
people in Poland, who sent me here, are being destroyed. My comrades
in the Warsaw Ghetto have died a hero's death in the final battle,
with a weapon in their hands. I did not have the honour to fall like
them. But I belong to them and to their grave – their mass grave. May
my death be a resounding cry of protest against the indifference with
which the world looks at the destruction of the Jewish world, looks on
and does nothing to stop it…

… 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."

Karski was stunned to hear of Zygielbojm's suicide. "I felt as though
I had personally handed Zygielbojm his death warrant, even though I
had only been the instrument… … Zygielbojm's death did not have a
shadow of consolation. It was self-imposed and utterly hopeless… I
wonder now how many people can understand what it means to die as he
did for a cause that would be victorious, yet with the certain
knowledge that victory would not stave off the sacrifice of his
people, the annihilation of all that was most meaningful to him. Of
all the deaths that have taken place in the war, surely Zygelbojm's is
one of the most frightening, the sharpest revelation of the extent to
which the world has become cold and unfriendly, nations and
individuals separated by immense gulfs of indifference, selfishness
and convenience. All too plainly, it marks the fact that the
domination of mutual suspicion, estrangement, and lack of sympathy has
progressed so far that even those who wish and strive for a remedy by
every possible means are powerless and able to accomplish pitifully

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


Sources and Further Reference:
Berenbaum, Michael, ed. Witness to the Holocaust, Harper Collins, New
York, 1997

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

Hilberg, Raul. Perpetrators Victims Bystanders – The Jewish
Catastrophe 1933-1945, HarperPerennial, New York, 1993

Wood, E. Thomas & Jankowski, Stanislaw M. Karski – How One Man Tried
to Stop the Holocaust, John Wiley & Sons Inc, New York, 1994

Wyman David S. The World Reacts to the Holocaust, The John Hopkins
University Press, Baltimore and London, 1996