Szmul Mordechaj Zygielbojm (pseudonym „Artur”) was born on 21 February 1895 in the village of Borowica, in Lublin region, as the oldest of eleven siblings. His father Józef was a teacher, and mother Henie, née Pinkier, was a tailor. In 1899, the family moved to the nearby town of Krasnystaw. Szmul was learning in a cheder until the age of 10, but due to his family’s poor financial situation, he began to work in a box factory, where he trained to become a carpenter. After an accident in which he lost two fingers of his left hand, he became a baker’s assistant. Later, at the age of 12, he moved to Warsaw, where he began his training as a glovemaker.
In 1914, he returned to Krasnystaw, from where, on year later, he moved to Chełm. Until 1917, he was working at a military hospital. At that time, Zygielbojm involved himself in local Bund structures and soon became one of the most active members. His rhetorical talent played a significant role. At that time, he started his own family – he married Gołda née Sperling, with whom he had son Józef Lejb and daughter Rywka. In 1917, he became a delegate to the first Bund rally in Lublin – a prognostic for his political career.
In 1920, the Zygielbojm family moved to Warsaw, where Szmul engaged himself in union activity, quickly gaining popularity among Warsaw factory workers. In 1924, he became a member of Bund’s Central Committee (he remained in position until the end of his life), and three years later – a council member of the city of Warsaw. He remained in position until 1933. He also worker as a secretary of the Jewish Department of the Central Commission of Workers’ Unions in Poland and editor of „Arbeter Fragn” (Yiddish for „Workers’ Issues”). In 1929, he married again – with Maria called Mania née Rozen (Rosen). They had a son, Artur. In 1936, the Zygielbojm family moved to Łódź, where Szmul became a secretary of local party organization, and in 1938 – a council member.
When World War II broke out, Zygielbojm returned to Warsaw, where he engaged himself in organizing Jewish workers to join Warsaw Workers’ Defense Battalions. When Germans entered the city, he found himself among twelve hostages — „outstanding citizens”, who were supposed to secure the conditions of capitulation.
During the German occupation, Zygielbojm, as a member of the Central Committee, was among organizers of secret Bund activities in Warsaw. For a short time, he belonged to the Warsaw Judenrat (German for „Jewish council”). But when the idea of creating a ghetto in Warsaw emerged for the first time in November 1939, Zygielbojm strongly opposed this concept, calling for resistance, and as a sign of protest, he gave up his membership. Public resistance and political activity put him in danger of arrest, so – following encouragement from fellow party members – he fled from Poland to Brussels, where he spoke out for the first time about the reality of the German occupation in Poland. In Spring 1940, after the takeover of Belgium by Germans, he found shelter in France, and after France’s capitulation, he arrived in the United States in September 1940. Szmul Zygielbojm’s family remained in Poland.
In New York, Zygielbojm immediately joined the activities of Bund’s American Representation. He travelled a lot, giving speeches about the Jewish community’s difficult situation in occupied Poland. He remained in contact with his family, who remained in the Warsaw Ghetto. His wife Maria became involved in Bund’s activities, working in the reopened Włodzimierz Medem sanatorium in Miedzeszyn. She managed to find a place for her son Artur in the sanatorium.
In February 1942, Zygielbojm became a member of the National Council of Poland in London – an advisory organ of the Polish government in exile. From that moment on, Zygielbojm was trying to alert the world about the Holocaust of Jews in occupied Poland. From Polish the underground movement and from Jewish organizations in Poland (from Bund member Leon Feiner and others), he was receiving reports informing about the scale and development of the extermination. He was particularly impacted by the report from May 1942, which described mass extermination of the Jewish population and including a list of locations, in which the killings were taking place. The report estimated the number of murdered Jews at 700 thousand. Zygielbojm passed the information to the British press, such as „The Daily Telegraph”. Soon afterwards, BBC radio broadcast a program in which said number was mentioned. A few weeks later, Zygielbojm shared further details from Bund’s report (which was the main source of information at that time) on BBC radio.
In December 1942, he met Jan Karski, who passed to him a dramatic message from his fellow party members in Warsaw. Leon Feiner told the courier to repeat following words: „The Jews are dying. There will be no more Jews. What is the point of Jewish leaders? Let them go to the most important leaders, the leaders of the Allies. Let the demand. If they refuse, let them go. Let them remain outside. Let them refuse drink. Let them refuse food. Let them die. Let them die a slow death. Let the humankind watch. Maybe this will move their conscience”.
Zygielbojm tried to gain political support from Polish and Western politicians. He send telegrams to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. He demanded launching a revenge campaign against the Germans, but the only thing he managed to achieve were reassurances about compassion and promises to punish the perpetrators after the war. Numerous public speeches during the Labout Party rallies, published brochures and media appearances proved to be insufficient.
At night, between 11 and 12 May 1943, when the last fighters were being murdered in the Warsaw Ghetto, Zygielbojm committed suicide. He left three farewell letters addressed to: his brother Fajwel, who lived in Johannesburg, fellow party members in the United States, the President and Prime Minister of Poland (in exile). In the last letter, he wrote:
„I can neither be silent nor live when the last remnants of the Jewish people, whose I represent, are being killed. My comrades in the Warsaw Ghetto have fallen with guns in their hands, in their last heroic struggle. I wasn’t given the chance to die like them, together with them. But I belong with them, in their mass graves. Through my death, I wish to express my deepest protest against inaction with which the world is watching and permitting destruction of the Jewish people. I am aware how little human life means, especially now. But since I couldn’t achieve it in my lifetime, perhaps my death will shake from lethargy those who can and who should act now, in order to save, in the last possible moment, this handful of Polish Jews who still remain alive.”
Zygielbojm’s suicide was one of the most dramatic protests against the silence and inaction of the world in the face of the Holocaust. It was also an act of solidarity with people murdered in the Warsaw Ghetto. The Bundist believed that he will manage to draw the attention of politicians and the democratic societies to the tragedy happening in an occupied country. He wanted to force them to take steps which would save those Polish Jews who still remained alive.
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