“The sky is cold and silent like the people down below”. Farewell letters from Shmuel Zygielbojm

12.05.2021
Written by: Jewish Historical Institute
On the night of 11/12 May 1943, Shmuel (Szmul) Zygielbojm took his own life, protesting the Allies’ indifference to the extermination of the Jews. He had left three farewell letters addressed to the President and Prime Minister of Poland in exile, to his brother Faivel, who lived in Johannesburg, and to his fellow party members in the United States.
Zygielbojm_list_1_ciemny.jpg

A letter from Szmul Zygielbojm to the Polish president in exile, Władysław Raczkiewicz and Prime Minister Władysław Sikorski, London, May 11, 1943. Below is the entire scan of the letter. Source: Wikipedia

 

In the interwar period Szmul Zygielbojm, pseudonym “Artur”, was one of the most popular Polish members of the Bund party – the leading Jewish socialist party, opposed to Zionism – and a city councilor in Warsaw and Łódź. In 1939, he organized volunteer battalions for the defense of Warsaw. After the capitulation, he was among 12 prominent city residents arrested by the Germans as hostages to secure Hitler's visit to Warsaw. At the behest of the party, he left occupied Poland, leaving his family, and made his way to France, and then to the USA. In 1942, he became a member of the National Council – an advisory body to the Polish government in exile[1].

zygielbojm_zdj_2.jpg [27.85 KB]
Shmuel Zygielbojm. Wikipedia

Despite articles, readings, letters to Prime Minister Churchill and President Roosevelt, in which Zygielbojm tried to draw the attention of Western leaders and public opinion to the extermination of Jews in occupied Poland, he was convinced of his failure. He was also very concerned about the fate of his relatives living under the occupation. In December 1942 – by that time, during the Operation Reinhardt, the Germans murdered almost 2 million Jews in Poland – Jan Karski provided Zygielbojm and the Polish government in exile with information from his missions in occupied Poland, including observations in the Warsaw ghetto and the transit ghetto in Izbica. Karski recalled:

Zygielbojm was waiting for me. He was sitting behind a modest desk in an ordinary office chair. He looked tired. He was the type quite often found among Jewish leaders. His eyes were sharp, suspicious. It was hard to bear his gaze. He was clearly immune to flattery. He had the appearance of a typical proletarian who made his way into the power elite. He probably had a hard youth. (...)

"My name is Zygielbojm," he began. “You know who I am and what I do here. I, in turn, know who you are and what you are coming with. Please tell me about the Jews. I want to know as much as possible about their fate.” (…) [2]

Karski also conveyed to Zygielbojm the desperate requests of representatives of Jewish political parties – including Leon Fajner, Bund activist and a member of "Żegota", the the Polish Council to Aid Jews – with whom he met in Poland. They speculated if the Allies could conduct retaliatory bombing of Germany and if people like Zygielbojm could start a hunger strike to draw the world's attention to the fate of the Jews. However, they predicted that the Allies would do nothing.

“It is impossible! Completely impossible! Do you know what would happen if Zygielbojm began a hunger strike? They would send two policemen to take me to the hospital. Do you think anyone would allow such a demonstration? Nonsense!” – he shouted. (...)

The meeting was over. I was exhausted. My interlocutor was probably in even worse condition. The nervous twitch in his cheek continued. We shook hands. He was staring straight at me.

“I'll do my best. I will do what they ask me to do. If only I can…” [3]

In Warsaw, a square at the intersection of Zamenhofa and Lewartowskiego Streets in the former Warsaw Ghetto was named after Zygielbojm. In 1997, a monument was unveiled there. In 2008, a plaque commemorating Zygielbojm was unveiled in Chełm, on the façade of the tenement house at Mickiewicza Street, where he lived.

 

Below we present – with some abbreviations – the last three letters of Shmuel Zygielbojm.

 

Zygielbojm_list_1.jpg [890.77 KB]

Letter to President Władysław Raczkiewicz and to Prime Minister Władysław Sikorski, The Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum – London.

Mr. President,

Mr. Prime Minister,

Please allow me to address my last words to you. And through you, to the government and people of Poland, to the Allied governments and nations, and to the conscience of the world.

(…)

I can neither be silent nor live when the last remnants of the Jewish people, who 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.

My life belongs to the Jewish people in Poland, so I give it to them. I wish for that handful which remained from a several-million community of Polish Jews to see the liberation together with the Polish people, to breathe in a world of socialist freedom and justice, to compensate for all their inhuman suffering. I believe such Poland will emerge, and that such a world will come.

I believe that the President and the Prime Minister will pass my words to everyone to whom they are addressed, and that the Polish Government will take diplomatic and propaganda steps to save the last remaining Polish Jews from destruction.

I bid farewell to everyone and everything I held dear and loved.

S. Zygielbojm

 

Farewell letter from Shmuel Zygielbojm to brother Fajwel

11 May 1943

It is a quiet April night in 1943. I am walking among people in the streets of London. In the passersby brushing against my clothing I see shadows from the Warsaw Ghetto. They are all around me… Why did I leave them? I was there with them. Why am I not there now, in their last struggle? Why am I not fighting by their side on the ruins of the wall in Warsaw? Why am I not lying crushed with them? What have I achieved? Have I saved even a single Jewish child from a terrifying death? I am standing, dejected, with a shattering sense of powerlessness… I cry into the dead of night: O, deaf world! Save them! Save them! In Poland they are murdering Jews, men, women, old people, children...

All the joy in me is stamped out. A sadness, round like the full moon, wraps around me. I look at the tattered clouds, and in them, too, I see the shadows of barbed wire… I recognize the faces of my dear friends.

No shadow passes me twice, it is a different one each time… My God… So many… the whole Jewish world… I have seen them fight, proud Jewish laborers and working people. I have seen them in the labor unions, at meetings, at popular parties and demonstrations on May 1. Today their shadows rush past me and through me as ragged clouds, each demanding a squaring of accounts…

The sky is cold and silent like the people down below… Indifferent to our tragedy, each night they go to sleep in their warm beds. It slashes my heart and mind like a sword. Their life in agony, their death, is a disgrace for everyone in this world, and no one is ashamed?

O if I had the strength, I would cleave the sky, shake the earth, and scream... It is already past midnight and I am still at my reckoning... A wind breaks out and the shadows keep speeding past...

In Leicester Square a drunk man is singing a sad song.

And I, a Jew, representative of the Jewish proletarian masses in Poland, am also singing my song:

“Brother, we’ve made a pact for life and death...”

My life belongs to the Jewish people in Poland and that is why I am giving it.

 

Farewell letter from Shmuel Zygielbojm to Leon and Lucjan Blit, his colleagues from the Bund party

11 V [19]43

My dear Leon and Lucjan,

I’d like to ask both of you to forgive me worries and troubles which I bring you. It’s late, and there’s no time for long explanations or for sentimentalism. I bid farewell to you, I send you my love to you – the only of my friends to be so kind, you were my life, you were there. I’m certain you will understand everything without further explanations. My comrades from New York and from Poland (if they manage to survive me – what a joy and relief would it be to believe that it’s possible!), will understand me too. I don’t write a separate letter to my comrades from New York; I’m already very, very tired. I see all of our loved ones in front of me and I rejoice with everyone who remains alive. Love to both of you.

I leave my letters to the President, to Prime Minister, to [Stanisław] Mikołajczyk [Polish deputy prime minister and minister of internal affairs] and to [Stanisław] Kot [Polish minister without portfolio]. I’m leaving also the facsimiles. Please send copies immediately to New York and to the PPS [Polish Socialist Party]. Please send them also to be translated to English, and pass to: dr Wolf from Manchester Guardian, Freeman from the Times, […] from the Labour Party, and to Hausman.

My dearest, don’t spend time grieving, but rather take care of immediate actions to save Jews who still live in Poland.

I’m leaving a signed telegram, please send it immediately to New York. This is my last farewell to all my friends.

Dear Leon, I’m leaving to you 50 pounds and a check signed with your name. Please withdraw money from my account (I don’t know how much is left there). May it be my inheritance for my loved ones.

My dear friends, if either of you sees Manya or any of my children, please tell them that I couldn’t forgive myself that I’d left them.

Love and thanks

Your Z. Artur.

 

P.S. In the Ministry of Finance, there are signed with my name:

500 dollars for our work here,

3000 dollars for comrades from Poland.

Leon, please move into my flat. I will write to my landlady about it.

 

 

Footnotes:

[1] Basic information about Szmul Zygielbojm after Dariusz Stola, Zygielbojm Szmul Mordechaj, https://delet.jhi.pl/pl/psj?articleId=15050, access 10.05.2021 r.

[2] Jan Karski, Tajne państwo [Secret State], edited by Waldemar Piasecki, Warszawa 1999, p. 253.

[3] Ibid., p. 254.

Jewish Historical Institute