Advocate for Imperiled Polish Jewry

Szmul Zygielbojm

Born in Borowica (near Chełm) but raised in Krasnystaw, Szmul-Mordkhe Zygielbojm grew up in a working class family. Compelled by necessity, he began working at a glove-making factory at 10 years old. He joined the Bund during the First World War and his gift at public-speaking and organizing propelled him to the party’s leadership.

Zygielbojm worked tirelessly for the Bund’s Warsaw Committee and was elected to the Central Committee. Having grown up in dire poverty, Zygielbojm connected with the working Jewish masses and helped the on-the-ground struggle to unionize and coordinate political activity for the Bund.

After the Nazis occupied Poland and began carrying out their plan to ghettoize of the country’s Jews, the Bund had Zygielbojm smuggled out of Poland. As Nazi Germany continued its invasion of Western Europe, Zygielbojm traveled from Belgium to France to the United States, in each place warning fellow Jews and socialists of the dangers faced by the Jews of occupied Poland. In early 1942, Zygielbojm moved to London as the Bund’s representative in the Polish government in exile there, continuing to speak and write about the Nazi destruction of Polish Jewry.

On May 12, 1943, Szmuel Zygielbojm — in utter despair upon receiving the news of the complete destruction of the Warsaw ghetto, in protest at the passivity with which the world was reacting in the face of the ongoing genocide, and in an act of unimaginable solidarity — killed himself by gas in his London apartment.

In his last testament, addressed to Polish president Władysław Raczkiewicz and prime minister Władysław Sikorski, Zygielbojm wrote:

“I cannot remain silent. I cannot live while the remnants of the Jewish people in Poland whose representative I am are being exterminated. “

Let my death be an energetic cry of protest against the indifference of the world which witnesses the extermination of the Jewish people without taking any steps to prevent it. In our day and age, human life is of little value; having failed to achieve success with my life, I hope my death may jolt the indifference of those who, perhaps even in this extreme moment, could save those Jews who are still alive.

—Szmul Zygielbojm (Artur) 12.V.1943

After his death, Zygielbojm’s sacrifice was the subject of poetic tributes from the Polish poet Władysław Broniewski and Yiddish poet Rokhl Korn.