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Yitzhak Zuckerman

Born in Vilna in 1915, Yitzhak Zuckerman became a member of the Zionist youth movements He-Haluts and He-Haluts ha Tsa'ir at an early age. In 1936 he joined the He-Haluts head office in Warsaw, and in 1938, on the formation of the unified youth movement known as Dror –He-Haluts, he was appointed as one of the new organisation's two secretaries-general. He began visiting Jewish communities, particularly in eastern Poland, in order to organize branches of the movement and youth groups and to spread the message of Socialist Zionism that the movement embodied.

On the outbreak of the Second World War, Zuckerman left Warsaw for the part of eastern Poland that had been occupied by the Soviet Union. He remained there, organizing branches of the underground, until he was ordered to return to German-occupied Poland in April 1940 in order to perform a similar task. Using the code-name “Antek”, he helped to found and edit the underground press, promote the political ideals of the movement, and establish the Dror high school. He made surreptitious trips to many other ghettos, once spending a month travelling throughout the Generalgouvernement visiting cities and towns, such as Lublin, Zamosc, Hrubieszow and Kielce, where he continued to promote the establishment and organization of the movement's branches and cells. Everywhere he encountered the same picture - degradation, depression, helplessness.

On 24 April 1941, whilst he attended a meeting of a Zionist collective in the Warsaw Ghetto, the Germans arrested Zuckerman together with 100 other activists. They were transported to a camp in the Kampinos forest to dig canals and drain swamps. In his evidence at the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Zuckerman described conditions in the camp:

“I think up to ten people died daily, together with those who were shot because they were suspected of being about to escape… I encountered death from starvation there for the first time. People were talking amongst themselves and suddenly one of them, without any warning, would die. And I was thinking all the time how I was going to die. But I was younger, possibly also stronger, and I did not die of starvation.”

After a few days in the camp, a courier was sent to seek out Zuckerman. She was Lonka Pozhivieska (Kozibrodska), a Jewish girl who had been deported from Pruszkow to Warsaw. She was posing as a non-Jewish Polish girl, but she quickly aroused the suspicion of the guards. Zuckerman continued:

“I was taken away for interrogation… they wanted to know whether she was a Jewess or not. Since I knew that she did not have the badge, that she had come without it, I argued all the time that she was a non-Jewess; we had studied together at school and obviously she had got to know about [my arrest] and had come [to see me]. Afterwards they accused me of `Rassenschande' (Race Defilement), because she was not Jewish. They said they were going to execute me.”

Zuckerman was not executed. Instead he was placed in a pit full of water:

“Towards morning I was taken out in front of the whole camp, and the camp commandant announced roughly the following words: `This man knows when he was born, but he does not know when he will die.' And he promised that for three days and three nights my body would be suspended from the gallows. I stood there and waited for death. But I was taken back to the pit…”

Zuckerman was released from the pit, and eventually, after payment of a sufficiently large bribe, from the camp itself. He returned to Warsaw and began to organize a resistance movement.

As reports reached Warsaw in the autumn of 1941 of the activities of the Einsatzgruppen in the Soviet Union, many Jews reached the conclusion that educational activities were no longer of any value. Instead, it was necessary to plan for armed Jewish resistance. The resolve of Zuckerman that this was the only course of action left open was strengthened when a messenger bearing horrific news arrived in Warsaw in November 1941. His name was Heniek Grabowski. Masquerading as a non-Jew, he had been sent from Warsaw to Vilna by the Jewish community. Now he returned to describe the murder of thousands of the Jews of Vilna at Ponary. Zuckerman was devastated; in his own words, now it was known “that the disaster is total. I am from Vilna myself. I was born in Vilna. I left all of my parents and relatives behind in Vilna. And here he brought this tragic news from Vilna. While still a child, I had played among the trees of Ponary, and here he spoke about Ponary. My Vilna, the Jews of Vilna, were being killed in Ponary, my playground.”

Another bearer of sickening tidings arrived in Warsaw on 19 January 1942. A young Jew from the village of Izbica Kujawska, Ya'akov Grojanowski, escaped from the Chelmno death camp Sonderkommando. After he had eventually reached Warsaw, he provided detailed testimony regarding the camp. The 28 March 1942 issue of the underground newspaper Jutrznia (“Dawn”) carried the following article:

“… We know that Hitler's system of murder, slaughter, and plunder relentlessly leads to a dead end and the destruction of Jewry. The fate of the Jews in the areas of the Soviet Union conquered by the Germans and in Warthegau signifies a new phase in the complete annihilation of the Jewish population. The gigantic killing apparatus has turned against masses of weak, unarmed, hunger-stricken Jews in the form of camps and deportations… There can be no doubt that Hitler … intends to drown the Jews in a sea of blood. Jewish youth must prepare itself for such difficult days. Mobilization of the vitality of the Jews will therefore begin. Many such vital forces still exist, despite the destruction. From generation to generation, we are troubled by the burden of passivity and lack of faith in our own strength; but our history also contains glorious and shining pages of heroism and struggle. We are obliged to join those eras of heroism…”

Zuckerman was among those who attempted, without success, to form a unified military resistance movement from among the various Jewish underground groups. In spring 1942, Zuckerman joined the short-lived Anti-Fascist Bloc, a largely Communist inspired attempt to amalgamate five different Jewish factions in order to carry out military operations, only for this organization to also rapidly disintegrate. Zuckerman commented:

“On the one side, in the East, it burned and it burned on the other side from the West. Chelmno was in the Warthegau. We were in the middle. Could we think that the fire would not come upon us? In what way were we any better, we the Jews of Warsaw, the Jews of the Generalgouvernement, that they should treat us differently? These were arguments we put forward concerning ourselves and concerning others, concerning the Jewish community.”

When the deportation of Jews from Warsaw to Treblinka began on 22 July 1942, an emergency meeting was held in the ghetto by a group of prominent Jews. On behalf of He-Haluts, Zuckerman proposed that the seizure of Jews be resisted by force, a demand that the meeting rejected. On 28 July, Zuckerman attended another meeting, this time consisting only of the leaders of the youth movements Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa'ir, Dror and Akiva, where it was decided to form the ZOB (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa – Jewish Fighting Organization). Zuckerman was appointed a member of the group's new headquarters, along with Shmuel Breslaw, Josef Kaplan, and Zivia Lubetkin (who was to become his wife). Leaflets were published, stating: “Aussiedlung (Resettlement) means Treblinka, and Treblinka means death”; Jews were called upon to hide. In the final days of the Aktion, members of Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa'ir and Dror met to discuss the grievous events of the past weeks and what the future held for them, as Zuckerman recalled:

“… The words were bitter; words of decision. Jewish resistance will never come into being again after us. The nation is lost. The masses did not place their trust in us. We do not have – and probably never will have – weapons… But this tiny group might yet save us. Let us go out into the streets tomorrow, set the ghetto aflame, and attack the Germans with knives. We will die. It is our duty to die. And the honour of Israel will be saved…

… Despair was the dominant feeling, and that feeling demanded action… The discussion was heated, the atmosphere torrid. But gradually more tempered voices began to be heard. Concrete suggestions were raised. It was a fateful night for the remnants of the Jewish Fighting Organization. We took a vote and resolved to pluck up our courage and rebuild the armed Jewish force. Our remaining strength would be dedicated to that end. No effort would be spared. The fate of January and April 1943 was sealed on that night.”

Disaster struck the ZOB on 3 September 1942. Breslaw and Kaplan were arrested and executed. Zuckerman and the remaining leaders decided to transfer their pitifully small cache of weapons – five pistols and eight hand grenades - to a new hiding place, but the person transporting the arms, Reginka Justman, was stopped by a sentry. The weapons were seized and Justman shot. Completely demoralized, some members of the ZOB proposed attacking the Germans with their bare hands, but Zuckerman, Lubetkin, and Arieh Wilner convinced them to rebuild the shattered force. The leaders proposed that after the Grosse Aktion there would be a lull in the deportations, which would enable the ZOB to obtain further arms and plan an uprising.

In December 1942, the ZOB sent Zuckerman to Krakow, where he participated in an attack by the Jewish underground on the Ziganera Café, an establishment patronized by German officers. In a subsequent incident in Krakow, Zuckerman was badly wounded in the leg and only managed to make his way back to Warsaw with great difficulty. There he was appointed commander of the eight groups of Jewish fighters in the area of the Toebbens-Schultz workshops, one of the three areas into which the underground had divided the ghetto.

On 18 January 1943, the poet Yitzhak Katzenelson paid a visit to Zuckerman's unit and was about to return to his home. After a short while Katzenelson returned, telling Zuckerman that everything was lost, that the walls were surrounded, that massive detachments of Germans were besieging the ghetto and had actually penetrated it. The Germans surprised Mordechai Anilewicz' unit, who were captured by the Germans and marched in the direction of the Umschlagplatz, together with a large collection of other Jews. Upon a signal given by Anilewicz, the members of his unit, who were amongst the ranks of the arrested, attacked the Germans and threw a hand grenade. At first there was great panic. The Germans scattered, and so did the Jews. Zuckerman's group witnessed the entire incident, although they were too far away to participate. They realized from this incident that they could not afford to be drawn into street fighting. Instead, they would adopt partisan tactics and fight in the houses. Zuckerman testified:

“We in our group - those of us whom they didn't manage to capture - fought in the houses throughout two days. The position was such that the group was small, about 40 persons, and only some of them were armed - we were easily able to circulate amongst the houses, on the roofs. And it seemed to the Germans that several groups were operating; in fact they were small units. We obtained arms, we also killed Germans, we also took their arms from them, we obtained both hand grenades and rifles, this was important to us. And the last thing that we received - the faith that we knew how to fight.”

Amazingly, after four day's fighting the German's withdrew. On the last of those four days, the Nazis shot 1,000 Jews in the ghetto streets, apparently an act of pique because the ghetto was no longer silent and submissive.

In April 1943, Zuckerman was ordered to cross over to the “Aryan” side of Warsaw, to act as the ZOB's liaison officer with the Polish underground. He remained on the “Aryan” side for six days without any money or documents. On the morning of 19 April, he arranged for a messenger, Frania Beatus, a girl aged 17, to go to the wall of the ghetto in order to contact a Jewish policeman, a member of the underground, and ask him to pass on the message that Zuckerman was about to join up with a work party that was returning to the ghetto. But at seven a.m. she returned, crying bitterly, and said: “All is lost.” It was too late – the ghetto had been surrounded. On that same day, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began. Beatus said she was going to commit suicide rather than be captured. She kept to her word on 12 May.

Isolated on the “Aryan” side, Zuckerman desperately tried to obtain and supply arms to the fighters in the ghetto. He made contact with members of the Armia Krajowa (Home Army; AK) and the Communist Gwardia Ludowa (People's Guard; subsequently renamed the Armia Ludowa, People's Army; AL), the principal Polish underground military organizations, but apart from receiving a few rifles from the Gwardia Ludowa, met with little success. In the final days of the uprising, after many failed attempts, Zuckerman was one of the team that arranged for some of the remaining ghetto fighters to be extricated via the Warsaw sewers. Later, Zuckerman was to explain the anguished policy of the ZOB:

“… I am almost positive that we could have gotten many more fighters out of the ghetto. But we were afraid to leave so much as a crack open for retreat. Our fear was that we might arouse the notion that a man could save his life even if he did not fight. It was for that reason alone that we did not prepare any `safe houses' on the `Aryan' side, or cars or people who could serve as guides through the sewers… Our hour had come without any sign of hope or rescue.”

Zuckerman wrote to Mordechai Anielewicz and to Zivia Lubetkin in the ghetto. He received a very formal, polite reply from Anielewicz and a very aggressive response from Lubetkin, who complained: “You haven't done a thing so far. Nothing.”. Anielewicz' letter included the following:

“23 April 1943. Shalom Yitzhak. I don't know what to write to you. I'll waive personal details this time. I have only one expression to convey my feelings and those of my comrades. Something has occurred which is beyond our wildest dreams. Twice the Germans fled from the ghetto. One of our squads held out for 40 minutes, and the second - for more than six hours. The mine which had been buried in the brush makers' area exploded. On our side only one victim has so far fallen: Yehiel, he fell as a heroic soldier beside his machine gun.

“When the news reached us yesterday, that members of the P.P.R. attacked the Germans and that the Schweitz radio station broadcast the wonderful news about our self-defence, I had a feeling of completeness. Although we still have much work to do, everything that has been done so far was done to perfection.

“The general situation: All the workshops in the ghetto and outside it were closed, except for “Werterfassung,” “Transavia” and “Dering.” Regarding the situation with Schultz and Toebbens, I have no information. Communications have been cut off. The workshop of the brush makers has been in flames for three days. I have no contacts with the units. There are many fires in the ghetto. Yesterday the hospital was burning. Whole blocks of buildings are in flames. The police has been disbanded, except the “Werterfassung.” Schmerling surfaced and has reappeared. Lichtenbaum has been released from the Umschlag. Not many people have been taken out of the ghetto. This is not the case with the “Shops.” I don't have details.

By day we sit in our hideouts. From evening we change to the partisan method of activity. Three of our units go out at night - with two objectives: armed patrols and obtaining arms. You should know - a revolver is of no value, we have hardly made use of it. What we need are: grenades, rifles, machine guns and explosives. I cannot describe to you the conditions under which Jews are living. Only a few chosen ones will hold out. All the others will perish sooner or later.

Our fate has been sealed. In all the bunkers where our comrades are hiding, it is impossible to light a candle at night for lack of air...of all our units in the ghetto only one man is missing: Yehiel. Even this is a victory. I don't know what else I should write to you. I can imagine to myself that you have one question after another, but this time please let this suffice. Be well, my friend, perhaps we shall meet again. The main thing: the dream of my life has been fulfilled. I was privileged to see Jewish self-defence in the ghetto in all its greatness and magnificence. Mordechai.”

With the final suppression of the uprising, Zuckerman remained in “Aryan” Warsaw, and together with others who had managed to escape, became active in the movement known as the Jewish National Committee (Zydowski Komitet Narodowy; ZKN). This movement provided assistance to Jews who were in hiding, as well as maintaining contact with Jews incarcerated in certain of the labour camps, or fighting with the partisans. In March 1944, Zuckerman compiled a comprehensive report on the establishment and achievements of the ZOB, which was forwarded to London by the Polish underground. Zuckerman was also among those who continued to appeal via this channel for the rescue of the little that remained of what was once called “The Jewish Nation in Poland.” At first news items were passed on by the secret radio station that was at the disposal of the AK; later, reports were transmitted by means of airplanes which came to collect the communications of the Polish underground.
On 1 August 1944, the second, National Uprising commenced in Warsaw. About 1,000 Jews, at least 50% of whom were subsequently killed, were divided into three groups and took part in the fighting. Commanding the second group, made up of surviving members of the ZOB, was Yitzhak Zuckerman. Still active, the ZKN published leaflets, one of which, issued on 22 August 1944 under the title A Voice from the Depths”, contained the following:

“And so, Hitler has not attained his objective. And he shall not be able to attain it. The Jewish people lives! Out of 17 million, over 5 million have been exterminated. But the Jewish people of 12 million fights with greater determination and force for its existence and for its better future. The Jewish masses throughout the world share our tragedy with us; they suffer together with us, and are doing all they can to arouse the whole world concerning our situation and coming to our help. They are fighting with great energy and enthusiasm in order to re-establish Jewish life anew and to bring about an economic and social resurrection.

Only one, sole historic compensation can be considered after the flood of Jewish blood that has been spilled: an independent, democratic Jewish State in which the tortured Jewish people will have an unrestricted opportunity for development and productive existence.”

Those Jews who had survived, including Zuckerman and his wife, Zivia Lubetkin, now sought shelter in the countryside or went into hiding in Warsaw. In November 1944, a Polish doctor, Stanislaw Switala, offered a refuge in his hospital to seven former leaders of the ZOB, including Zuckerman and Lubetkin. The long nightmare finally ended in January 1945 when the few Jewish survivors of Warsaw were liberated by the Soviets. Zuckerman now devoted himself to relief work, participating in the revival of the He-Haluts movement and the exodus of Jews from Poland to Palestine in 1946 and 1947 known as the Beriha.
Zuckerman and his wife themselves left for Palestine in early 1947, where they were among the founders of Kibbutz Lohamei ha-Getta'ot (the Ghetto Fighters' Kibbutz) and Bet Lohamei ha-Getta'ot (the Ghetto Fighters' Museum), one of the most important institutions of Shoah commemoration and research. Zuckerman devoted the remainder of his life to these causes until his death in Israel in 1981. He made a brief appearance in Claude Lanzmann's film Shoah, saying bitterly: “I began drinking after the war. It was very difficult… If you could lick my heart, it would poison you.”

Sources and Further Reference:

Gilbert, Martin. The Holocaust – The Jewish Tragedy, William Collins Sons & Co. Limited, London, 1986

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

Gutman, Israel. Resistance – The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston & New York, 1994

Lanzmann, Claude. Shoah – The Complete Text of the Acclaimed Holocaust Film, Da Capo Press, New York, 1995

Zuckerman, Yitzhak. A Surplus of Memory: Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, University of California Press, 1993



Szmul Mordekhai “Artur” Zygielbojm

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 Zygielbojm).”

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 atrocities.

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 alive.'

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 Bund:

“ … 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 little.”

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






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