This Day in Jewish History

1943: A Polish Suicide to Protest Allied Indifference to the Jews' Fate

Shmuel Zygielbojm gave up his own life as a symbol of frustration at the Allies' inaction in the face of the slaughter of the Jews.

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On May 12, 1943, Shmuel Zygielbojm, one of two Jewish members of the Polish government in exile in London, killed himself, in despair and in protest of the insufficient action being taken by the Allies to end the ongoing German campaign against European Jewry. His death came a few days after he received news that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which had begun on April 19, 1943, had been successfully suppressed by the Germans, and that his wife, Manya, and son Tuvia, had been killed there.

Shmuel Mordechai Zygielbojm was born February 21, 1895, in the Polish village of Borowica (then part of the Russian empire). Growing up in an impoverished family, he left heder (Jewish school) at age 10 to work in a factory that manufactured apothecary boxes, and two years later moved to Warsaw, where he worked a number of menial industrial jobs.

Shortly after the start of World War I, he moved with his family to Chelm, where he became involved in the labor movement. In 1917, he represented Chelm at the first convention of the Polish Bundist (workers) movement. In 1920, he was appointed secretary-general of the Polish Jewish metalworkers union.

By 1924, Comrade Arthur, as he was known in the labor movement, was a member of the Bund’s Central Committee, and was involved in organizing Jewish workers both in Warsaw and later in Lodz. When World War II broke out in 1939, he returned by foot from Lodz to Warsaw, and was now the movement’s senior official. When the Germans occupied Warsaw, he served briefly as a member of the Judenrat, the Jewish council that acted as a liaison with the occupying forces. When the Germans decided on the establishment of a ghetto to house all of the city’s Jews, and demanded that the victims themselves carry out its creation, Zygielbojm opposed cooperating with the order. When his colleagues on the Judenrat voted to respond favorably to the Nazi demand, he resigned from the body, declaring, “I feel that I would not have the right to continue living if the ghetto is carried through.” He also spoke before a large body of some 10,000 Polish Jews outside the headquarters of the Jewish Council and urged them not to voluntarily enter the ghetto.

When Zygielbojm’s activities led to his being summoned to Gestapo headquarters in Warsaw, he went into hiding until the Bund succeeded in smuggling him out of occupied Poland. He went first to France, and later traveled on to the United States, where he worked with the local branch of the Bund and went around the country lecturing about what was happening to the Jews of Poland.

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In 1942, Zygielbojm went to London and joined the Polish National Council, the government in exile, as the representative of the Bund. Although the movement was traditionally non-Zionist, and had tense relations with the various Zionist groups in Poland, after Zybielbojm learned more and more about the actions being taken against Polish Jews, he became committed to cooperating with other Jewish organizations of all political stripes in order to save Jewish lives. He quickly understood that rescuing Jews was not a high priority – neither for the Polish government in exile nor for the Allied leaders with whom they were working. Even when politicians from the Alliance met in Bermuda in late April to discuss the problem of Jewish refugees, they could not agree on raising their quotas for the admission of any Jews who might be able to escape from Europe. This, too, was dispiriting news for Zygielbojm.

On May 11, 1943, Shmuel Zygielbojm addressed a letter to Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz and Wladyslaw Sikorski, respectively the president and prime minister of the Polish government in exile. In it, he explained his inability to “continue to live and to be silent while the remnants of Polish Jewry, whose representative I am, are being murdered.” He backed up his claim by quoting Bund figures suggesting that of the 3.5 million Polish Jews who were alive before the war, and the 700,000 Jews who had been deported to Poland since the start of the World War II, only 300,000 remained alive in April 1943.

He acknowledged, he wrote, that “the Polish Government contributed largely
to the arousing of public opinion in the world,” but argued that “it still did not do enough. It did not do anything that was not routine, that might have been appropriate to the
dimensions of the tragedy taking place in Poland.”

His death, wrote Zygielbojm, was meant to be understood as an act of protest.

At the same time, he sent a cable to Emanuel Nowogrodski, the general secretary of the International Jewish Labor Bund, who was in exile in New York, for the purpose of “[taking] leave and saying good-bey [sic] to all comrades and all people I love.” He expressed his belief that, while his brethren were dying in Poland, “I was unable to save asigle [sic] soul of them Stop I have a debt to pay to all I left behind when escaped from Warsaw in 1940.”

Having heard of the mass suicide of much of the ghetto uprising’s leadership on May 8, he continued, “I cannot survive them,” and thus, “I am going away as a protest against the democratic nations and governments not having taken any steps at all to stop the complete extermination of the Jewish people in Poland. Perhaps my death will cause what I didn’t succeed while alive.”

Zygielbojm committed suicide by turning on the gas in his apartment. His body was cremated, and his ashes placed in a storeroom in a Jewish cemetery in Golders Green, London. In 1959, they were discovered by a surviving son. He arranged for them to be transferred to the United States, where they received proper a Jewish burial – despite Zygielbojm’s suicide and despite his decision to be cremated – in the New Mt. Carmel Cemetery, in New York.