Zygielbojm Szmul Mordechaj

Szmul Mordechaj Zygielbojm - Personal data
Date of birth: 21st April 1895
Place of birth: Borowica
Date of death: 12th May 1943
Place of death: Londyn
Occupation: political and trade union activist, member of the Central Committee of the Bund, councillor
Related towns: Krasnystaw, Warsaw, Chełm, Łódź, Bruksela, Nowy Jork

Zygielbojm Szmul Mordechaj, alias "Artur" (1895, Borowica near Lublin - 12 May 1943, London) - Jewish political and trade union activist, from 1924 a member of the Central Committee of the Bund (Polish: Centralny Komitet Bundu), councillor of Warsaw and Łódź.

Zygielbojm came from a poor Jewish family. His father, Józef (Joske), was a teacher and his mother Henie was a seamstress. From 1899, he and his large family (he had 12 siblings) lived in Krasnystaw. There he attended a cheder until the age of 10. He was then sent to school to learn the carpenter's trade. After losing two toes, he worked as a baker's helper to help support his family. In 1907, at the age of just 12, he went alone to Warsaw, where he learned the glove maker's trade. After the outbreak of World War II, he returned to his family in 1914. During this time he became involved with the Bund in Chełm, where he very quickly became one of the more active activists. In 1917, he was sent as a delegate to the first Bund congress (under German and Austrian occupation) in Lublin. In Chełm he married Gołda, a seamstress. The Zygielbojms had two children: a son, Józef Lejb (who survived the Holocaust), and a daughter. During this period, Zygielbojm made up for his lack of education, learning, among other things, the Polish language.

In 1920, he moved to Warsaw. He was elected secretary of the Jewish Metalworkers' Unions (Polish: Związki Metalowców) and also a member of the Warsaw Bund committee. Zygielbojm very quickly became one of the most popular Bundists and representatives of the workers' unions, commonly known as Comrade Arthur. He became known as a great speaker and workers' activist. In 1924, he was elected as a member of the Bund's Central Committee (Polish: Centralny Komitet Bundu). Among other things, he belonged to the Jewish Section of the Central Committee of Trade Unions (Sekcja Żydowska Centralnej Komisji Związków Zawodowych) in Poland. From 1927, he held the position of a city councillor of Warsaw on behalf of Bund. As part of his duties as a councillor, he travelled extensively around the country to familiarise himself with the situation of the workers. His impressions and reflections from his numerous journeys, in which he called for an improvement in the lot of workers and the poor, were described in the Bund press under the alias "Z. Artur”. He published articles in press organs belonging to the Bund, including "Fołkscajtung" (Yiddish, People's Newspaper), and the trade unions of Jewish workers. Until 1930 he was editor of "Arbeter Fragn" (Yiddish, Workers' Issues).

As part of his mission to disseminate books published in Yiddish in the 1930s, Zygielbojm spent a year in the United States.

In 1936, following a decision by the Central Committee of the Bund, he settled in Łódź, where, although officially he held the position of secretary, he actually headed the party committee. At the end of 1938, he was elected a councillor to the city council there.

After the outbreak of war, in September 1939, Zygielbojm escaped from the German occupiers to Warsaw, where he organised Jewish self-defence units in the capital. After the Germans entered, he was arrested as one of the "hostages". For a short time he was a member of the Warsaw Judenrat (German, Jewish Council). As a member of the Underground Committee (Polish: Komitet Podziemny), he was one of those who initiated the underground activities of the Bund. He tried to establish cooperation with Polish socialists. Using the tribune of the Warsaw Jewish Community, he called for resistance against attempts to establish a ghetto in Warsaw.

At the end of January 1940, being wanted by the Germans, he left Poland illegally and travelled to Brussels, where he passed on information about German policy towards the Jews.  From there he went to France, from where, after its capitulation, he reached the United States in September 1940. In New York, he was active in the American representation of the Bund in Poland. He earned his living as a glove maker. During public appearances and in newspaper articles (including in the socialist The Future/Di Cukunft), he informed the world about the situation of the Jews in Poland.

In the spring of 1942, as a member of the National Council of Poland (Polish: Rada Narodowa Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej) on behalf of the Bund, Zygielbojm took up residence in London, where he represented Jewish society and worked on its behalf, alongside the Zionist Ignacy Schwarzbart. He tried to tell the world (for example, during public speeches at conferences organised by socialist parties and meetings with the Jewish community in England) about information he had received from Poland, including from Bundist Leon Feiner, about the extermination of Polish Jews in German Nazi death camps and about the situation in the ghettos. He tried to put pressure on the Government of the Republic of Poland in exile to make the matter of helping Polish Jews as well as publicising their tragedy a priority for the authorities. After meeting Jan Karski, a messenger of the Polish Underground State, who provided information on the extermination of the Jews and the situation in the ghettos, he unsuccessfully appealed to Roosevelt and Churchill, among others, for help.

Zygielbojm's articles were also printed in the underground Bund press in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Upon hearing of the defeat of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, in protest against the world's indifference to Nazi crimes, and aware of his own powerlessness, Zygielbojm committed suicide on the night of 11/12 May 1943. He left three letters: addressed to the Polish president-in-exile Władysław Raczkiewicz and the prime minister of the Polish government, General Władysław Sikorski; to his party comrades; to his brother Fajwel.

His death was echoed in the press in many Western countries. His last will, expressed in a letter to the Polish authorities, was thus fulfilled:

With my death, I wish to express my strongest protest against the passivity with which the world watches and accepts the extermination of the Jewish people. (...) since I was unable to do anything during my lifetime, I will perhaps contribute through my death to breaking down the indifference of those who have the opportunity to save, perhaps at the last moment, the remaining Polish Jews"[1.1].

After the war, the Bund in Poland made efforts to bring Szmul Zygielbojm's ashes to Warsaw. They were to be laid to rest in the Jewish cemetery on Okopowa Street (ul. Okopowa) together with the ashes of other comrades. Ultimately, however, the Bund in America opposed this, explaining that the party had virtually ceased to exist in Poland. Zygielbojm's ashes were not brought to New York until May 1961. In September of the same year, after a solemn funeral ceremony at Carnegie Hall, they were laid to rest in the new Mount Carmel Jewish Cemetery on Long Island.

Martyna Rusiniak-Karwat

References:

  • Blatman D., For Our Freedom and Yours, The Jewish Labour Bund in Poland 19391949, London 2003, pp. 128–150.
  • Cała A., Zygielbojm Szmul Mordechaj, [in:] A. Cała, H. Węgrzynek, G. Zalewska, Historia i kultura Żydów polskich. Słownik, Warszawa 2000, p. 377.
  • Ravel A., Faithful unto Death: the story of Arthur Zygielbaum, Montreal 1980.
  • Rowiński A., Zygielbojma śmierć i życie, Warsaw 2004. 
  • Stola D., Zygielbojm Szmul Mordechaj, [in:] Polski słownik judaistyczny, vol. 2, compiled by Z. Borzymińska, R. Żebrowski, Warsaw 2003, p. 845. 
  • Zygelboim Book, introduction and ed.     I.S. Szwartz, New York 1947.  
  • Zygielbaum F., Der koach cu sztarben (Miszpoche Buch), Tel Aviv 1976.
  • Żbikowski A., Zygielbojm Samuel Artur, [in:] Żydzi w Polsce. Leksykon, J. Tomaszewski, A. Żbikowski (eds.), Warsaw 2001, p. 550.

 

 

 

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Footnotes
  • [1.1] As cited in: Męczeństwo i zagłada Żydów w zapisach literatury polskiej, wybór i opr. I. Maciejewska, Warsaw 1988, p. 323
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