“Did kill himself while the balance of his mind was disturbed,” the Coroner’s report reads, identifying the cause of death as: “Sodium Amatol poison (self administered).” The words are detached and clinical, for that is the nature of such documents. Their tone stands out all the more by contrast with the other objects in the display case, including the broken eyeglasses of the deceased, and above all, the suicide note:
I am taking the liberty of addressing to you, Sirs, these my last words, and through you to the Polish Government and the people of Poland, and to the governments and people of the Allies, and to the conscience of the whole world:
The latest news that has reached us from Poland makes it clear beyond any doubt that the Germans are now murdering the last remnants of the Jews in Poland with unbridled cruelty. Behind the walls of the ghetto the last act of this tragedy is now being played out.
The responsibility for the crime of the murder of the whole Jewish nationality in Poland rests first of all on those who are carrying it out, but indirectly it falls also upon the whole of humanity, on the peoples of the Allied nations and on their governments, who up to this day have not taken any real steps to halt this crime. By looking on passively upon this murder of defenseless millions tortured children, women and men they have become partners to the responsibility.
I am obliged to state that although the Polish Government contributed largely to the arousing of public opinion in the world, 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. . . .
I cannot continue to live and to be silent while the remnants of Polish Jewry, whose representative I am, are being murdered. My comrades in the Warsaw ghetto fell with arms in their hands in the last heroic battle. I was not permitted to fall like them, together with them, but I belong with them, to their mass grave.
By my death, I wish to give expression to my most profound protest against the inaction in which the world watches and permits the destruction of the Jewish people. . . .
The suicide, on May 12, 1943, of Szmul Zygielbojm, the Bundist (General Jewish Workers’ Federation) member of the Polish National Council in London, nowadays features in virtually any history of the Ghetto Uprising or Holocaust in Poland. It was therefore an unforgettable moment when, several years ago, I finally laid eyes on the original letter and accompanying historical artifacts, in the New York Museum of Jewish Heritage, of all places. (How they ended up there is a tale in itself.)
It seems the story has been with me most of my life
It seems the story has been with me most of my life, so I have to stop and ask myself when and where I first encountered it: presumably in one of my early bouts of Holocaust history-reading in high school—presumably, again, in the old pioneering Jewish Publication Society Anthology of Holocaust Literature (1969) that I discovered in the synagogue library. My father, who had met Zygielbojm, spoke occasionally of the episode, but that was later on, for reasons that will become clear.
The fact that Zygielbojm’s suicide is today so well known makes it all the harder to imagine in context. Premier and General Władysław Sikorski, speaking for the Government-in-Exile, praised the Bundist representative as “one of the great patriots,” who “died like a soldier at his post.” Still, it took some time before it became clear that the suicide was a political statement rather than an act of personal desperation. And even then, as Bernard Wasserstein observes, “although Zygielbojm’s death was widely reported in the [British] press, the motive behind it received little notice.” To be sure, in June, the New York Times printed the suicide note in full, concluding: “That was the letter. It suggests that possibly Szmul Zygielbojm will have accomplished as much in dying as he did in living.” It was a vain hope.
One of the factors contributing to his despondency had been the Anglo-American Bermuda Conference on refugees (April 19-29), which began on the day that the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt broke out. Conceived in response to public pressure to do something to save the Jews of Europe, it was in fact designed to deflect that pressure by giving the appearance of doing something. Critics denounced the meeting as “sad and sordid,” “not only a failure, but a mockery,” and a “fiasco,” carried out by delegates “acting as undertakers” rather than rescuers.
liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto . . . Suicide of Sz. Zygielbojm . . . Bermuda fiasco
My father, who was serving in the Polish Army in Scotland at the time, closely followed the course of the war and emerging news of the Holocaust—for which there was as yet no name. His terse diary entries at this juncture read:
New of the liquidation of the Warsaw
– 12/5. – Suicide of Sz. Zygiel-
bojm – test of emotions
world opinion –
In an eerie coincidence, the next month, the US socialist Zionist journal Jewish Frontier happened to focus on that very same triad and concluded: “The Warsaw ghetto has been ‘liquidated.’ Leaders of Polish Jewry are dead by their own hand. And the world which looks on passively is, in its way, dead, too.”
It is hard to imagine what could have been more dispiriting than the news of Zygielbojm’s death and its utter lack of impact.
Perhaps only this.
The Poles in Galashiels greeted the news of his suicide with glee
When I was growing up and beginning to take an interest in history, my father told me about Zygielbojm’s suicide. But it was not until many years later that he told me of the context in which he experienced it. In his reminiscences, he wrote:
When the news about the death camps became known, Zygielbojm tried to alert the Western leaders, and to get some help but to no avail. He then committed suicide. The Poles in Galashiels [where my father was stationed with the 24th Lancers as part of the First Armoured Division] greeted the news of his suicide with glee and were jubilant about the extermination and the German handling of the Jews.
It was but part of a pattern of endemic antisemitism in the Polish Army. As he explained:
We had two Jews in the Polish Parliament in exile (Dr. I. Schwarzbart, and Szmul Zygielbojm), and a Jewish Army chaplain. We talked to them on our visits to London about the conditions in the Army, they tried to do something about it but it did not bring any changes.
It was, as I wrote in my recent piece, the accumulation of incidents such as these, along with the daily discrimination, and even death threats, which finally drove my father and over 200 comrades—or nearly one third of the Jews in the Polish Forces in the UK—to leave their units and demand transfer to the British Army in the winter and spring of 1944. The first 204 “deserters” succeeded; the 21 in the group that my father led ended up being arrested and court-martialed.
Ironies abound. It was on May 12, 1944—the first anniversary of Zygielbojm’s suicide—that Polish President Rackiewicz, responding to public pressure, amnestied the 21 soldiers. More ironically still, although Zygielbojm’s desperate and heroic act had no effect whatsoever on Allied policy, it was the court martial and issue of antisemitism in the Army—of which the incident in Galashiels was but one small manifestation—that caused an uproar in Britain and a crisis in the Polish government, which found itself, belatedly, moved to take greater steps to save the remaining Jews in Europe.
As horrifying as the jubilation of the Polish soldiers in Galashiels was, it was not the whole story. The Polish government, as noted, paid full tribute to Zygielbojm. Still, for me, the most moving expression of solidarity was the act of an ordinary individual.
To The Jews
On June 3, 1943, after learning of the crushing of the Ghetto revolt and Zygielbojm’s suicide, Władysław Broniewski (1897-1962), a left-wing poet stationed with the Polish forces in Mandatory Palestine, felt compelled to express his reaction in verse, which he published in a periodical and then a small book in Jerusalem. The earliest English translation that I have come across appeared in the Bundist exile publication, The Ghetto Speaks, in November 1943.
TO THE JEWS
By Wladyslaw Broniewski
To the memory of Szmul Zygielbojm
From Polish towns and cities are heard no cries of despair
For the Warsaw ghetto defenders fell like an army guard.
My words I soak in blood, my heart I drench with tears,
For you, O Polish Jews, a Polish errant bard.
Not people but blood-stained beasts, not soldiers but executioners,
Carry the scourge of death for you, your children and wives.
They choke you in lethal chambers, they slay you in lye-filled cars,
Deriding your helpless mien, as they take away your lives.
You lifted up a stone, to hurl at the cannoneer
Who with precision and skill aimed at you his gun.
Oh, all ye Sons of Maccabees, you too know how to die,
In this hopeless war, four years ago begun.
It should be deeply engraved, in every Polish heart,
That our home was invaded, that our brothers were killed.
That we have been united by the firing squad and Oswiecim
By each nameless grave, and each human heart stilled.
Above the Warsaw ruins, one peaceful sun will rise
When strife of many years will end with victory.
To each man will be given life, liberty and law.
One race alone will rule, of men noble and free.
This early translation, by Christina Swiniarska, is at once studiously “literary” and yet less than poetic.
When I went back to the JPS anthology a few weeks ago, I was struck to see that not only Zygielbojm’s letter, but also Broniewski’s poem, was there. Somehow, I had forgotten the latter and rediscovered it only years later in the course of research. Versions after Swiniarska’s render the penultimate stanza somewhat differently, including a reference to blood shed in common, e.g.:
In every Polish heart these words must be engraved as in stone:
The blood shed unites us, the execution wall,
Dachau and Auschwitz and our ravaged home.
The poem forms the preface and lends its name to The Blood Shed Unites Us (Warsaw, 1970), by Władysław Bartoszewski—one of the heroes of the Polish Underground—which details Polish efforts to save Jews under the Nazi occupation.
Both the jubilant Poles in Galashiels and the solitary poet in Palestine are part of the story and need to be acknowledged as such. History is a severe judge and cannot be willfully selective. But society evolves, and the world today is different. Whatever the verdict of history: the laughter died away immediately, and long after both the mockers and the mourner have likewise died, it is the words of the poet that endure.