(1895–1943), labor and political leader. Born near Chełm, Shmuel (Artur) Zygielbojm spent his childhood in Krasnystaw. To help support his family, he left heder at age 10 and went to work at a factory. After the outbreak of World War I, he became active in the Bund and before long was assigned a prominent role in the party.
In independent Poland after the war, Zygielbojm became general secretary of the Jewish Metalworkers Union and a member of the Bund’s Warsaw Committee. In 1924 he was elected to the party’s Central Committee. Because Zygielbojm hailed from working-class Polish Jewry, he differed from other party leaders, most of whom had Russian backgrounds, were secularly educated, and had been involved in the October 1905 Revolution. In his new capacity, Zygielbojm focused on unionizing Jewish workers in Warsaw and Łódź, where he arrived in 1936 to coordinate Bund activities and establish a Jewish labor union.
Shmuel Zygielbojm’s last statement before his suicide, 12 May 1943. (YIVO)
Following the outbreak of World War II, Zygielbojm returned to Warsaw, where he was now the Bund’s most senior member. There he set up a Jewish workers’ battalion that united with Polish workers to defend the city. After Warsaw fell, he joined the first Judenrat but rebelled against complying with Nazi orders. Additionally, his high political profile placed him in danger of arrest. In February 1940 he left Poland, traveling first to France and then to New York, where he worked with the American branch of the Bund.
In April 1942 Zygielbojm went to London to serve as the Bund’s representative in the Polish National Council, an advisory body to the Polish government-in-exile. Though (in conformity with the Bundist line) he at first refused to cooperate with Zionist groups in London, he changed his position once news of the mass killing of Polish Jewry reached the West in the second half of 1942. Shocked and pained by the apathy and evasiveness of the British political elite and the Polish government, neither of which placed assistance to Polish Jewry at the top of their list of priorities, he put aside the Bund’s differences with other Jewish political organizations and reacted angrily to pressure from the New York Bund office to continue spreading party propaganda.
From late 1942 Zygielbojm spoke out vigorously against antisemitism and implored the Polish government to instruct Poles to do all they could to help their Jewish fellow citizens, but he soon sensed that his efforts were fruitless. After information reached him about the Warsaw ghetto uprising and the ghetto’s destruction, he determined to undertake a radical act that would shock public opinion and prompt Allied leaders to try to save the remnants of Polish Jewry. In letters addressed to the heads of the Polish government-in-exile, he sharply denounced the free world for allowing what he called “the greatest crime in the history of mankind” to be carried out without taking concrete steps to end it. Then, on 12 May 1943, he took his own life.
Zygielbojm’s tragic death shocked Jewish and Polish circles in London and New York, especially among the working-class organizations. Immediately he became a symbol of Jewish heroism during the Holocaust. Among various political circles in the West, his act focused attention on the fact that the Jews were abandoned to their fate by the superpowers who struggled with Nazi Germany. But ironically, although he was honored in special ceremonies in London and New York, Zygielbojm’s act of protest had absolutely no influence on any attempt to rescue Jews from occupied Poland.
Daniel Blatman, “On a Mission against All Odds: Szmuel Zygielbojm in London (April 1942–May 1943),” Yad Vashem Studies 20 (1990): 237–271; Isabelle Hertz, “Morituri vos salutanat”: Szmuel Zygielbojm’s Suicide in May 1943 and the International Socialist Community in London,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 14.2 (2000): 242–265; Yosef-Sholom Hertz, ed., Zygielbojm bukh (New York, 1947).
Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler