In honour of the 130th anniversary of London’s first May Day march in 1890, there will be blog posts throughout May on this site.
Z is for Zangwill and Zygielbojm
For my final post in this series I struggled to find London radicals whose surnames began with X or Y, but I have found two Zeds – whose roots were much further east than Whitechapel or even Essex.
Israel Zangwill was born in Whitechapel in 1864. His mother was from Poland and his father from Latvia. Szmul Zygielbojm was born in Borowica, Poland in 1895. His life in London lasted just over a year, from late March 1942 until early May 1943, but it was a very dramatic one.
When Zangwill was very young his family moved to Plymouth and Bristol before they
returned to the East End when Israel was 9 years old. They enrolled him at the Jews’ Free School (JFS) in Bell Lane near Spitalfields market (my grandfather went there too, in the early 1900s). Zangwill stayed for many years because when he finished his schooling he became a teacher at JFS.
During his early years as a teacher the demography of the East End changed rapidly with the arrival of a much bigger influx of Jews fleeing persecution and violent pogroms in Eastern Europe. They also suffered discrimination which restricted their options for work and education. Many came as economic migrants seeking better opportunities, as well as political freedom. Initially they huddled within one square mile around Aldgate and Whitechapel.
An acute and acerbic observer of the new scene, Zangwill wrote about this rapidly changing environment. He resigned his teaching post in 1888 to become a journalist on a recently established journal called Jewish Standard.
He went on to write acclaimed novels and plays, his most famous book being Children of the Ghetto, (1892). His writing, which laid bare poverty, petty and major class distinctions, and both the grim and humorous realities of the struggle for life, earned him a title – the “Jewish Dickens”. Biographers describe him as: “angular, tall, gaunt, and bespectacled” a “witty, powerful… speaker”, who was “eccentric in some respects … giving the appearance of brusqueness, sometimes bordering on rudeness.”
His overt political radicalism was expressed through feminism and pacifism and a complicated engagement with Jewish nationalism. In 1903 he married Edith Ayrton, a feminist writer active in the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, and later the more militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU – Suffragettes). She noted: “… as I am unable to be militant myself, from reasons of health, and as I believe most fully in the necessity for militancy, I was bound to give every penny I can afford to the militant union that is bearing the brunt of the battle… the WSPU.”
One difficulty the WSPU faced was promoting their views across a mainstream media dominated by an anti-suffrage male establishment. Women struggled to intervene on letters pages of influential press outlets, which is partly what prompted the WSPU to establish its own newspaper.
But a left of centre cultural elite among male poets, writers and artists, could get their critical views published. Zangwill was a co-founder in 1907 of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage, which wrote letters, campaigned and attended protest rallies. He used his sardonic wit in his campaigning, saying: “A man likes his wife to be just clever enough to appreciate his cleverness, and just stupid enough to admire it.”
He spoke up in defence of militant tactics of civil disobedience but criticised the use of arson, and increasingly, the lack of internal democracy in the movement.
He was committed to absolute equality of the sexes in the fight for a new way of life. He promoted “joint work” among women and men “to foster every noble growth; joint work to make a better world for both.”
His dream of overcoming the world’s imperfections informed his pacifism. He was an outspoken critic of the First World War, and supported the pacifist Union of Democratic Control (UDC), formed in 1914. The UDC which demanded transparency in foreign policies of government. It believed that smaller conflicts between nations only escalated into wider conflicts because of secret military alliances. Transparency would make that less likely to happen.
The UDC was vilified in the right wing press, especially the Daily Express, and some meetings were broken up by soldiers. Zangwill believed that the impulse to war grew from exaggerated nationalism but knew that Germany was not the only culprit. He criticised the peace treaty’s terms at the end of World War1, predicting another more deadly war could follow. He branded the League of Nations, the “League of Damnations”, a body that guaranteed that the injustices of the peace treaty were eternalised.
Zangwill argued that a future war could be prevented by abolishing “frontiers, passports, customs and tariffs”!
During World War one he was especially moved by the symbolic and actual changes brought about in Old Ford Road Bethnal Green, a road which he lived on earlier in his life. The East London Federation of Suffragettes converted a disused pub there, the Gunmaker’s Arms, opposite a munitions factory, into a mother and baby clinic, free milk depot, and day nursery (later a small school run on Montessori principles). They renamed it the Mother’s Arms.
When Zangwill was opening the Second Women’s Exhibition at Caxton Hall In 1916 (a favoured venue of suffragettes) he declared: “…the hope of the world lies in changing the Gunmaker’s Arms to the Mother’s Arms.”
Zangwill was an early adherent of Zionism, from the standpoint of seeking a solution for Jewish people suffering antisemitism in many lands over many centuries. He was friendly with its founder, Theodore Herzl, and helped him to reach a wider public, but a few years later he broke with Zionism – over insistence on Palestine. Zangwill became part of the Territorialist movement that sought a Jewish homeland wherever a safe spot on the globe could be found.
While personally close to many ardent Zionists, he criticised the Zionist movement he had formerly supported over its downplaying of potential conflict with the indigenous population and its willingness to become a pawn of colonial powers. Zangwill also had high hopes that what seemed to many an eternal persecution of Jews, could be overcome through progress in diaspora nations.
In March 1917 he spoke alongside Labour MPs George Lansbury, Josiah Wedgewood and William Anderson, and the left wing libertarian writer, Henry Nevinson, at a rally in London welcoming the February Revolution in Russia that removed the Tsar. Zangwill said: “As a representative of the race which has suffered more than any other from the old Russia, I am very happy on this occasion to add my words of welcome to the new Russia.”
He worked for a world comprised of increasingly cosmopolitan societies, based on equal rights, where nationalism would have diminished influence. But he worried that: “Nationality, deep as life, but narrow as the grave, is closing in on us” and that “religion was giving way to ‘nationality’ as a permanent placeholder for cohesive shared experiences… leaving no space for … more benign forms of group identity.”
Zangwill’s columbarium in London’s Liberal Jewish cemetery bears an inscription he had prepared for after his death: “A man of letters and a fighter of unpopular causes.”
Z is also for Szmul Zygielbojm, an even more strident critic than Zangwill of all nationalism, not least Zionism. Zygielbojm was a leading member of a working class, Jewish socialist movement, the Bund, that was initiated in a house in Vilna (Vilnius) in 1897, in the same year that Herzl founded political Zionism in a more salubrious location in Basel.
One of 10 children from an impoverished family, Zygielbojm was working as a carton-box maker for pharmaceutical supplies from the age of 10. At 12 he was apprenticed as a glove maker. Largely self-educated, he developed a love for music, art, theatre, literature and poetry, but had few outlets to express this early on.
He joined the Bund as a young adult and rose within both the party and the trade union
movement. He became Secretary of the Metal Workers Union and an executive member of the Federation of All Trade Unions in Poland to which Jewish and non-Jewish workers’ were affiliated. In 1930s Poland Jews comprised 10% of Poland’s population but 25% of all the country’s trade unionists.
Fast forward to 1939 and the invasion by Nazi armies. Bundists and Polish socialists helped form workers’ battalions in Warsaw to resist the invaders but Warsaw succumbed after three weeks. The occupying Nazi forces set about discriminating against Jews and physically separating them from non-Jews as a prelude to complete ghettoisation and eventual deportation for annihilation.
After Zygielbojm engaged in an open act of defiance he was “invited” (ordered) to report to Gestapo headquarters “to discuss important matters”. His Bund comrades hid him, then, a few weeks later, organised a daring escape in which he travelled in disguise through Nazi Germany on a false Dutch passport. They entrusted him, though, with a formidable task: to tell the world what was happening to Poland’s Jews and mobilise for their defence and rescue.
Zygielbojm emerged in Belgium at a meeting of the Socialist International. He shocked delegates with an eye-witness report of Nazi atrocities. But when the Nazis occupied Belgium, Zygielbojm fled again, eventually reaching America. He told Jewish and labour movement audiences there about the barbaric Nazi occupation and urged action to rescue the Jews.
In early 1942, the Polish Parliament in Exile invited Zygielbojm to join their National Council in London. So he came here as a political refugee. The one other Jewish delegate to that council, politically dominated by the right but with some more liberal representation, was Schwarzbard, a Zionist with whom Zygielbojm had an antagonistic relationship. Zygielbojm represented the Bund but was, by extension seen as representing Poland’s ghettoised Jews under Nazi occupation. He maintained a network of clandestine contacts – Jewish and non-Jewish – who relayed detailed information from Poland through underground resistance channels.
In London Zygielbojm lived alone in a bedsit in Paddington. His closest contacts in London were other exiled émigré socialists – Polish, Czech, Austrian, German, Belgian, who met within small circles, with some overlap. Among them was Camille Huysmans, a Belgian who was a key figure for émigré socialists liaising with the Labour Party.
Zygielbojm sent telegrams to diplomats and political leaders, broadcast twice on BBC radio (July and December 1942), addressed public meetings, and bombarded the press with letters and information.
At a packed Labour Party international meeting in Caxton Hall, Westminster in September 1942, on the third anniversary of the start of the war, Zygielbojm was the opening speaker. He revealed gruesome facts about the first use of poison gas as a weapon of mass slaughter. Around 40,000 Jews were exterminated in 7 weeks in Chelmno, northern Poland. He asked the audience to “imagine the people who see their nearest ones being dragged away to their death every day.” Each one, he said “knows that their turn must come. The conscience of every person must be shaken; the serenity of those who ignore the facts must be exploded.” He called on people of all nations to “force the Nazi murderers to stop the systematic massacre of a people.”
Three months later, Zygielbojm was visited at his Paddington flat by Jan Karski a remarkable figure in the Polish underground. Karski had smuggled himself into the ghetto to relay messages between underground resisters. In London he handed Zygielbojm a letter from Leon Fajner, a Warsaw Ghetto Bundist, which asked Jewish leaders in the West to go on hunger strike outside British and American Government offices until they obtained guarantees of action to save the Jews. “Let them accept no food or drink, let them die a slow death while the world is looking on… This may shake the conscience of the world.” Zygielbojm knew that Britain’s Jewish leaders would not act on it, but promised Karski that he would do something about this letter.
Two separate events began on 19th April 1943. Nazi tanks and soldiers entered the Warsaw Ghetto intending to destroy it completely and massacre or deport its remaining inhabitants (most had already been deported to death camps). A world away American and British leaders convened the Bermuda Conference where they spent 11 days ruling out taking significant numbers of Jewish refugees. Inside the ghetto, though, Bundists, Communists and Zionists under a joint command, boosted by a small number of weapons received from the Polish resistance outside, fought a courageous three week guerrilla campaign to defend the ghetto. The Nazis paid a high price for their eventual victory over a few hundred fighters aged 13-40 years of age.
On the night of 11th/12th May, 1943, Zygielbojm ingested poison at his Paddington home. He left letters to political leaders and to his Bundist comrades and friends, confirming that his suicide was a premeditated act of political protest:
“My comrades in the Warsaw Ghetto perished with their weapons in their hands in their last heroic battle. It was not my destiny to die as they did, together with them. But I belong to them and in their mass graves. By my death I wish to make the strongest possible protest against the passivity with which the world is looking on and permitting the extermination of the Jewish people … perhaps … I shall help to break down the indifference of those who have the possibility now, at the last moment, to save those Polish Jews still alive from certain annihilation … I wish that the surviving remnants of the Polish Jews could live to see, with the Polish population, the liberation that it could know in Poland, in a world of freedom and in the justice of socialism.”
He also left a letter for his landlady to apologise for the shock she would experience.
In Warsaw today, where the ghetto once stood, an artistic memorial is etched in glass on a building in “Zygielbojm Square”. Montreal has a Zygielbojm Memorial Park. In Israel, a Tel Aviv street is named after him. Here in London, where his life ended, there was no memorial. But in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in April 1993, I helped to found a Szmul Zygielbojm Memorial Committee (which included Bundist Holocaust survivors) to campaign for a local memorial.
We sought and received endorsements from writers, historians, rabbis, trade unionists and MPs, and then requested the notoriously right wing council Westminster Council to mount a plaque honour a refugee Polish, Jewish, socialist, anti-fascist resident.
A young council officer responded enthusiastically but met repeated hurdles. It took three years to succeed in mounting the plaque. When Zygielbojm committed suicide he believed that all his immediate family had been wiped out. But one son Yossel (Joseph) survived, fought as a Red Army partisan, and settled in California after the war with Adela, also a Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivor.
Sadly, in those three years in which we worked to get a plaque mounted, Yossel died, but Adela and other family members came for the ceremony. They unveiled the plaque together with the Polish ambassador, Ryszard Stemplowski, in front of a crowd of 200 people. The elderly Jan Karski, living in America too, and a close friend of Zygielbojm’s surviving family, sent a moving handwritten message regretting that he was “not strong enough” to travel, but assuring us of his joy that Zygielbojm would be finally honoured here in London.