When I heard recently of an academic researcher questioning the number of Jewish Holocaust victims, I felt enraged, and if I was honest, perhaps a little murderous. But my reaction was misplaced. This was not someone trying to hide, erase or deny Nazi crimes, but someone who thought that actually the iconic figure of six million Jewish deaths may actually be an underestimate. One thing I am sure of is that revised figures should include one Holocaust victim, a Polish, Jewish, anti-fascist, who died far from the death camps that the Nazis established on Polish soil. He died here in London. Yesterday was the anniversary of the death of Szmul “Artur” Zygielbojm, who committed suicide at his Paddington flat on the night of 11/12 May 1943 as the heroic Warsaw Ghetto resistance was finally extinguished. His story was a remarkable one.
A factory worker at 10 years old, and apprenticed as a glove maker at 12, Zygielbojm became a renowned trade union figure in Poland. He was a leading member of the Bund, the Jewish socialist party that was active throughout Poland but especially in Warsaw and Lodz, where, in the 1930s, one in three residents were Jews. At that time, antisemitic, pro-fascist forces flourished in Poland, and the Bund and the Polish Socialist Party-Left (PPS-Left) led the anti-fascist resistance. Zygielbojm helped to organise a half-day general strike by Jewish and non-Jewish workers protesting a pogrom in Przytyk in 1936 in which three people died and many were wounded.
When the Nazis invaded in September 1939, Poland’s right wing political establishment fled, but the Bund and PPS formed workers’ battalions, which tried to repel the invaders. Zygielbojm was central in this resistance. To ensure Warsaw Jews’ acquiescence, the Nazis established a Judenrat (Jewish Council). In November 1939 they commanded the Judenrat to create a walled ghetto. When they heard this decree many Jews descended on the Judenrat building. Zygielbojm, a reluctant Judenrat member, could not convince his fellow councillors to oppose the decree, and resigned. But he seized the opportunity to address the crowd from a balcony, urging defiance: “Don’t go voluntarily to the ghetto. Don’t lose courage. Remain in your homes until you are removed by force.” He was ordered to report to Gestapo headquarters “to discuss important matters”. But instead his Bund comrades hid him, then 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 and attended a meeting of the Socialist International. He shocked delegates with eye-witness reports of the atrocities the Nazis were already committing. But when the Nazis sent their occupying forces westward as well as east, Zygielbojm had to flee once more, eventually reaching America. He told Jewish and labour movement audiences there about the barbaric nature of the Nazi occupation and urged exceptional action to rescue the Jews.
In early 1942, the Polish Parliament in Exile invited Zygielbojm to join their National Council in London. From here he maintained a network of clandestine contacts – Jewish and non-Jewish – relaying detailed information on the tragedy unfolding in his homeland. In May 1942 he received a report from Warsaw Bundists that contained a list of mass murder sites. It estimated that 700,000 Jewish civilians had already died through starvation, shootings and gassing. Zygielbojm released this report to the Daily Telegraph and several other newspapers before giving it to the Jewish press. He believed this would ensure it reached a wide audience. Given the antisemitism that existed among the British establishment, he feared that, had it surfaced in a Jewish newspaper first, there would be many who would question its authenticity.
He sent telegrams to diplomats and political leaders and conveyed information to the general public by broadcasting on the BBC, addressing public meetings, and bombarding the press with letters and information. At a packed Labour Party meeting in Caxton Hall in September 1942, Zygielbojm revealed gruesome facts that, would, in his own words, “make blood curdle in the veins”. 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, whose promising diplomatic career was halted when his country fell under Nazi occupation. Karski smuggled himself into the ghetto to relay messages between underground resisters. In London he handed Zygielbojm a letter from Leon Fajner, a Bundist in the Warsaw Ghetto. The letter 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 promised Karski he would act on this letter.
In spring 1943 Zygielbojm wrote a sombre letter to his brother Fayvel in South Africa. He expressed frustration that his strenuous efforts had failed, and grief for his wife Manya their sons Yossel and Artek, and other close relatives he presumed had perished. He never knew that Yossel had actually survived and was a Red Army partisan fighter.
Two crushing events coincided on 19th April 1943. While Nazi tanks and soldiers entered the Warsaw Ghetto to destroy it and massacre its remaining inhabitants (most had already been deported to death camps), American and British leaders convened the Bermuda Conference where they ruled out taking significant numbers of Jewish refugees. The conference concluded on 30th April. 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. It was the most unequal of battles but the Nazis paid a high price for their eventual victory.
On the night of 11th/12th May, 1943, Zygielbojm gassed himself at his Paddington home. He left letters – one to his landlady apologising for the shock she would experience; others to political leaders and to his Bundist comrades and friends, confirming that his suicide was a premeditated act of political protest:
“I cannot remain silent; I cannot live while the remnants of the Jewish people in Poland, whose representative I am, are being exterminated. 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 … as I was unable to do anything during my life, perhaps by my death 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. My life belongs to the Jewish people in Poland and, therefore, I give it to them. 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.”
Zygielbojm’s suicide was a protest not against the Nazis – he condemned their atrocities daily – but against the allies’ failure to help the Jews in their moment of greatest need. Newspapers across the world reported his suicide. It had a powerful public impact, but the allied governments did not change their policy. Zygielbojm’s son, Yossel, learned of his father’s death when his partisan unit took over a former Nazi base on the River Vrbas in Yugoslavia that same month. A newspaper, the Voelkischer Beobachter, was left behind. It contained an article mocking his father’s suicide.
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 Britain, 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, Jewish Socialists’ Group activists and several elderly Bundist survivors established a Szmul Zygielbojm Memorial Committee to campaign for a local memorial. With endorsements from writers, historians, rabbis, trade unionists and MPs, the committee requested Westminster Council –a notoriously right wing council – to mount a plaque to honour a Polish Jewish socialist and anti-fascist resident.
A young council officer responded enthusiastically but met repeated hurdles. It took three years to succeed. The committee established contact with Zygielbojm’s surviving family. Yossel (now known as Joseph) had settled in California with his wife Adela, also a Holocaust survivor from Poland. They had two sons, Arthur and Paul. Joseph was determined to attend the ceremony. Sadly, he died a year before the plaque was unveiled. But other family members flew over. Adela Zygielbaum unveiled the plaque together with Britain’s then Polish ambassador, Ryszard Stemplowski, in front of 200 supporters. The elderly Jan Karski, still alive then but very frail, and living in America too, sent a handwritten message regretting that he was “not strong anymore” and could not travel, much as he would like to.
The unveiling was followed by a celebration of Zygielbojm’s life at the nearby Yaa Asantewaa African Community Centre, where Paul Zygielbaum spoke movingly of his grandfather’s sacrifice. “Zygielbojm’s sacrifice,” he said, “was not for the Jews alone. His words and deeds embodied vital lessons for mankind about what it means to be a human being. About compassion, dignity, commitment and courage. About the ultimate value of life and of each human culture… with his death he invoked the vision of a world of freedom, justice and peace, in which brutality would have no place… Let us look ahead with determination to the building of a world in which all people can live in peace and mutual respect. This is what Szmul Zygielbojm would have wanted.”
Sadly, only one of the Bundist survivors who were part of our Memorial committee, is still alive, Wlodka Blit-Robertson, whose father Lucien Blit was a prominent Bundist activist in Warsaw. But with the plaque in place, Zygielbojm’s memory here lives on. You can find it on Porchester Road, near the corner with Porchester Square. Go and visit, celebrate his life, reflect on his sacrifice, and rededicate yourself to the struggle for freedom and against fascism wherever it shows itself.
“I didn’t see that coming!” has been the repeated refrain of the last two years. Political shocks and tremors have taken place in several countries, challenging expectations and surprising those who have taken their eye off the ball. Just now, another one seems to have happened that affects the Israel/Palestine conflict, and many activists who have following developments there much more closely than me are unsure how to react.
The most right-wing government in Israel’s history, whose tired mantras that it has no one to negotiate with, that it is the only democracy in the Middle East, that it is constantly faced with existential threats, has just suffered a body blow. But no one died or was injured. There was no rocket or suicide bomb. The weapon on this occasion was a piece of paper. A piece of paper that undercuts Israel’s position and holds out the promise of a more united struggle by the Palestinian people that the Israeli Government continues to oppress. For many years, the fiercely expressed internal political divisions between Palestinian parties and factions have suited Israel well, and historically it had a part in fomenting them. But perhaps the tables are starting to turn.
Israeli leaders always claim that their citizens are in fear of military attack, but they are actually much more frightened of peace than war. There real existential fear is having to account for and face up to the injustices they perpetuate. The most hopeful time for a breakthrough for the Palestinians in recent decades was towards the end of the 1980s at the time of the first intifada – an uprising by all of Palestinian society from the ground up – which engendered a build-up of sympathy and support around the world for a people suffering under a brutal and long-running military occupation. The exiled Palestinian leadership, based in Tunis, played a role, but in many ways this was a locally organised popular grassroots rebellion on the political principles the PLO had helped to establish.
The Israeli Defence Minister at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, famously ordered his soldiers to “break their bones”. His internal opponents on the more explicitly right-wing of the Zionist movement, called Palestinians “cockroaches” who needed to be crushed. But the deep Israeli state had softer, more cynical methods too to disrupt the Palestinian resistance. As the PLO – a secular resistance movement with Muslims and Christians and less religious people in its leadership – grew in stature, despite operating from exile, the Israelis began covertly funding an Islamic religious organisation, led by Sheikh Yassin, to help establish a religious counterweight to the PLO; one that would undermine its ability to represent the vast bulk of Palestinians. Yassin’s organisation eventually developed into Hamas.
It was a risky strategy for the Israelis. As the PLO became more trapped in talks about talks about talks, that were going nowhere, but not wanting to miss out on gaining even a minimal and fragile autonomy within the Occupied Territories, Hamas became something of a Frankenstein’s monster for Israel, developing an increasingly militant and fundamentalist politics. It adopted a charter that did not distinguish between people and governments, or between Jews in the world and Israeli policy makers and military representatives. Indeed the charter, drawn up by one person within Hamas, borrowed from the infamous antisemitic document, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion
As Hamas incorporated terrorism into its methods, the lives of ordinary Israelis and also Jews outside of Israel suddenly became more perilous. But for increasingly desperate Palestinians on the street, with the PLO’s main faction, Fatah, laying emphasis on diplomatic manoeuvres, Hamas’ militant stance became attractive. There was a sense they were actually fighting back, even if Israel greatly exaggerated the threat from their rockets. Israel’s establishment basked in the continued divide, knowing also that Hamas’ conception of the struggle as a religious struggle could not bring political successes against it, and it would be easy to cast it as antisemitic rather than simply anti-Zionist.
There have been several unsuccessful attempts over the years to broker some kind of pact between Hamas and Fatah, but until now there has been a gulf between the aspiration of Hamas to liberate all of Palestine in the name of Islam and the de facto acceptance of two states by Fatah in the name of realpolitik.
Now that Hamas has abandoned its charter, distanced itself from the Muslim Brotherhood, described the struggle as an anti-colonial struggle against Zionism, not a fight against Jews, and now that it has spoken of an aspiration to create an independent Palestinian state in Gaza and the West bank on the pre-67 boundaries including East Jerusalem, and the return of refugees, both it and Fatah are increasingly working on the same page. Both movements remain strongly committed to the welfare of Palestinian prisoners in Israel. The current hunger strike by more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners in Israel, led by Marwan Barghouti, who maintains the traditional secular Fatah philosophy, is helping also to prepare the ground for greater political unity.
Hamas’ move will surely be regarded as constructive by many states around the world, and will increasingly isolate Israel’s apartheid rulers. The Israeli government, which thought that with Trump at the helm, it could get away with more land-grabbing and establishing more new settlements, now has to justify once again on the world stage why it should maintain the occupation, let alone build more settlements. That is a significant gain for the Palestinians. But it is also uncomfortable for large sections of the anti-Zionist Left in the world who are now wedded purely to a single state solution.
I suspect a number of them will denounce Hamas for “selling out”. I’m more relaxed about it. It is the principles of self-determination, equality, democracy, not the number of states, that counts for me. These principles can be fought for in either a one or two states arrangement. I would prefer one state, but a fight for two secular democratic states, to be states for all their citizens on an equal basis, instead of one state, would liberate a large chunk of Palestine, would challenge Israel as an ethnocracy, and still represent a progressive agenda in my book. We need to follow events closely and intervene in supportive ways, but in the coming period it is very important for the Palestinians themselves to determine their mode of united struggle. In a world where currently so many situations are stacked against progressive forces, this is a rare chink of light. There are dangers and traps but, at last, there are also some real opportunities.