On 9th May 2018, I spoke at a seminar organised by PUNO – the Polish University Abroad – to mark the 75th anniversary of the suicide as political protest of the Polish Jewish socialist and anti-fascist Szmul ‘Artur’ Zygielbojm. My paper was about “The Struggle to Memorialise Zygielbojm in London”
In April 1991 I was chairing a meeting organised by the Jewish Socialists’ Group in London, to commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Our speaker was one of our older members, Majer Bogdanski, born in Piotrkow Poland in 1912. We had asked Majer to speak specifically about his comrade Szmul Zygielbojm. Majer recounted Zygielbojm’s life up to his escape from Poland with a mission to tell the world what was happening under Nazi occupation. He then described Zygielbojm’s crucial work in London between 1942 and 1943 when he served on the Polish National Council in Exile, how Zygielbojm bombarded political leaders, diplomats and the press with first-hand information from the ghettoes collected through underground resistance networks, until his final courageous act of suicide as political protest, prompted by two simultaneous events: the failure of American and British politicians and diplomats to offer any plan for rescue and refuge of Jews being slaughtered in Poland, and the news that the incredible Warsaw Ghetto Uprising had finally been extinguished.
Majer came to Britain as a refugee in 1946 and lived in East London till he died in 2005. He and Zygielbojm had been active in the same left wing organisation– the Jewish Workers’ Bund – in Poland. in Lodz, in the late 1930s, Majer saw Zygielbojm almost every day.
In 1991, ours was the only Jewish group in Britain that identified itself closely with the Bund’s political philosophy. Today, as both the left of the Jewish community and further right wing are both growing, there are other Jewish groups such as Jewish Voice for Labour and a younger group jewdas, who openly embrace some key Bundist ideas.
The Bund was secular, socialist, committed to Yiddish culture, and to full equality for minorities. It was thoroughly anti-nationalist – especially territorial nationalism – so it was a strong opponent of Zionism. The Bund believed that Jews should strive for equal rights in the lands where they lived. Its slogan in Yiddish was: “Dortn vu mir leben, dort is undzer land” – There, where we live, that is our country.
In the 1980s/90s, the JSG held annual meetings to commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and Majer often spoke. We ourselves only become familiar with the details of Zygielbojm’s story in the early 1980s. We wrote about him in the second issue of our magazine, Jewish Socialist, in 1985, to inform a wider Jewish and non-Jewish public.
The audience at our meeting in 1991 were captivated not only by Zygeilbojm’s dramatic story, but also by the authenticity of Majer’s delivery as someone who had personal recollections of Zygielbojm. As the meeting formally closed and people stood chatting, Majer asked me: “Should there not be some kind of memorial to Zygielbojm in London?” I said, “Of course there should, and I will do what I can to make it happen.” Some time later, I was speaking with another Bundist, Esther Brunstein, who used to visit Zygielbojm’s home in Lodz as a child – her best friend at school was one of Zygielbojm’s children. Esther told me that a visiting Canadian professor of Yiddish had asked her recently whether there was any memorial for Zygielbojm here. (There is a prominent memorial for Zygielbojm in a park in Montreal)
How odd it is that a person who had committed such a dramatic act of self-sacrifice in London, as a political protest during the Holocaust, had not already been commemorated here, and remained barely known even within Britain’s Jewish community. But that reflects the dominant narratives within that community that were established by the early 1950s.
Zionism had been a small minority opinion within Jewish communities everywhere
before the second world war and found more traction among the middle class when many Jews were working class. By the mid-1950s the social class formation of Jews was definitely changing making them more amenable to it, but the two biggest factors were the Holocaust, which wiped out so many of the people who believed in diaspora, and also the terrible situation after the war, where hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors languished in DP camps with no country wanting to take them. Zionists who organised within DP camps, persuading people of the possibilities of reaching Palestine, won sympathy for their position among Jews in Britain and elsewhere. In Zygielbojm’s last letter to his brother Fayvl in April 1943, he excoriated Zionists for “exploiting the Jewish tragedy for their political ends”, paraphrasing their spokespersons: “Another 100,000 Jews murdered. Give more money for Palestine.”
Within Jewish youth and educational organisations here, the Zionist narrative about the precariousness of diaspora, of redemption and security through Israel, became hegemonic. Their telling of the Warsaw Ghetto resistance – in which Bundist and communist anti-Zionists and non-Zionists fought alongside left-wing Zionists in a united Jewish fighting organisation – elevated the role of Zionists fighters and conveniently airbrushed out the communists and Bundists, and Zygielbojm.
Very few Holocaust survivors were allowed to settle in Britain compared with other western European countries or the US and Canada, but there was a group of around 25 Bundists and children of Bundists in London shortly after the war. They lived mainly within its poorer quarter – the East End. Many joined the Labour Party, and were active in local Yiddish cultural groups.
There was no Holocaust memorial in London at all until 1983. The Holocaust Education Trust was founded in 1988 and their focus was on education packs, exhibitions, schools work rather than physical memorials. The Holocaust Galleries in the Imperial War Museum did not open until 2000. The statues at Liverpool Street station to mark the kindertransport were unveiled in 2006, so when we we began contemplating a public memorial for Zygielbojm in 1991 this was quite novel.
How did we start? With a meeting of the Bundist survivors in London, their spouses, and a few people in the Jewish Socialists’ Group especially interested in Bundist history.
In 1991, there were four surviving Bundists in London, Majer Bogdanski, Leon Kuczynski – a strong, thick set man – in Yiddish a shtarker – who had been very active in the Bund’s self-defence group in 1930s Warsaw; Wlodka Blit-Robertson – whose father was Lucien Blit, a well known Bundist in Warsaw. Wlodka’s mother was a left-wing Zionist. Wlodka and her twin sister were smuggled out of the Warsaw ghetto a few weeks before the uprising and hidden by catholic family. Wlodka’s father had already escaped to Russian and later to London, her mother and other family members were killed by the Nazis. And, finally, Esther Brunstein, a survivor of Auschwitz and Belsen, who came from a Bundist family in Lodz. Her brother, Perec Zylberberg, who lived in Montreal and was active with Bundists there, would join us if we met when he was visiting. We usually met in Esther’s house. Of those Bundists, only Wlodka is still alive today.
At our first meeting we named ourselves the “Szmul Zygielbojm Memorial Committee”, and agreed that the most appropriate and realisable form for a permanent memorial would be a plaque preferably on the building where Zygielbojm lived. It ended up in a more prominent position. We wanted something less ephemeral than a conference, more public than an artefact locked in a museum, something that could raise awareness and encourage people to reflect on its relevance today.
I sought advice from Dan Jones, part of a group that successfully campaigned for a plaque commemorating the Battle of Cable Street – a seminal anti-fascist event of the 1930s. On his advice we sought endorsements for our project – from historians, academics, writers, rabbis, cultural figures, and MPs. We wrote to around 80 people, and got replies from 40-50, mainly very enthusiastic. A tiny number were wary of commemorating a Bundist. Despite several attempts, we got no reply from Greville Janner, former president of the Board of Deputies, involved in several Holocaust–related initiatives, but also a staunch Zionist.
Where did Zygielbojm live? In Porchester Square, Paddington. In 1991 this was a Conservative flagship Council, unsympathetic to socialists and trade unionists, and not keen on immigrants and refugees. It was this council we had to approach to ask: “Would you please commemorate a Polish, Jewish refugee who was a trade union, socialist and anti-fascist activist!”
My initial letter to the relevant Council officers, copied to the leaders of the major political parties on the council, described Zygielbojm’s life and death, explained that a monument had recently been unveiled in Warsaw on the 50th anniversary of the Ghetto uprising, and added “yet there is no memorial to Zygielbojm in London where he carried out his most important work.” We listed some supporters: the historians David Ceserani and Bill Fishman; the Polish Jewish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman; three rabbis; two MP’s, Barbara Roche from Labour and Alex Carlile from the Liberal Democrats. Carlile had been born in 1948 to post-war Polish Jewish immigrants; Colin Shindler, editor of the Jewish Quarterly magazine (a respected cultural journal); and Esther Brunstein, a survivor of the Lodz Ghetto and Auschwitz.
We received encouraging letters back and the matter was passed to Westminster plaques scheme coordinator Gillian Dawson, who was extremely helpful. Within a relatively short time we had agreement in principle for the plaque and details of the likely costings. At this stage the exact wording wasn’t required but that was a very interesting discussion on the committee, with some urging caution to ensure the council’s planning committee would rubber stamp it, others wanting it to be as politically explicit as possible within a limit of 28 words. The maximalists won. Our final wording:
“Jewish Workers’ Bund leader. Representative to the Polish Parliament in Exile… Took his life in protest at the World’s indifference to Nazi extermination of the Jews”
The Council’ agreed it and we began fundraising to cover the costs of the plaque, approximately £375, and our ongoing administrative costs.
We updated the surviving organisation of the Bund on our progress. After 1945 the remnants of the Bund – many of whom were Holocaust survivors – were scattered in several countries but affiliated with a World Bund Coordinating Committee in New York, which produced a monthly Yiddish journal – Undzer Tsayt (Our Times). The Jewish Socialists’ Group had contact with the Bund from the mid-1980s. They were overjoyed about our initiative and put us in touch with the remnant of Zygielbojm’s family. When he committed suicide, Zygielbojm believed all his immediate family had been wiped out, apart from any who got out before the war. His brother Fayvl got to South Africa. But one of Zygielbojm’s children, Joseph survived.
A Red Army partisan during the war, he returned to Poland, married Adele, who had survived a Nazi concentration camp and several slave labour camps, and then they came to America. Joseph was excited about our plans and looked forward eagerly to coming to England for the unveiling. Then we hit problems.
The plaques officer, informed us that the building Szmul Zygielbojm lived in was now occupied by five private renters. We required consent from all five households. We feared encountering one antisemite who would refuse. Ironically, the one refusal was from a Jew – a Holocaust survivor who feared that the plaque would attract fascist vandals. We detailed the historian David Ceserani to approach him but he couldn’t persuade him. We had to look elsewhere.
Behind the flats there is a very nice garden, part of it a children’s playground. The council investigated but told us that the garden could not be used for any “racial, religious, political or memorial” purposes.
At the end of the terrace, Porchester Square meets Porchester Road, just opposite there was a beautiful library building with a white façade. A plaque would stand out prominently. The library were keen, and later we held further Zygielbojm memorial events there, but Council officers informed us that a library plaque could only celebrate an author. Zygielbojm was a factory worker at 10 years old, making boxes, before being apprenticed as a glovemaker. In the 1930s he was a drama critic for the Bund’s newspaper, and wrote several articles but he was not a recognised as an “author”.
Meanwhile we developed further contacts. Zygielbojm’s surviving family shared his strong identification with Poland, and put us in touch with Jan Karski . They encouraged us to approach Polish bodies here. We contacted the Polish Embassy, the Polish Cultural institute, and some elderly Polish socialists here in Britain, including Lidia Ciolkosz. We also had contact with one of the founders of the new Polish Socialist Party, post -1989, Piotr Ikonowicz, whom the Jewish Socialists’ Group had already encountered when he visited London to meet socialists here in the early 1990s. He expressed warm support for our initiative.
In May 1994, a year from our first contact with the council we received the welcome news that the side-wall at the end of the terrace opposite the library was in full council ownership. The planning committee was unlikely to object to the plaque being mounted there. So by chance we ended up with a much more prominent position. But there would be a delay. The terrace was due for refurbishment towards the end of the year. If we put the plaque up in the autumn it would soon be covered with scaffolding and sheeting for several months. We reluctantly accepted this delay. Our new target date was May 1995. However, it transpired that the refurbishment works were more extensive would take much longer. So we had to push the date back a further year until May 1996.
During this delay we received the saddest news from Adele Zygielbojm, that her husband Joseph had died. She assured us though that she and other family members would come for the unveiling. Indeed, in those three years it took from our initial approach to the unveiling itself, Zygielbojm’s brother Fayvl died in Israel, as had two members of out committee who were husbands and wives of Bundists.
Fast forward to Sunday 12th May 1996, a beautiful sunny day, 53 years after Zygielbojm was pronounced dead, when the plaque was finally unveiled. We hoped that 100 people would attend. Nearly 200 were present. We gave out a 4-page memorial brochure we produced through donations from the Bund, the 45 Aid Society (a London-based society of Holocaust survivors), and several individuals. The brochure contained a brief biography of Zygielbojm, newspaper cuttings reporting his suicide from 1943, a quote from Jan Karski from an article he had sent us, and Zygielbojm’s suicide letter address to President Rackeiwicz of the Polish Government in Exile.
We gathered, initially, on the opposite side of the road to the plaque, where the Lord Mayor of Westminster officially welcomed us. I spoke of Zygielbojm’s life and death, his enduring messages urging practical international solidarity for the oppressed, and reflected on why no memorial for Zygielbojm in London existed. Zygielbojm, I suggested, cast “an uncomfortable shadow over how Britain’s military objectives were defined and prioritised. For the allies it was a costly victory, for the Jews of Europe it was an irrecoverable loss.” What about Jewish leaders’ lack of interest? I suggested that: “Zygielbojm, and the philosophy of the movement he represented did not fit with Anglo-jewry’s post war self-image and values. Too often in our community, material success, high academic achievement, support for Israel, are more prized that contributions to humanity as a whole.”
Esther Brunstein, one of the Bundists on the Zygielbojm committee, read Zygielbojm’s suicide letter in Yiddish, and Julia Bard of the Jewish Socialists’ Group read it in English. We crossed over and gathered under the plaque. Adele Zygielbojm and the Polish Ambassador, Ryszard Stemplowski, pulled the curtain rope to unveil the plaque. We invited people to join us at the Yaa Asantewaa African-Caribbean community centre, a mile away, for a reception and celebration of Zygielbojm’s life.
An all-women klezmer band, Royte Klezmoyres (Red Musicians) greeted guests with Yiddish tunes. There were speeches. Perec Zylberberg, who had flown in from Canada, spoke on behalf of the Bund about Zygielbojm’s importance to their movement; Polish Ambassador Ryszard Stempowski paid tribute to Zygielbojm’s courage and recalled the Bund’s significant role in Polish political life. Majer Bogdanskl offered personal memories of how Zygielbojm interacted with Bundists in Lodz. David Cesarani described Zygielbojm’s extraordinary efforts to spread first-hand information and demand action during the Holocaust. Adele Zygielbaum and her two sons Arthur and Paul spoke of the legacy of ideas and values that he left.
“By his death ,” Adele said, “he wanted to express the importance of every human being’s right to live, no matter who they are or what their beliefs.”
Arthur Zygielbaum said his grandfather’s message was still current. “People are still being exterminated today because of an accident of birth. Because they are identified with one ethnic group or another. His death is not resolved. His message is still unanswered. His cry is not silent.”
Arthur’s brother Paul affirmed that “Szmul Artur Zygielbojm’s labour and sacrifice were not for the Jews alone… amid his anguished pleas for the salvation of a people, he wrote of his belief that a better world would come… a world of freedom, justice and peace.”
Messages of support were read from absentees, including Jan Karski who wrote: “Much as I would like to come I cannot. I am over 82 years old and not strong any more.” He sent an article he had published and invited us to quote from it. We chose a paragraph where Karski says: “Taking one’s own life violates the Judaic-Christian tradition but a distinction should be made,” between someone “who takes his life because he cannot handle any longer his personal misfortune, or to escape from the responsibility of his acts”, and on the other hand, Zygielbojm, who “took his life out of compassion for the suffering of his people hoping that his death will help or save those he loved.”
After refreshments we ended with a cultural programme of poems and Yiddish songs including the partisan song, traditionally sung at commemorations of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and di Shvue – the hymn of the Bund.
For several years afterwards we gathered by the plaque on the nearest Sunday to Zygielbojm’s yortstayt (death anniversary) for a ceremony with speeches and songs, and there would always be a presence from the Polish Embassy or Polish Cultural Institute.
On the 70th anniversary of Zygielbojm’s death in 2013 we held a big meeting and cultural event with music and poetry, in central London, at which Wlodka Blit Robertson spoke about her experiences in the Warsaw Ghetto and when she was hidden afterwards, Esther Brunstein spoke of her childhood recollections in Zygielbojm’s home and Mr Szaniawski spoke on behalf of the Polish Embassy.
We hope that our efforts to mount the plaque, and the consciousness we raised about it, have contributed to telling the story of an extraordinary person and the values both he and the Bund embodied.