Szmul Zygielbojm was a Jewish-Polish politician and labor leader who was the first to alert the world that the Jews of Poland were being systematically exterminated.
Born in 1895 in a small village in Poland, Szmul’s family was so poor that he dropped out of school at age 10 to work in a factory. His experiences as a mistreated child worker led to involvement in the Jewish labor movement.
In 1920 Szmul became secretary of the Trade Union of Jewish Metal Workers. He moved to Lodz where he became a prominent labor leader, and then a politician. In 1938 he was appointed to the Lodz city council.
Germany invaded Poland in 1939, and Szmul immediately went to Warsaw to help defend the city. When the Nazis occupied Warsaw, they ordered Szmul, a prominent Jew, to help them create a ghetto. Instead, Szmul publicly refused, and friends smuggled him out of Warsaw in the dead of night.
For the next two years, Szmul traveled extensively throughout Western Europe and the U.S., speaking at meetings and contacting news organizations to tell people what was happening to the Jews of Eastern Europe. Szmul had a network of informants in the ghetto who provided him with the information that 1000 Jews a day were being gassed in Poland.
Szmul encountered widespread apathy, but did manage to get some news coverage. The Daily Telegraph published an article with the headline “Germans murder 700,000 Jews in Poland.” The article said it was the largest massacre in human history.
In an interview with the BBC, Szmul said, “In the name of the millions of helpless, innocent, doomed people in the ghettos, whose unseen hands are stretched out to the world, I beseech you, you whose conscience is still alive: Expunge the raging shame which is being perpetrated against the human race.”
In April 1943, the US and UK governments met in Bermuda to discuss the plight of the Jews of Europe. Szmul was hopeful that this would lead to rescue efforts, but it soon became clear that the Allies weren’t going to do anything. Soon after, in May 1943, Szmul learned that his beloved wife Manya and son Tuvla died in the Warsaw ghetto uprising.
Despondent, Szmul made his last, and most profound, protest: his own suicide.
He overdosed on sodium amytal and left a note explaining, “I cannot continue to live and to be silent while the remnants of Polish Jewry, whose representative I am, are being murdered… 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.”
Szmul left instructions that his suicide note be sent to world leaders. Its impact is unknown.
Szmul’s youngest son, Joseph, survived the Warsaw ghetto uprising and became a heroic leader of the Polish resistance.
For laying down his life for the sake of his people, we honor Szmul Zygielbojm as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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