Papers of Shmuel Mordkhe (Artur) Zygielbojm
Scope and Content Note
The Papers of Shmuel Mordkhe (Artur) Zygielbojm are part of the larger Bund Archives Collection. The Zygielbojm Papers collection consists of a number of original documents which are connected to the activities of Zygielbojm, mostly from his time in London. A large portion consists of newspaper clippings about him and his activities written both before and after his suicide. Especially interesting are his descriptions of his trip across Germany after he fled from Warsaw to Belgium in January 1940. The collection mainly includes his activities at the time he was a representative of the Bund in the Polish National Council and the Polish Government-in-Exile, from February 1942 until May 1943. His suicide, understandably, resulted in a strong reaction, which was reflected in the large number of newspaper clippings from all over the world as well as numerous memorial events, monuments and plaques.
The materials date from 1918-2011 with the bulk dating from 1940-1943. The collection is 5 linear feet in eleven manuscript boxes and one oversize box.
- Majority of material found within 1940 - 1943
Language of Materials
The collection is in Yiddish and Polish, with some Russian, German, English, French, Hebrew, Spanish, Portuguese, Lithuanian, Arabic, and Swedish.
The collection is open to the public. Permission to publish part or parts of the collection must be obtained in writing from the YIVO Archives.
There may be some restrictions on the use of the collection. For more information, contact:
YIVO Archives, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street, New York, NY 10011
Shmuel Mordkhe (Artur) Zygielbojm was born on February 21, 1895 into a poor family of 10 (some sources say 11) children in the village of Borowica, Lublin province, Poland, then under control of the Russian Empire. His family moved nearby to Krasnystaw in 1899 where his father, Yoska, was a teacher and his mother, Henia, was a dressmaker. Due to his family’s poverty, he left cheder and began working in a box manufacturing factory at the age of 10. Zygielbojm left home for Warsaw when he was 12 in order to become an apprentice to a glovemaker, but he returned to Krasnystaw at the beginning of World War I and then moved with his family to Chełm. From 1914-1917 he worked as an orderly in a military hospital in Chełm where he first began to take an interest in the Jewish labor movement. In December 1917 he represented Chełm at the first Bundist convention in Poland, which took place in Lublin. Zygielbojm so impressed the Bund leadership at the convention that he was invited to Warsaw in 1920 to serve as general secretary of the Trade Union of Jewish Metal Workers and a member of the Warsaw Committee of the Bund.
In 1924 he was elected to the Bund's Central Committee, a position he held until his death, where he focused on unionizing Jewish workers in Warsaw and Łódź. He achieved several prominent positions in other Jewish and Polish unions and was elected as an alderman in the Warsaw city government. He was also appointed secretary of the Central Council of Jewish Trade Unions and, from 1930, Zygielbojm edited the Jewish labor unions' journal, Arbeiter Fragen (Worker’s Issues) and wrote under the name of “Artur.” In 1936, the Central Committee sent him to Łódź to lead the Jewish workers' movement, coordinate Bund activities and establish a Jewish labor union. In 1938 in Łódź he was again elected as an alderman.
After Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Zygielbojm returned to Warsaw to participate in the defense committee during the siege and defense of the city. He organized Jewish workers’ battalions that united with Polish workers to defend the city, was the chief intermediary between the Polish and Jewish workers and wrote fiery articles in the Bund’s daily newspaper calling for continued resistance, as well as editing the Folkszeitung (People's Newspaper). When the Nazis occupied Warsaw after a 21-day siege, they demanded 12 hostages from the population to prevent further resistance. These hostages would be held responsible for the maintenance of order in the city. Stefan Starzyński, the city's president, proposed that the Jewish labor movement provide a hostage, Esther Iwinska, to be one of the 12. Zygielbojm volunteered in her place and was one of two Jewish hostages, along with Abraham Gepner.
On his release Zygielbojm was among the group of Bund members who organized the underground center of the party and he represented the Bund in the new Warsaw Judenrat. On November 4, 1939, the Nazis ordered the Judenrat to create a ghetto within Warsaw in three days, an order Zygielbojm strenuously opposed and openly spoke out against. Because of Zygielbojm's public opposition to the order, his fellow Bundists feared for his safety and arranged for his escape from Poland, hoping also that Zygielbojm could tell the world about the atrocities that the Nazis were perpetrating on the Jewish population. At the end of December 1939, Zygielbojm left Poland, traveling through Germany and Holland before reaching Belgium on February 8, 1940. Early in 1940, he spoke before a meeting of the Labor and Socialist International in Brussels and described the early stages of the Nazi persecution of Polish Jewry, the first eyewitness to do so. He was in Belgium until April 10, when he went to France, just ahead of the Nazi invasion of Belgium in May 1940. Zygielbojm was in France from April 10-July 20, when he left for the United States, arriving in New York on September 12, 1940. He remained in the United States until March 29, 1942, where he worked with the American branch of the Bund, spending a year and a half traveling around the country trying to convince Americans of the dire situation facing the Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland.
In April 1942, he arrived in London to join the Polish National Council, an advisory body to the Polish Government-in-Exile, as the representative of the Bund, where he was one of two Jewish members, with Zionist Ignacy Schwartzbart. Though he at first refused to cooperate with Zionist groups in London, which was in conformity with the Bundist party line, 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 focused on informing the world of what was happening in Poland, reacting angrily to pressure from the New York Bund office to continue spreading party propaganda.
In May 1942, a report reached Zygielbojm from the Bund in Warsaw concerning the annihilation of Polish Jews, providing details of the nature and scale of the destruction, containing a list of places where Aktionen had occurred, identifying the sites of extermination camps, and providing an estimate of the number of Jews who had by then been murdered – some 700,000. Zygielbojm released this information to the Daily Telegraph and several other British newspapers rather than to the Jewish press, in the belief that in doing so the story would gain a wider audience, who would also be more likely to accept the authenticity of the report. Zygielbojm continued to speak publicly about the fate of Polish Jews, including at a meeting of the British Labor Party and a speech broadcast on BBC Radio on June 2, 1942. He gave speeches to the Polish Parliament, wrote petitions to the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, and implored the Polish President and Prime Minster to instruct Poles to do all they could to help their Jewish fellow citizens. He spoke at conferences of the Socialist Labor Party and kept up contacts with his fellow Bundists in Poland and with friends and acquaintances, many of whom were refugees in various countries. Two weeks later, Zygielbojm spoke again on BBC Radio concerning the fate of the Jews of Poland. "It will actually be a shame to go on living," he said, "if steps are not taken to halt the greatest crime in human history."
In late 1942, Zygielbojm drafted a resolution of the National Council containing three proposals: That the National Council of the Polish government demand all of the Allied nations, particularly America and Britain, to immediately devise a plan of special acts against Germany that would force an end to the slaughter of the Jews; that airplanes over Germany drop large numbers of leaflets containing precise descriptions in the German language concerning the slaughter of the Jews; and that the Polish government take steps for a special conference of all of the Allied governments to be called quickly to publish an uncompromising protest and a powerful warning in the name of all the fighting nations to the German people and their government. He had already drafted proposals concerning the undertaking of sanctions against Germany on two earlier occasions, which he had submitted to Churchill and Roosevelt. The responses were diplomatically evasive. Now he sent the President and the Prime Minister a final appeal, begging them to save the Jews of Europe.
In the middle of 1942, Jan Karski, who had been serving as a courier between the Polish underground and the Polish Government-in-Exile, was smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto. One of his guides in the ghetto was Leon Feiner who, like Zygielbojm, belonged to the Bund and who had sent a message pleading for help. In the months following his return from Warsaw, Karski reported to the Polish, British and American governments on the situation in Poland, especially the Warsaw Ghetto and the Bełżec death camp, which he had visited secretly. (It is now believed that Karski actually had seen the Izbica Lubelska "sorting camp" where Jews were held until they could be sent to Bełżec, and not Bełżec itself.) Newspaper accounts based on Karski's reports were published by The New York Times on November 25 and November 26 and The Times of London on December 7, 1942. In December, Karski described the conditions in the ghetto to Zygielbojm. Zygielbojm asked whether Karski had any messages from the Jews in the ghetto. As Karski later wrote, he passed along Feiner's message:
"Let them go to all the important English and American offices and agencies. Tell them not to leave until they obtain guarantees that a way has been decided upon to save the Jews. Let them accept no food or drink, let them die a slow death while the world is looking on. Let them die. This may shake the conscience of the world."
Zygielbojm was distraught on hearing Karski's evidence and Feiner's message. Despite his anguished appeals for action to save at least a fragment of Polish Jewry, Zygielbojm became haunted by his inability to communicate the true nature of the disaster in influential circles. On April 19, 1943, the Allied governments of the United Kingdom and the United States met in Bermuda, ostensibly to discuss the situation of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. By coincidence, that same day the Nazis attempted to liquidate the remaining Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto and were met with unexpected resistance. By the beginning of May, the futility of the Bermuda Conference had become apparent. Days later, Zygielbojm received word of the suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the final liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto. He learned his wife Manya and 16-year-old son Tuvia had been killed there. On May 12, 1943, Zygielbojm killed himself as a protest against the indifference and inaction of the Allied governments in the face of the Holocaust. In his suicide letter, addressed to Polish president Władysław Raczkiewicz and prime minister Władysław Sikorski. Zygielbojm stated that while the Nazis were responsible for the murder of the Polish Jews, the Allies also were culpable:
“The responsibility for the crime of the murder of the whole Jewish nationality in Poland rests first of all on those who are carrying it out, but indirectly it falls also upon the whole of humanity, on the peoples of the Allied nations and on their governments, who up to this day have not taken any real steps to halt this crime. By looking on passively upon this murder of defenseless millions tortured children, women and men they have become partners to the responsibility.
"I am obliged to state that although the Polish Government contributed largely to the arousing of public opinion in the world, it still did not do enough. It did not do anything that was not routine, that might have been appropriate to the dimensions of the tragedy taking place in Poland....
"I cannot continue to live and to be silent while the remnants of Polish Jewry, whose representative I am, are being murdered. My comrades in the Warsaw Ghetto fell with arms in their hands in the last heroic battle. I was not permitted to fall like them, together with them, but I belong with them, to their mass grave.
"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.”
Zygielbojm wished his letter to be known not only by the Polish President and prime minister in exile. He wrote: "I am certain that the President and the Prime Minister will send out these words of mine to all those to whom they are addressed, and that the Polish Government will embark immediately on diplomatic action and explanation of the situation, in order to save the living remnant of the Polish Jews from destruction." After his death, Zygielbojm's seat in the Polish Government-in-Exile parliament was taken over by Emanuel Scherer.
Zygielbojm's body was cremated in symbolic protest and unity with the murdered millions of the Holocaust. In 1959, his surviving son located the remains in a shed in the Jewish cemetery of Golder's Green in London. With the assistance of the American Jewish labor movement, Zygielbojm's remains were brought to the U.S. and in 1961, his remains were interred at the New Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Ridgewood, New York, beneath a dignified funerary monument.
Based upon: Blatman, Daniel. "Zygielbojm, Shmuel Mordkhe." YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. New York: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, 2010, pp. 2139-2140.
Karski, Jan. Story of a Secret State. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1944, pp. 42-50.
5 Linear Feet
This collection contains the personal and professional papers of Shmuel Mordkhe Zygielbojm, a Jewish-Polish Socialist politician, Bund leader, member of the National Council of the Polish Government-in-Exile in London, and a labor and political leader. These materials include Zygielbojm’s writings, personal correspondence, clippings, and some photographs. These materials relate mainly to Zygielbojm’s work in London as well as the worldwide reactions after his suicide.
The materials in this collection are arranged either by format, subject or organization. Items for which no language is given are mainly in Yiddish. Personal names have been transliterated, journal titles and organization names have been transliterated and translated, and the titles of speeches and writings have been transliterated and translated. Yiddish names have been transliterated according to YIVO standards except when the individual is known in English by another spelling. Additionally, if the name appeared in Latin letters anywhere within the folder, that spelling was used rather than a standard transliteration. The languages of materials that are not in Yiddish are in parentheses following the listing of the material. The collection is organized in ten series.
- Series I: Biographical Notes, 1938-1943
- Series II: Manuscripts, 1940-1953, undated
- Series III: Correspondence, 1933-1998
- Series IV: London Period, 1941-1944, 1984
- Series V: Jan Karski, 1940-1945, 1983-2001
- Series VI: Suicide, 1942-1961
- Series VII: Film, 1981-1986
- Series VIII: Memorial Seminars, Grave Stone, Monuments, 1943-1997
- Series IX: Newspaper Clippings, 1940-2001
- Series X: Photographs, 1918-2011
The Bund Archives Collection was accumulated by Franz Kurski, founder and director of the Bund Archives. The Bund Archives Collection, of which the Zygielbojm Papers formed a part, was donated to YIVO in 1992-1993.
There is no information about materials that are associated by provenance to the described materials that have been physically separated or removed.
Originally processed by Shloyme Krystal. The full finding aid was translated by Esther Newman. Additional processing was completed in 2012.
- Administrative reports
- Allgemeyner Idisher arbayṭerbund in Liṭa, Poylen un Rusland
- Blit, Lucjan
- Clippings (information artifacts)
- Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945) -- Poland
- Jewish socialists
- Jews -- Biography
- Karski, Jan, 1914-2000
- London (England)
- New York (N.Y.)
- Nowogródzki, Emanuel, 1891-1967
- Oler, Leon, 1899-1971
- Poland -- Ethnic relations
- Rzeczpospolita Polska (Government-in-exile)
- YIVO Archives
- Zygielbojm, Szmul, 1895-1943
- Guide to the Papers of Shmuel Mordkhe (Artur) Zygielbojm (1895-1943) 1918-2011 (bulk 1940-1943) RG 1454
- In Progress
- Processed by Shloyme Krystal. Additional processing by Rachel S. Harrison as part of the Leon Levy Archival Processing Initiative, made possible by the Leon Levy Foundation.
- Language of description
- Script of description
- Language of description note
- Description is in English.