Szmul (Shmuel) Zygielbojm (1895-1943), a Jewish member of the Polish government in exile, took his own life in protest against the Allies’ abandonment of European Jewry.
Zygielbojm, a leader of the Jewish Socialist Bund, was appointed to the Jewish Council (Judenrat) established by the Nazis in late 1939 to govern German-occupied Warsaw. When Zygielbojm denounced the Nazis’ plans to build the Warsaw ghetto, his colleagues, fearing for his safety, smuggled him to Belgium. He subsequently relocated to London, where he joined the national council of the Polish government in exile. His wife Manya and teenage son Tuvia remained behind in Warsaw.
During 1942-1943, Zygielbojm received news from various sources about the persecution of Polish Jewry, including a harrowing eyewitness account from the underground courier Jan Karski. One of the messages Karski brought Zygielbojm was from Warsaw Bund leader Leon Feiner, who urged Jewish leaders abroad to stage sit-ins at Allied government offices. “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.”
In early May 1943, the Allies’ refugee conference at Bermuda concluded without taking any concrete action to rescue Jews. At about the same time, Zygielbojm learned that his wife and son had been killed during the Germans’ destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto. On May 12, Zygielbojm took fatal a dose of poison, leaving behind a suicide note which read, in part: “The responsibility for this crime of murdering the entire Jewish population of Poland falls in the first instance on the perpetrators, but indirectly it is also a burden on the whole of humanity, the people and the governments of the Allied states which thus far have made no effort toward concrete action for the purpose of curtailing this crime. By the passive observation of the murder of defenseless millions and of the maltreatment of children, women, and old men, these countries have become the criminals’ accomplices….As I was unable to do anything during my life, perhaps by my death I shall contribute to breaking down that indifference.”