Thursday 11 August 2016


            He was born in Borowice, Khelm (Chełm) county, Lublin district, Poland.  In 1899 his family moved to Krasnystaw in the same district.  His father—“Yaske the teacher”—was a town teacher and a sickly man who was unable by himself to support his family of eleven children, and his mother, “Henye the tailor,” had to work, but from both incomes it still was insufficient to live on; and Shmuel-Mortkhe underwent his childhood years in hunger and need.  Until age ten he studied in religious primary school, thereafter going to work in a factory for 20-30 pennies a day.  He later worked in a bakery.  At age twelve in 1907, he left home for Warsaw, became an apprentice there to a glove maker, sleeping and eating with his master in his home, doing all the housework, beaten by the master, until he ran off and was simply homeless in the streets.  A sharp change in his life took place in 1914, with the outbreak of WWI.  He left to return to Krasnystaw, and from there together his family he moved in 1915 to Chełm, where he began working as a servant in a Russian military hospital and getting to know two highly intelligent doctors who awakened in him a yearning for education.  He also became engrossed with political ideas and, when the Austrian military that year occupied Chełm and the labor movement there grew wider, he was selected onto the managing committee of the initially non-party and later Bundist society “Arbeter-heym” (Workers’ home); in December 1917 he was a delegate from Chełm to the Lublin Conference of Bundist organizations in Poland, at which he made quite an impression with his report.  Zigelboym was still living in poverty and want, working as a glove maker, and his wife (he was already married to his first wife, Golde, and they had a son, Yoysef-Leyb, who later lived in Los Angeles) was a tailor, but neither of them made enough to live on, and perforce they lived in a cellar apartment.  Nonetheless, he continued studying on his own, mastered Polish, and learned to read Russian and to a certain extent German as well.  In 1920 he settled in Warsaw where he continued to rise in the Bund as a party organizer, speaker, and writer using the name “Artur.”  In December 1924 he was elected onto the central committee of the Bund in Poland, and at all subsequent conferences of the party he was reelected to this position.  He reached the highest positions also in the trade union movement of Jewish laborers in Poland, and he was chairman of the leading institutions and unions of Jewish and Polish workers together.  He was also a member of the Warsaw city council.  He often traveled around the cities and towns of Poland on party and trade union assignments, giving speeches and reports on various social themes, and at the same time working overtime to expand his knowledge of the realms of literature and theater.  For a short time he was connected to the organizations involved in distributing Yiddish books (he was sent to America on such an assignment in the early 1930s).  In the fall of 1936 he settled in Lodz, assumed a central position in the Jewish labor movement, and was elected to the city council.
            When the Germans in 1939 approached the gates of Lodz, Zigelboym with a tide of people generally ran off toward Warsaw, where he arrived on September 7, 1939 in the middle of the night.  At first he intended to move on with the flow of people further in an easterly direction, but when he learned that people were not going to surrender Warsaw without a fight but were in fact preparing to defend the city, he changed his plans and quickly with complete zeal threw himself into the activities of the Bund in helping—together with the Polish Socialist Party (PPS [Polska Partia Socjalistyczna])—to defend Warsaw against the Nazi enemy.  In the twenty-one days that the siege of the city lasted, he stood at the epicenter of the defense.  He was a member of the general defense committee, helped organize the Jewish fighting battalions and the first food supply centers (kitchens) for the Jewish population, and was the head liaison official between Jewish and Polish workers; he wrote appeals to the Jewish population of Warsaw, arousing and rallying them to help defend the city, and he penned the most important articles in the daily Bundist Folkstsaytung (People’s newspaper) even under the fire of Nazi bombs.  When, right after occupying the city, the Nazis demanded twelve representatives of the population as hostages, he volunteered himself as one of the two Jewish guaranteurs among the twelve.  He was later a member of the first Warsaw committee of the underground Bund, a representative of the Bund on the Judenrat (Jewish council) which the Nazis created, and in all of his appearances he held himself in a courageous and revolutionary posture against the regime.  This put his life in danger, and the Bund thought it wise for him to go abroad and explain to the world what was going on in occupied Poland.  In January 1940 he set out on his illegal trip (the epic of this voyage which rings at certain point to be simply fantastic was his own engrossing description in “Mayn aroysfor fun poyln” [My departure from Poland], published together with other descriptions of the first months of Nazi rule in Forverts [Forward] in New York, late 1940-early 1941, under the general title “In onheyb fun khurbn” [At the beginning of the destruction]).  He then spent six weeks in Belgium, four months in France, and on September 12, 1940 he arrived in New York.  He conducted a lecture tour in the United States, arranged by the Jewish Workers’ Committee, delivering before thousands of Jewish listeners a litany of the pains suffered by Polish Jews.  He then settled in New York, at first working in a tailor’s shop and later becoming manager of the monthly Di tsukunft (The future).  In the spring of 1942 the representatives of the Polish Bund in America authorized him to represent the underground Bund in Poland at the Polish National Council in London.  His London period (spring 1942-spring 1943) was the last and the most heroic in the short but tumultuous life of “Comrade Artur.”  He spoke at the Polish National Council, as well as at various gatherings of Jewish institutions in English, on English radio, and at meetings of international socialist and trade union organizations, and he established illegal connections with Jews in Poland, and spoke to them via letters and radio.  He pleaded incessantly and demanded help for Polish Jewry from foreign consulates and governments in London, but with no prospect of success at all.  Conditions grew ever more unbearable for Zigelboym, and all the more was he riven with idea that perhaps with his own voluntary death would he be able to achieve that which his painful life and fight could not attain; perhaps his own death would shock the conscience of the world?  On the night of May 11-12, 1943, he ended his own life by consuming a huge dose of sleeping pills.  His farewell letters (to the Polish government in London, to the Bundist representative in New York, and others) made an immense impact on a large portion of humanity in various countries of the world.  The conscience of the world was aroused momentarily by Zigelboym’s death.  He remains a great national hero.  Jewish poets dedicated special works to him: Z. Schneur, “Zigelboyms kamf mitn shotn” (Zigelboym’s fight with the shadows), a scene from his dramatic poem, Heroika af der yidisher gas (Heroism on the Jewish street), republished in Zigelboym-bukh (Volume for Zigelboym) (New York, 1947); A. Glants-Leyeles, “Der yingster zun” (The youngest son), from his poem A yidishe shtub in poyln (A Jewish home in Poland), in Zigelboym-bukh; Z. Segalovitsh, Dortn— (There…), dedicated “To the name: Shmuel (Artur) Zigelboym”; Khave Rozenfarb’s poem, “Artur zigelboym geyt aheym” (Artur Zigelboym goes home), Unzer tsayt (Our time) in New York (May 1953); Władysław Broniewski (translated from Polish by Nokhum Bomze), “Tsu di poylishe yidn” (To the Polish Jews), dedicated to the memory of Sh. Zigelboym, in Zigelboym-bukh; A. Sh. Shteyn’s Hebrew book, Ḥaver artur (Comrade Artur) (Tel Aviv, 1953).
            Zigelboym began to write poems while he was an apprentice glove maker in Warsaw; the poems were never published.  Later, in the 1920s and 1930, he wrote correspondence pieces from his travels, articles on trade union and political issues, depictions of impressions encountered and characters in the Jewish labor movement, short stories, and semi-fictional descriptions—a kind of poetry in prose form.  His first novella was published in Yugnt-veker (Youth alarm) 11 (1927) in Warsaw.  Most of these items were published in Folkstsaytung and other party publications in Warsaw, Lodz, and other cities.  A portion of the published item were assembled for Zigelboym-bukh, in which was also republished (from Algemeyne entsiklopedye [General encyclopedia], “Yidn G”), his long work “Di yidishe profesyonele bavegung in poyln” (The Jewish trade union movement in Poland).

Zigelboym’s letter to Polish President
Władysław Raczkiewicz

Sources: Articles about Zigelboym are rich in number and spread through the newspapers and magazines of many countries.  We shall mention here only a small portion of them, first and foremost Zigelboym-bukh (Volume for Zigelboym), edited by Y. Sh. Herts (New York: Unzer tsayt, 1947), 408 pp., contributors include: H. Leivick, Professor Libman Hersh, Z. Schneur, A. Glants-Leyeles, Sh. Mendelson, B. Shefner, M. Novogrudski, Y. Sh. Herts, Jan Kurski, A. Shtentsel, and many others; L. Kenig, in Keneder odler (Montreal) (June 21, 1943); Dina (Blond), in Unzer tsayt (New York) (July 1943); Z. Segalovitsh, Tlomatske 13, fun farbrentn nekhtn (13 Tłomackie St., of scorched yesterdays) (Buenos Aires, 1946), pp. 122, 166; L. Oler, in Unzer tsayt (May 1946); M. Ravitsh, Mayn leksikon (My lexicon), vol. 2 (Montreal, 1947), pp. 160-62; A. Volf-Yasni, in Dos naye lebn (Lodz) 13 [116] (1947); Y. Okrutni, in Yugnt-veker (Warsaw-Lodz) 4 (1948); Sh. Tsfat, in Foroys (Mexico City) (May 1, 1949); S. Kahan, Meksikaner videklangen (Mexican echoes) (Mexico City, 1951); Dr. Y. Rubin, in Letste nayes (Tel Aviv) (May 9, 1952); D. Naymark, in Forverts (New York) (April 5, 1953); Shaye Trunk, in Der veg (Mexico City) (June 13, 1953); Ruvn Zigelboym, in Dorem-afrike (Johannesburg) (April 1953); Y. Horn, in Idishe tsaytung (Buenos Aires) (September 23, 1954); M. Bernshteyn, in Ilustrirte literarishe bleter (Buenos Aires) 7-8 (1954); Sefer milḥamot hagetaot (The fighting ghettos) (Tel Aviv, 1954), p. 726; Fayvl Zigelboym, in Afrikaner idishe tsaytung (Johannesburg) (May 13, 1955); B. Shefner, Novolipye 7, zikhroynes un eseyen (Nowolipie 7, memoirs and essays) (Buenos Aires, 1955), pp. 77, 168.
Yitskhok Kharlash

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