Wladyslaw Broniewski published his poem titled To the Polish Jews, on June 16, 1943 to commemorate both the memory of the Holocaust, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and the protest-suicide of Szmul Zygielbojm, a Bund politician and a member of the National Council of the Polish government-in-exile in London.
Appeals to the Allied government about the fate of Jews fell on deaf ears. By April 1943, numerous reports of the realities of Nazi rule circulated among the Allied leadership, including information gathered and delivered by Jan Karski which led to the publication of The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland in December 1942. The enormity of the tragedy seemed to paralyze the western powers who seemed to believe ignoring the issue was a sound strategy.
On April 19, 1943, the eve of Passover and the same day that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising started, representatives of the US and the UK met in Bermuda to discuss the question of Jewish refugees. As Jews died by their thousands in Poland and Eastern Europe, the US decided not to raise immigration quotas for Jews and the UK did not lift the prohibition on Jewish refugees settling in the British Mandate of Palestine.
By early May 1943, this inaction proved too much for Zygielbojm and he wrote a suicide protest-letter addressed to the Polish president and prime minister in which he rightly put the blame for the Holocaust on its perpetrators yet also added that: “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.”
Zygielbojm was smuggled out of Poland in 1940 but felt his destiny was tied to the Jews of Warsaw: “I cannot continue to live and to be silent while the remnants of Polish Jewry, whose representative I am, are being murdered. … I belong to them, to their mass graves.” He hoped that he could accomplish in death what he could not accomplish in life: “perhaps I shall be able by my death to contribute to the arousing from lethargy of those who could and must act in order that even now, perhaps at the last moment, the handful of Polish Jews who are still alive can be saved from certain destruction.”
The death of one politician in London did not do any more to wake up the Allies than the deaths of millions of Jews in Central and Eastern Europe. Zygielbojm’s death did not do much more than inspire a “wandering poet” to pen a poem in his memory. Yet do we really deserve to claim that “the blood shed unites us?” We, who unlike Zygielbojm look at political issues and logistics instead of human suffering? We, who over seventy years later raise up walls and think up similar political excuses to make ourselves feel good and claim that we do what we can while thousands die because we have reached our immigration quotas? What lesson have we learned from the Holocaust if not that our fear and indifference are inexcusable?
To the Polish Jews
To the memory of Szmul Zygielbojm
No cries of despair are heard from the Polish town or city
As the dying defenders of Warsaw’s Ghetto pay the soldiers’ dues.
My words are washed in blood, my heart is wrung with pity
As I, the wandering Polish poet, grieve the Polish Jews.
Not soldiers but craven brutes, not men but blood-thirsty hounds,
They came to wreak vengeful death on you, your children and wives,
To kill in gas chambers, to destroy in quicklime mounds,
To mock those who were afraid and helpless and those who laid down their lives.
But you raised the stone and hurled it at the cannoneer
Who took aim to crush your homes to dust.
Sons of Maccabee, you know how to die without fear!
You carry on the hopeless fight begun in September to the last!
In every Polish heart these words must be engraved as in stone:
The blood shed unites us, the execution wall,
Dachau and Auschwitz and our ravaged home
Every nameless grave and every prison cell unite us all.
One sky will shed its light on Warsaw’s charred debris
When the years of anguished struggle end in victory.
Each man will enjoy the rights of law and liberty
And one highest race will rise of men noble and free.