Dying to be heard: Shmuel Ziegelboim’s last words
On May 12, 1944, a Polish man named Shmuel Ziegelboim was desperate to tell the world that millions of his fellow Jews were being murdered in Poland. So, in his London flat, he wrote a letter and then killed himself.
The letter found its way into a little corner of The New York Times, where it was noticed by Alfred Kazin, literary editor of the New Republic, who wrote about it in the magazine.
Here’s an excerpt from Ziegelboim’s letter:
“I take the liberty of addressing to you my last words, and through you to the Polish government and the Polish people, to the governments and peoples of the Allied states — to the conscience of the world.
“From the latest information received from Poland, it is evident that the Germans, with the most ruthless cruelty, are now murdering the few remaining Jews in Poland. Behind the ghetto’s walls the last act of a tragedy unprecedented in history is being performed.
“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.
“From some 3,500,000 Polish Jews and about 700,000 other Jews deported to Poland from other countries — according to official statistics provided by the underground Bund organization — there remained in April of this year only about 300,000, and this remaining murder still goes on.”
Seeing his people get slaughtered, Ziegelboim had a hole in his heart that he tried to fill with a pen and paper.
Kazin, one of the leading public intellectuals of his day, was shaken by the desperation of Ziegelboim’s final act and outraged by the world’s silence. He meditated on both in a deep and erudite essay.
I came across Kazin’s essay in the book “Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture in America.” What struck me most about Kazin’s piece and Ziegelboim’s letter was the very notion of witnessing an unspeakable crime in real time.
It’s one thing to read about a terror attack that killed three people yesterday, or even to learn about a horrible tragedy that happened 70 years ago. But to hear about the murder of 3 million people as it is actually happening?
How does one handle such unbearable news?
We live in a world where a complaint about a microaggression on a college campus can spread through social media and get millions of views within a few days.
How would the murder of millions during the Holocaust have played out if we had Twitter, Facebook and Instagram?
Shmuel Ziegelboim had no mechanism to broadcast his outrage. His voice was powerless in real time. He figured that if he killed himself, well, maybe the drama of a man’s last words would improve the chance of getting his message through. It turns out he was right: He gave his life for his message.
As difficult as it was for Ziegelboim to make his voice heard, we’re now in an era of voice overabundance. Anyone with an Internet connection can be heard, anytime. There are digital shops that specialize in creative stunts on social media that will get your message heard by millions throughout the world.
As a result, we’re seeing in our digital public square a multitude of grievances competing for our attention. A clever campaign about a silly grievance may get more play than the drab news of genocide of women and children in Africa.
This is not power to the people. It’s power to the clever.
As we commemorate Yom HaShoah, it’s worth reflecting on Shmuel Ziegelboim’s desperate final act to remind ourselves that not all grievances are created equal.
There surely must be many Ziegelboims around the world right now who are witnessing unspeakable crimes but don’t have the knowhow or opportunity to get their voices heard.
They are seeing journalists being jailed, gays being lynched, women being raped, villages being ravaged. Many of these crimes remain below the radar; they’re not blessed by the bright lights of a social media campaign.
If we don’t seek out these voices, it’s not likely they will reach us.
The world may have changed radically since Shmuel Ziegelboim wrote his final words in 1944, but there are still witnesses who are dying to be heard.