Seventy years ago, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising was crushed. In London, Szmul Zygielbojm took his own life in protest. He was a Polish Jew, a socialist and the representative of the Bund (the Jewish workers’ party) in the Polish government in exile.He left behind a letter in which he explained his action:
“The latest news that has reached us from Poland makes it clear beyond any doubt that the Germans are now murdering the last remnants of the Jews in Poland with unbridled cruelty. Behind the walls of the ghetto the last act of this tragedy is now being played out.
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 defenceless millions – tortured children, women and men – they have become partners to the responsibility.… 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, in their mass grave.By my death, I wish to make the strongest possible protest against the passivity with which the world is looking on and permitting the extermination of the Jewish people. I know how little life is worth today, but since I was unable to do anything during my life, perhaps by my death I shall help to break down the indifference of those who have the possibility even now, at the last moment, to save the handful of Polish Jews who are still alive from certain annihilation.
… My life belongs to the Jewish people of Poland, and therefore I hand it over to them now. I yearn that the remnant that has remained of the millions of Polish Jews may live to see liberation together with the Polish masses, and that it shall be permitted to breathe freely in Poland and in a world of freedom and socialistic justice, in compensation for the inhuman suffering and torture inflicted on them. And I believe that such a Poland will arise and such a world will come about…”
Zygielbojm’s suicide was a deeply reasoned and socially responsible act. But according to the values prevailing in our own society, it should be dismissed or even condemned as a “futile gesture”, a “pointless sacrifice” – and therefore something pathological, neurotic, “self-indulgent”. All my political life I have heard this said about any sacrifice made for a just cause. It was said in the 80s about the miners who tried and failed to save their communities, and about the councillors who stood up for local democracy against rate capping and got surcharged and chucked out of politics for their pains. It’s being said now about Palestinian hunger strikers. It has been the stock-in-trade of Third Way, post-social democratic politics, where to sacrifice one’s political career or “viability” by standing up against power and prejudice is viewed as a self-evidently self-defeating folly. Surely it is this ideology of self-serving “pragmatism” that ought to be dubbed “self-indulgent”? What’s truly pathological and neurotic is the “common sense” of egocentric individualism, the obsession with personal success and status, the desperation to conform to an inhuman, destructive social order.
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