Disclaimer: This article includes several testimonials given from survivors of Auschwitz from the Jewish Women’s Archive Encyclopedia and an article on Idea Journal by Lorenz Sichelschmidt, author of “Mala: A Life and a Love in Auschwitz.” Links are provided to these stories. This article also contains material related to the Holocaust that may be triggering to some.
Between 1941 and 1945, at least six million Jewish people were murdered by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust. It is a dark period in the history of the world that should never be forgotten or repeated.
However, one story, that of Mala Zimetbaum, the Polish-Jewish woman that was captured and taken to Auschwitz, used her privileged position to save the lives of several inmates and died in a harrowing display of defiance, begs to be remembered.
Zimetbaum was born in Brzesko, Poland on Jan. 26, 1918, the youngest of five children. Her family moved to Belgium when she was 10 years old.
In school, she excelled at Mathematics and became fluent in several different languages, including Flemish, French, German, English and Polish. Before finishing her education, Zimetbaum dropped out to support the family after her father went blind, working in a diamond shop.
However, at around age 24, she was arrested as part of many raids in the country and was sent to Auschwitz, arriving there on Sept. 15, 1942. Of the 1,048 Jews who arrived in the camp, only 230 men and 101 women actually entered it after the selection process. The remaining 717 were sent to the gas chamber and killed.
Zimetbaum was given the number 19880 and selected to be a runner and interpreter for the SS forces, due to her knowledge of many languages. This was a position of privilege for her, as she was given more freedom than other inmates. This included the ability to wash on occasion, work within the entire boundary of the camp and gain access to other subcamps in Auschwitz, such as Birkenau, the largest sub-camp that served as the extermination ground for countless inmates.
Yet this position didn’t corrupt Zimetbaum as it did others, as she was not dehumanized and used her trust of the SS and knowledge of how the system worked to provide help to less fortunate inmates.
“…Resistance in Birkenau was to help each other survive,” Anna Palarczyk, an Auschwitz survivor and close friend of Zimetbaum, said in an interview with Lorenz Sichelschmidt of Idea Journal. “And Mala was eager to help; that was deeply rooted in her ethics. It did not matter whether they were Jews or Poles or whatever.”
“One of Mala’s responsibilities was to assign the sick released from the hospital to various work details,” Giza Weisblum, a relative of Zimetbaum that reunited with her in Auschwitz said, from the Jewish Women’s Archive Encyclopedia (JWAE). “She always tried to send the women who were still weak from their illnesses to the lightest type of work. Also, she always warned the patients of the coming selections, urging them to leave the hospital as quickly as possible. In this way, she saved the lives of many women.”
Additionally, Zimetbaum would feed starving inmates, prevent others from entering the sick ward on days of mass executions and provide supplies and newspaper clippings from outside the camps’ walls during her two years at Auschwitz.
“There were transports from Greece and she would stand near the Germans, writing things down,” Tzipora Silberstein, a Holocaust survivor, said in the same JWAE entry. “ Many times, I heard that she only pretended to write, thus saving many people’s lives. She would bring medicine to sick people.”
Later on, Zimetbaum fell in love with Edward “Edek” Galinski, a polish political prisoner in the male camp. They had to meet in secret, as inmate romance was prohibited and planned to escape in June 1944.
Their plan consisted of Galinski playing the role of a guard transporting a prisoner, (Zimetbaum) out of the camp on a Saturday, as guard patrols were lighter on the weekends.
“From a distance, I could see Mala leaving the guardhouse, bent under the weight of the washbowl on her head, her face almost completely hidden by it,” Weisblum said. “Outside, Edek was waiting. He had concealed himself in a potato bunker not far from the guardhouse. Edek let Mala go first and followed a few paces behind her. This was the procedure for an SS man leading a prisoner.”
The two made it out of the camp, though they were captured a month after their escape. Reports vary on where and how they were discovered, ranging from them being found on a train, a bar, a restaurant or hotel in Katowice or Krakow. Other claims include the pair attracting the attention of German officials by trying to settle a bill with gold.
Another version of the story from the Idea Journal piece states that they were captured by a German frontier patrol in the Beskidy mountains on route to Slovakia, according to records given by female prisoners that worked at the Auschwitz registry.
Zimetbaum and Galinski were brought back to the prison and put in separate cells in the basement of Block 11, a building christened “The Block of Death,” by inmates. The two were held in the block for months, being tortured and interrogated about their escape.
In the end, neither gave in and maintained that they escaped separately in SS uniforms. A carving that states “Mala Zimetbaum 19880 + Galinski Edward 531 + 6.VII.44” can be found in one of the cells of Block 11 at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oswiecim, Poland.
The date of the couple’s execution was sometime between Aug. 22 or Sept. 15, 1944, as the exact date is uncertain. Galinski was hanged with five other men in the men’s camp. After his sentence was read, he shouted “Long live Poland!” before the noose tightened.
There are several versions of the details surrounding Zimetbaum’s execution and final words, due to the only records being made by eyewitness accounts.
One certainty was that during the reading of her sentence, she took a blade she smuggled out and slit her wrist. Witnesses, such as Weisblum state that a commander was punched in the face by her good arm when trying to take back the blade.
The execution was stopped and Zimetbaum was beaten and thrown in a handcart to be taken to the crematorium.
Accounts vary on her last words. Some reports include her telling fellow prisoners that they will be liberated, another says she told the guard that she was dying a hero while he would die a dog or that she shouted a rallying cry to inmates, telling them to revolt.
It is unknown what her ultimate fate was, some say she bled out in the handcart, others claim she was shot or poisoned before making it to the crematorium and some claim she had poison on her and drank it in the cart.
However, the end of Zimetbaum’s story is not what immortalized her in the minds of many but the deeds she did for others in a horrific, inhumane environment. She maintained her humanity until the end and her actions provided other inmates a chance to survive their torment.
“I have a very clear memory of it – Mala going ahead, followed by those women without shoes, without pants, without a dress, just wrapped in a blanket… Mala’s appearance in the camp was elegant; that was such a contrast,” Palarczyk said.