Untold story of WWII hero who committed suicide to draw attention to Holocaust is turned into dramatic new film
The untold story of a WWII hero who committed suicide in a desperate bid to draw attention to the Holocaust after being shunned by the world is the subject of a new film to be released in cinemas this week.
Szmul Zygielbojm, a Polish Jewish socialist politician and Bund trade-union activist, left his family in occupied Poland to go on a secret mission, first to New York and then to London, where he became a member of the National Council of the Polish government-in-exiles.
His mission was to provide the leaders of the Western world with information about the enormity of the crimes committed by the Germans against millions of European Jews.
He met with politicians and decision-makers and gave shocking evidence of the Holocaust. However, although he received applause and even tears, ultimately his efforts were met with a wall of indifference.
In the new film Śmierć Zygielbojma (The Death of Zygielbojm), when Zygielbojm goes on BBC radio, the editor shunts him to the broadcaster’s Polish service. At the Manchester Guardian, instead of a full-page spread he is given just a few column inches.
With the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in its last spasms and devastated by his powerlessness, he sacrificed his life in the hope that such a sacrifice would not go unnoticed.
Writing his farewell letter on 11 May 1943, one day before his life, he said: “I cannot remain silent and I cannot live when the remnants of the Jewish people in Poland, of whom I am a representative, perish.”
Set in smoky wartime London, the film picks up the story through a young British reporter called Adam looking for a big story to advance his career who comes across the case of the suicide.
The death is put down to the home sicknesses of an old émigré, but Adam, guided by a hunch, decides to investigate.
What he finds is a story that should shock the whole world, the mass murder by Germany of Europe’s Jews.
Fascinated, he reconstructs the events that led to Zygielbojm’s death. He not only learns about the dramatic situation that Zygielbojm tried to publicise, but also discovers that his own boss had played a role in ignoring the unfolding tragedy taking pace in occupied Poland.
Faced with the scale of selective ignorance that surrounds him, he decides to take on Zygielbojm’s mission.
He learns that famous underground courier Jan Karski is about to fly to the USA and makes sure that the young diplomat knows about Zygielbojm's information.
Director Ryszard Bryliski said: “Szmul Zygielbojm tried to stir the conscience of the world and gave his own life with determination.
“Ignored at the time, today he has become a symbol of the fight against callousness and indifference to genocide – the greatest crime of which humanity is capable. He is a tragic figure who deserves to be constantly recalled and reflected upon.”
The lead role is played by Wojciech Mecwaldowski, who captures Zygielbojm’s brooding appearance and gloomy impotence in the face of the murder of his people and family at home.
Mecwaldowski said: “Zygielbojm was unbelievably real, he did not wear 'masks', he did not pretend. He was never indifferent to another human being, but at the same time he was very focused on his task, leaving his family and friends in order to save his nation.”
The British journalist Adam played by Jack Roth, accidentally becomes part of the coroner's investigation into the suicide of Shmuel Zygielbojm, which opens his eyes to Nazi crimes that were met with silence in London.
The British actor is known for his roles in Bohemian Rhapsody and Star Wars and is the son of Tim Roth, the English actor whose biggest roles have been Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs.
The filmmakers recreated London in the Nikiszowiec district of Katowice, a suitably red-brick housing estate built by the Germans before the First World War.
Some outdoor scenes were also shot at the neo-Gothic palace in Pławniowice near Gliwice, while the interiors were filmed in the Poznański Palace in Łódź.
Scenes of bombed-out London were shot in Chorzów, and computer effects were applied after. A scene on London Bridge was shot in Wrocław.
Set designer Marek Zawierucha said: “We recreated London in Poland so well that many Londoners would believe it. However, we also organised shooting days in central London to shoot scenes on some of the characteristic London streets that we couldn't imitate in Poland."
The film was financed by Poland’s National Fund and comes under the patronage of the culture ministry.
With its obvious analogies to Agnieszka Holland’s acclaimed Mr Jones – both feature British journalists who reveal shocking events during or leading up to World War Two – hopes are high that Poland will have an international hit on its hands.