Mala Zimetbaum

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Mala Zimetbaum

Malka Zimetbaum, also known as "Mala" Zimetbaum or "Mala the Belgian" (January 26, 1918 - September 15, 1944), was a Belgian woman of Polish Jewish descent, known for her escape from the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and the resistance she displayed at her execution following the escape's failure.

Early life and deportation[edit]

Mala Zimetbaum was born in Brzesko, Poland, the youngest of 5 children. In her childhood the family relocated to Belgium. In school as a child, she excelled in mathematics and languages. She was arrested in the third Antwerp raid of 11–12 September 1942 and sent to the Dossin Barracks sammellager in Mechelen. She was 20.

On 15 September 1942 she was put aboard (Belgian) Transport 10 bound for the Auschwitz concentration camp. After the initial Selektion she was sent on to the women's camp at Birkenau. Her registration number was 19880.

Camp life[edit]

She spent nearly two years in Auschwitz-Birkenau as Inmate No. 19880. Due to her proficiency in languages – French, Dutch, German, Polish, and Italian – she was assigned work as an interpreter and courier.

While she herself had a relatively privileged position, she devoted herself to helping other inmates. She interceded to have inmates sent to easier work when she suspected they were not fit for harder work. She sneaked photographs that inmates' relatives had sent them out of the files and to the inmates as they were not allowed to have them in the camp. Zimetbaum also got food and medicine for people in need, cheered people up and encouraged them. She was also trusted by staff and prisoners alike.

Failed escape from Auschwitz-Birkenau[edit]

Edward "Edek" Galiński

A Pole, Edward "Edek" Galiński, who was in love with Zimetbaum, planned to escape from the camp with his friend Wieslaw Kielar, (Auschwitz survivor and author of autobiographical novel 5 Years in Auschwitz). The plan fell through when Kielar lost a pair of SS guard's uniform pants needed as a disguise for their escape. Galiński told his friend that he would escape with Zimetbaum instead, and would later find a way to send the uniform back to Kielar for his subsequent escape.

Zimetbaum wanted to escape so that she could inform the Allies of what was going on at Auschwitz and thus save lives. She is said by some sources to have been the head of a resistance group.

The plan was as follows: Galiński would dress up as the SS guard and escort Zimetbaum through the perimeter gate, pretending that he was escorting a prisoner to install a washbasin. Zimetbaum would be carrying a large porcelain washbasin in a way that hid her hair, so that the guards they passed would not know it was a woman he was escorting. Galiński would show them a forged pass and they would be let out. Zimetbaum would be wearing a pair of overalls over a dress that could pass for a men's shirt when inside the overalls. When they got far enough away, Zimetbaum would dump the washbasin, remove the overalls and wear the dress, and they would pretend to be an SS guard and his girlfriend on a walk.

The plan was put into action in June 1944, and the couple succeeded in escaping to a nearby town. After their escape, Galiński hid nearby as Zimetbaum went into a store to try to buy some bread with gold she and Galiński had stolen from the camp. The passing German patrol became suspicious and arrested Zimetbaum. Galiński watched from a distance as Zimetbaum was arrested.

Knowing she would be killed for the escape, he turned himself in to the German patrol since they had promised not to separate.

Zimetbaum and Galiński were taken to Block 11 in the main camp at Auschwitz, a punishment barracks known as "the Bunker", where they were placed in separate cells. Galiński was eventually put in a group cell with another man. Galiński scratched his and Zimetbaum's names and camp numbers into the cell wall. A friendly guard passed notes to them through a hole in the wall between the cell they were in and an empty one. Sometimes Galiński and Zimetbaum would whistle to each other down the hall. When outside for exercise, Galiński would stand near the window he thought was Zimetbaum's cell window and sing an Italian aria.

Execution[edit]

Galiński and Zimetbaum were taken out to be executed at the same time, in the men's and women's camps, respectively.

Galiński jumped into the noose before the verdict was read, but the guards put him back on the platform. Galiński then shouted something to the effect of "Long Live Poland," the "Poland" catching in his throat because just then, a guard tipped the stool so that he could hang. One person told all the other prisoners to take their hats off as a respect to Galiński and they all did, to the fury of one guard in particular.

Meanwhile, Zimetbaum took a razor blade out of her hair and slit the veins on the inside of her elbows.

Accounts vary as to what happened next. Some people say she said that they would soon be liberated. Others report she shouted at and slapped the guard, proclaiming that she was dying a hero while he would die a dog. Still others state that she shouted at the assembled prisoners to revolt, that it was worth risking their life and if they died trying it was better than the situation they were in now in the camp. She slapped a guard's face with her bloody hand and he grabbed her arm and broke it. The camp staff jumped on her, knocking her to the ground, and taped her mouth shut.

An SS officer named Maria Mandel said that an order from Berlin had come to burn Zimetbaum alive in the crematorium. They put her on a wheelbarrow and selected several prisoners from the front of the group of onlookers to take her to the nearby camp infirmary. The nurses bandaged her arms as slowly as possible, trying to make her die as quickly as possible. Zimetbaum said weakly to the assembled prisoners, "The day of reckoning is near".

On the way to the crematorium, Zimetbaum told the women pulling the handcart she was on that she knew she could have survived, but she chose not to because she wanted to follow what she believed in.

Accounts of her death differ. Some said she bled to death on the cart. Others report that a guard took pity on her and shot or poisoned her in the crematorium. Still others observe she had poison on her and took it before she could be burned alive.

The prisoners forced to cremate the corpses had been informed that Zimetbaum was arriving, and they made special preparations. They prayed and cried as they burned her remains. The prisoners who had pulled the handcart then went back to the barracks and told other prisoners what they had witnessed.

Testimonial account[edit]

Information regarding Zimetbaum was made available to the public in the official testimony of Mrs Raya Kagan, delivered on June 8, 1961, during Session 70 in the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem.

After World War II, little is known of the surviving members of the Zimetbaum Hartman family. Zimetbaum's siblings, Gitla, Marjem and Salomon Rubin, survived the Nazi Holocaust. It is also known that Gitla migrated to and died in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and that her direct descendants are all aware of Zimetbaum's legacy.

Sources[edit]

  • Fritz Bauer-Institute, Der erste Frankfurter Auschwitz-Prozess, Berlin 2004 (web resource, in German).
  • Jewish Museum of Deportation and Resistance, Documentation Centre, Mechelen, Belgium [1] The museum holds the captured SS deportation files for Belgium as well as numerous photographs and personal records.

References[edit]

External links[edit]