24.09.2022 | Redaktor

Mala Zimetbaum, Brzesko-born heroine of Auschwitz

Mala Zimetbaum was born in Brzesko on January 20, 1918 as the youngest, sixth child in the family of the merchant Pinkas Zimetbaum/Hartman and Chaje Feigel nee Schmalzer.

Mala Zimetbaum

Mala’s paternal grandparents, Berl Hartman from Brzesko and Marjem Jochwet Zimetbaum from Nowy Sącz, had only a religious marriage, which was not recognized by the state. Accordingly, their children were to bear their mother’s surname, Zimetbaum.

Mala’s maternal grandparents had their roots in Brzesko and Nowy Wiśnicz: grandfather Josef Schmalzer was a shames in one of the Brzesko synagogues and grandmother, Gittel nee Namenwirth, moved to Brzesko from Nowy Wiśnicz after she had married Josef.

Mala was named after her three great-grandmothers: Malka Zimetbaum from Nowy Sącz; Malka Verderber from Brzesko and Mala Namenwirth from Nowy Wiśnicz. In the birth certificate, the girl was listed as Malke, but later all her friends called her Mala.

Mala’s grandparents were not wealthy, but they had numerous families: Berl Hartman and Marjem Jochwet Zimetbaum had seven children, and Josef Schmalzer and Gittel Namenwirth had twelve children.

Family tree of Mala Zimetbaum

Matzevot (tombstones) of Mala’s grandfather Josef Schmalzer and grandmother Maria Jochwet Zimetbaum have survived at the Brzesko Jewish cemetery.

Matzeva of Josef Schmalzer

An honest and innocent man, old and
Esteemed, loved Torah scholars and huddled
In their shadow, sat in the tent of Torah
And pursued the commandments of G-D, his soul rose
To Heaven, the exalted, our teacher Rabbi
Son of our teacher Yaakov deceased Rosh Chodesh Sivan
5685 [May 25, 1925], may his soul be bound in the bundle of life

Matzeva of Marjem Jochwet Zimetbaum

Here  lies
An important woman
Modest, to the commandments of God
She was devout, and kind to her husband
And children, at the age of 60 she passed away
Mrs. Miriam Yocheved, daughter of
Yosef HaLevi
Deceased on the 12th of Tammuz 5673 [July 16, 1913]
May her soul be bound in the bundle of life

Mala’s family in Brzesko

Mala’s parents, Pinkas Zimetbaum/Hartman and Chaje Feigel Schmalzer, got married in Brzesko on July 5, 1905. Their first child, son Chiel, was born in October 1906, but died less than a year later of pneumonia. In the following years, Gittla (1908), Salamon Rubin (1909), Juda (1911), Marjem Jochwet (1914) and Malka (1918) were born. Pinkas was a merchant, but his earnings were barely enough to support his family.

Fragment of an entry in the Bresko vital records referring to the profession of Pinkas. Photo from the website szukajwarchiwach.gov.pl
Mala’s father, Pinkas Zimetbaum-Hartman. Photo from the Antwerp State Archives, www.felixarchief.be

The family did not have an apartment of their own, and every few years they moved to new rented rooms. Tuwia Mingelgrin recalled that the Hartmans lived for some time in one of the streets close to the Bzesko Market Square. (The neighbours knew the family by the surname Hartman, although their legal name  was that of Pinkas’ mother, Zimetbaum.)

“I was born on Menashele Din Street. This street started from the corner of the Market Square. Its upper part consisted of a total of three houses. On the one side, there were two houses, and I remember some of their residents – the Einhorns, Honigs and Hartmans. Over the years, the Hartmans left the city and went to Belgium… ” (Brzesko Yizkor book, Ramat Gan, 1980, p. 230)

Market day in the Brzesko Market Square, 1929. Before the war, Jewish and Catholic residents of the town used to sell and buy various goods in the Market Square every Tuesday. Photos by prof. Charles (Schaje) Weiss.

In search of a better job, Pinkas went to Germany, where his family joined him in 1913. A year later, three-year-old Juda died in Mainz and Marjem Jochwet (Jochka) was born, and the family returned to Brzesko for another 10 years. Although it was not easy, they could count on the support of relatives.

When Malka was born on January 20, 1918, it was her grandfather, shames Josef Schmalzer, who solemnly announced the name of the newborn girl during a service in the synagogue and blessed Malka.

Birth certificate of Mala Zimetbaum, entry in the Bresko vital records book. Photo from the website szukajwarchiwach.gov.pl

Salamon Rubin probably attended one of Brzesko cheders (a Jewish religious school for boys), and in the mornings he and his sisters studied with Catholic children in a public primary school.

Mala Zimetbaum (on the left) together with her mother and older sister Marjem Jochwet who was called Jochka in the family, 1926. Photo from – https://www.kazernedossin.eu/NL/Overzicht-Transporten/Transport-X/Mala-Zimetbaum

The family finally emigrated to Belgium in 1928.

The Zimetbaums in Belgium

On March 12, 1928, Chaja Zimetbaum and her daughters, 14-year-old Jochka and 10-year-old Malka, arrived in Belgium. In Antwerp, Pinkas was waiting for them with their two older children, Gittla and Salomon. Pinkas had long had problems with his eyesight, and in the late 1930s he went completely blind.

Mala’s parents, Pinkas Zimetbaum and Chaje née Schmalzer, in Antwerp. Photos from https://felixarchief.antyszneen.be

The family lived in two small rooms in a tenement house at Marinisstraat, 7. Parents enrolled Malka (who was called Mala from then on) to a public school. The girl was very fond of learning, she was especially good at maths and foreign languages. However, after several years, Mala had to leave school to help her family. While her brother and sister were working as diamond cutters, Mala started working in a clothing store while continuing her education at night school.

Mala Zimetbaum’s siblings in Antwerp: Gittla, Salomon Rubin and Marjem Jochweta (Jochka). Photos from https://felixarchief.antyszneen.be
Mala Zimetbaum’s siblings in Antwerp: Gittla, Salomon Rubin and Marjem Jochweta (Jochka). Photos from https://felixarchief.antyszneen.be

Mala, like many young Jews, became a Zionist. At the age of 15, she joined “Hanoar Hatzioni” (“Zionist Youth”), one of the Jewish youth organizations in Antwerp. Mala took this very seriously, preparing for weekly meetings. The members of the group discussed various religious, political and social topics as well as the possibility of the establishment of the Jewish state.

Mala in Hanoar Hatzioni uniform. Photo from L.Sichelschmidt’s book “Mala. Ein Leben und eine Liebe in Auschwitz “, Donat Verlag, 1995, p. 24

In the early 1930s, Mala’s eldest sister, Gittla, married Feiwel Abramowicz and, after the birth of her daughter, emigrated with her family to Ecuador.

Mala’s brother, Salomon Rubin, married Etel Herstein in 1935. They had three children: Max (1936), Bernard (1937) and Herman (1940). Etel, whom the Zimetbaum sisters called Etusch, died when giving birth to the third child. All of Salamon Rubin’s children were murdered in the Holocaust.

In 1939, Jochka Zimetbaum married Efraim Isak Schipper from Tarnów. From that point on only Mala and parents lived in the apartment at Marinisstraat 7. After graduating from evening school, Mala took a job as a seamstress at Maison Lilian, a large fashion house in Antwerp.

Jochka recalled that this portrait taken in a photo studio around 1939 shows Mala in a dark dress that she sewed herself. Photo from the Bresko Yizkor book, Ramat Gan, 1980, p. 187.
House in Antwerp where the Zimetbaums used to live. Mala, her parents and siblings lived in a small two-room apartment on the top floor of this tenement house. Photo by Barbara Beuys.
Mala (in the center, in a checkered jacket) with friends before the war, 1939. Source: https://taz.de/Zum-100-Geburtstag-von-Mala-Zimetbaum/!5477369/

After the German occupation of Belgium had started in 1940, 60,000 Jews were forced to register, respect curfew and wear a yellow star armband. They were threatened with expropriation, forced labour and deportation. Mala Zimetbaum could have fled the country to the United States. However, she decided to stay close to her parents. In October 1941, she joined the resistance movement Weissen Brigaden. She helped the persecuted escape from occupied Belgium to neutral Switzerland. Mala was arrested in Antwerp on July 23, 1942, on her way back from Brussels, where she tried to find a hiding place for herself and her parents. First, Mala was kept in Fort Breendonk, which functioned as a German concentration camp from September 1940 to September 1944.

Fort Breendonk, a former German concentration camp, now the Breendonk Memorial; photo from wikipedia

After a few weeks, Mala was moved to the Dossin barracks in the city of Mechelen. In July 1942, these barracks were allocated to the “Sammellager”, a transit camp for Jews, Roma and Sinti.

Dossin barracks, summer 1942. Between July 1942 and September 1944. 25,482 Jews and 352 Roma and Sinti were gathered here and then transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and a number of smaller concentration camps. Photo from the Kazerne Dossin Memorial Site Archives.

Her fellow prisoner, Eva Fastag, recalled: “I could observe how Mala cared for and defended other women.” On September 15, 1942, Mala Zimetbaum was deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.

Fragment of the list with the data of people deported to the Auschwitz camp on September 15, 1942. Transport #10 included 1,048 prisoners. Brzesko-born Malka Zimetbaum was registered under number 999. Photo from https://felixarchief.antyszneen.be
Mala Zimetbaum (in the center) with friends, circa 1939-40. Source: https://www.kedem-auctions.com/en/content/two-postcards-handwritten-mala-zimetbaum-%E2%80%93-first-jewish-woman-escape-auschwitz-birkenau-%E2%80%93

Mala at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp

On September 17, 1942, a transport with prisoners from Belgium reached the Auschwitz camp.

The main gate of KL Auschwitz and Auschwitz II (Birkenau) during the war years, photos from https://krakow.ipn.gov.pl/

717 deportees were immediately gassed. 313 people were assigned to the camp -101 women and 212 men. Mala Zimetbaum was considered fit for work.

Wanda Marossanyi, born in Nowy Sącz in 1918, in Auschwitz since May 28, 1942, prisoner number 7524: “I met Mala in the winter from 42 to 43. I know that she came with a Jewish transport from Belgium in September 42 and entered the camp on the basis of selection. It’s just that young, healthy women would enter the camp and the old ones would be gassed. “

Wanda Marossanyi, photo from the Archives of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

Mala Zimetbaum was given a prisoner number 19880, which was tattooed on her forearm. First, she was placed in a wooden barrack together with 500 other women. Six people slept together on each wooden bunk. Mala – like all the other female prisoners – was shaved; she had to wear a gray striped dress, a headscarf, and wooden clogs.

Prisoners of Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1944; the interior of a wooden barrack at Auschwitz II. Source – Public Domain
Women in the barracks of Auschwitz, photo from the film recorded by Soviet soldiers after the liberation of the camp / Bilderwelt / East News

It is estimated that about 1,300,000 people were sent  to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in less than five years of its existence; 70% of these people were not included in any records, because they were sent to gas immediately after arrival. Approximately 400,000 prisoners were given numbers. Two-thirds of them were male and one-third were female. Among the 131,000 female prisoners there were 82,000 Jewish, 31,000 Polish, 11,000 Roma women. Apart from that, there were also Ukrainian, Russian, Belarusian, French, German and Czech women. Their chances of survival depended greatly on nationality. The Jewish women were almost certain to perish. Of the Jewish women who were sent to Auschwitz in April 1942, only 6.4% were alive after four months.

Mala quickly decided that she would not remain only a hostage of the Germans, but would try to gain access to the camp administration in order to learn everything about the functioning of the camp. She hoped to be able to help other women survive and resist dehumanization. Since Mala spoke several languages ​​- Flemish, French, German, Italian, English and Polish, and the supervisor of the women’s camp, Maria Mandel, was looking for girls who spoke different languages, Mala became first a messenger and then an interpreter. From then on, she shared two bunks in the corner of her block with only three other women. (Ordinary prisoners slept 6 people on each of three-tier bunks.) She was also better dressed and was allowed to wash herself from time to time.

Anna Szyller/Palarczyk, born in Krakow in 1918, a student, in Auschwitz since August 27, 1942, prisoner number 17524: “Mala was a Belgian Jew, she spoke German and French very well. She spoke Polish less fluently and with a Jewish accent. I also knew French and that was fun for us. We spoke French. This language distinguished us from the surrounding nightmare. This is how we got closer to each other. Mala was a camp runner. There were several of these runners. They always stood at the guardhouse by the gate. And they were freezing terribly in the winter. The runner had to rush and do what she was told whenever she would hear the cry of the overseers, Drechsler or Mandel – “Lauferin!”,

Anna Szyller/Palarczyk. Photo from the documentary ‘From the chronicle of Auschwitz. 04. Love “, 2004
Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in winter

At first, Mala and the other runners had to stand beside the guardhouse, waiting for orders. But soon she was allowed to move between the various sub-camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau and get to know the extermination factory.

Halina Birenbaum, born in Warsaw in 1929, in Auschwitz since July 8, 1943; prisoner number 48693: “We stood for hours on roll-calls, and I know her precisely from those calls when she passed a message to the block supervisor or called someone. We knew then that it was possible to be nicely dressed in the camp, to wear civilian clothes, to be beautiful and to have access to places where we had no access. Mala, however, did not arouse envy, on the contrary, she raised hopes that it was at all possible, that it was not the end of everything. Mala’s pretty face, her liveliness and unceasing important messages for us, that the Germans were losing, that they had some defeat. It cheered us up. That’s why everyone adored her, all that beauty.”

Halina Birenbaum. Photo from the documentary ‘From the chronicle of Auschwitz. 04. Love “, 2004

According to numerous testimonies, Mala helped in many ways: she fed starving prisoners; comforted the desperate ones; gave her fellow prisoners information and medicine. One of her functions was to assign women released from the camp hospital to various types of work. Mała directed the weakest to lighter jobs, where the prisoners had a chance to survive. And when she found out about the planned mass executions of the sick, she warned the women not to report to the camp hospital.

Holocaust survivor Cypora Silberstein testified how, after the arrival of a new transport of prisoners from Greece, Mala, standing next to the Germans, only pretended to write down the data of people assigned to gas chambers. In this way, she saved the lives of many people.

She managed to send out hidden alerts to her family in Belgium on several occasions. As the German authorities wanted to counteract rumours of the extermination of the deportees (and at the same time track down all Jews hiding in the underground), the prisoners were allowed to write to their relatives.

Here is the translation of the text of the card Mala sent to her older sister Jochka on October 25, 1943:

Birkenau, 25.10.43

My beloved sister,

I look forward to hearing from you, but to no avail. Why are you not writing? You know that every couple of lines from you gives me a new will to live. Although Giza told me that you were healthy and I can tell you the same about myself, from your last postage you sent in June, it seems you don’t believe that I have a good job and that everyone else is with our Etusch. Answer me, where are our dear parents and why are they not writing? …

Stay healthy. Greetings and kisses, waiting for your reply. Your Mala.

To understand the meaning of this card, one needs to know that Etusch was Mala’s sister-in-law, who died in 1940, before the occupation of Belgium.

Mala worried about her relatives and she had good reasons for these fears. Her parents and 3 nephews, aged 3, 5 and 6, perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

Mala’s life in the camp was – compared to other prisoners – relatively comfortable. Her position provided her with better sustenance; she received warm winter clothes. In case of illness, she was sent to the Aryan hospital in the camp, and the patients of this hospital were never taken to the gas chambers.

However, Mala cared more for others than she thought about her own survival. And she did not expect any help from anyone. It was a double-play strategy. On the one hand, she won the trust of the SS, on the other, she acted against them. She was trusted by everyone, staff and prisoners. And she used her position to save as many prisoners as possible.

Zofia Stępień-Bator, born in Radom in 1920, in Auschwitz since March 3, 1943, prisoner number 37255: “Mala was quiet, subtle, delicate. Almost all female functionaries screamed, roared. They never spoke normally to us, it was a vulgar scream coupled with beatings. And Mala was acting like a lady. She always spoke politely, in semitones. She stood out among the functionaries who had something to say in the camp. Mala was an exception…”

Zofia Stępień-Bator. Photo from the documentary “From the chronicle of Auschwitz. 04. Love “, 2004
Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (Birkenau) nowadays

Testimonies of fellow female prisoners of Mala Zimetbaum

Numerous testimonies of her fellow female prisoners testify to Mala Zimetbaum’s ability to find the opportunity to help the most needy in every situation.

Testimony by Mala Gutfreund-Meyer, daughter of Sara Gutfreund nee Felsenstein

Sara Felsenstein was born in Warsaw in 1909 as the daughter of a carpenter Jakob Abraham Felsenstein and Mindla née Kleitman. Sarah married Jakob Gutfreund. The spouses lived in Warsaw, but in 1939 they moved to Brussels. Sara’s parents and three siblings – brothers Henoch (1906) and Leib (1916) and sister Malka (1914) were murdered in the Holocaust. Three siblings of her husband also perished.

During the war, Sara Gutfreund joined the Resistance Movement, saving escapees from concentration camps and Jewish children. In June 1943, she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, where she spent 21 months. She survived the Death March and was liberated in May 1945. In 1957, she emigrated to Israel; that’s where her descendants live today.

Sara Gutfreund nee Felsenstein shortly before her arrest, 1943. Photo from the family archive of Mala Gutfreund-Meyer

“Mala Zimetbaum was in Auschwitz for almost a year, when transport # 21 with 1,562 prisoners from Belgium arrived at the camp on August 2, 1943. The “Belgian group” consisted mostly of women who opposed the Nazi occupation – partisans and members of the underground. My mother Sarah Felsenstein/Gutfreund and Mala’s relative Giza Weisbum were also in this group. My mother was arrested and sent to Auschwitz because she had been caught with forged documents prepared to hide Jewish children in non-Jewish families and convents. She was part of a group that saved 3,000 Jewish children during the war.

According to my mother, Mala used her privileged position to help fellow prisoners in their daily life in the camp. At night, she smuggled medicine and food. Whenever it was possible, she transferred them to lighter work – sorting the clothes and shoes of the victims, which ended up in the gas chambers. A workplace like this made the difference between life and death

Shoes of the murdered children, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Photo: Forum Agency

“Mala saved my life several times,” my mother used to repeat throughout all the post-war years of her life. “During my stay in Auschwitz, I fell ill with typhus. High fever, severe weakness. I was sure I wouldn’t survive.

Mala informed us about the upcoming selection – the unfit for work women who remained in the barrack were to go straight to the gas chambers. Having learned it, my friends took me to work, hiding me under a haystack. In the evening they led me back to the block. And Mala brought medicine to relieve high fever. She saved my life. When I got stronger, Mala transferred me to the camp hospital and from there to easier work in a special sector called Canada – a place where we sorted the clothes of the victims. “

Jewish female prisoners of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Photo from https://wielkahistoria.pl

My mother told me that when sorting the victims’ shoes, she could get a pair of winter boots instead of the wooden clogs that almost all of the prisoners had.

“It also happened thanks to Mala Zimetbaum, she saved my life once again.” Shoes made the difference between life and death.

Mala was there with the group of Belgian women every day. The survivors, among them my mother,Sarah Felsenstein-Gutfreund, survived over two years in Auschwitz-Birkenau thanks to the care of Mala Zimtbaum and mutual support and friendship. Out of 39 Belgian women who were brought to Auschwitz with transport # 21, Mala saved 35. They were in Auschwitz for 2 years.

On the night of the execution of Mala and Edek on August 22, 1944, Mala’s friends from the Belgian group sat crowded together on one of the bunks in block 25, recreating the day’s events. Mala was for them an example of humanity, courage and nobility. Restless and scared, they swore to commemorate Mala by naming their first daughter born after the war after her. Fortunately, I was that first daughter…”

Mala Gutfreund-Meyer, Israel, 2022

Sara Gutfreund nee Felsenstein, 1950s. Photo from the website “Jews rescuing Jews during the Holocaust”

Testimony by Gila Berger, daughter of Felicja Rosenbaum

“My mother was born on December 25, 1919 in Warsaw as Feiga Felicja Rosenbaum. When the war started, my mother was in Warsaw, but in November 1941 she managed to escape from the ghetto. For some time she was hiding in Lublin, but was arrested and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was in this concentration camp that she met Mala Zimetbaum, who saved her life. My mother survived several camps and the death march, and after the war she spent six months in a sanatorium in Sweden. In 1949, she emigrated to Israel, where she got married in 1956.

Now I want to tell the story of my mother in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. I am alive today because my mother was saved by Mala Zimetbaum-Hartman almost 80 years ago. I learned about it from my mother when I was only 13 and since then I think of Mala as my guardian angel.

Auschwitz concentration camp, registration card of Felicja Rosenbaum, prisoner number 47227. Photo from the Arolsen archives

The story started in Birkenau, on a very gray day similar to all the other days in this camp. It was hard for my mother’s fellow prisoners to find any hope. Suddenly, a young woman entered the barracks and charmed everyone from the very first moment. Her black curls contrasted with her marble skin, and a smile was on her face. Later, my mother learned that Mala worked in the camp as an interpreter because she was fluent in five languages.

– Are you from Poland? I was also born there. But when I was a child, we moved to Antwerp, Belgium, – she said in Polish with a noticeable accent.

– If any of you need my help, I’ll do my best. I have a good job in this camp. Don’t be afraid to contact me. I’m also a prisoner here.

She said it and left.

Felicja Rosenbaum (left) with two friends, also former prisoners of German concentration camps, after the war in Malmoe, Sweden. Photo from the family archive of Gila Berger

Several weeks passed, and my mother fell ill with typhus. She was transferred to the camp hospital. If a prisoner was still ill and incapable of work after two weeks of staying in the hospital, he was sent straight to the gas chamber. My mother was very afraid of this. She preferred to die in the barracks, but not in the gas chamber. She was also afraid of Mengele’s visits. Once he saw her in the yard, he looked into her eyes for a few minutes, but turned away. My mother told me that those were some of the scariest moments of her life.

Now, in the hospital, my mother remembered Mala’s promise. She managed to find Mala and asked for help.

– Show me your hands,- my mother held out her hands to Mala. They were no longer covered with sores.

– Wait for me, – with these words Mala left the hospital. After a few minutes, she returned.

– You can go back to your barrack, Fela. I managed to convince the Germans that you have recovered.

Mom couldn’t believe her guardian angel, she was saved. She went to her barack and her friends celebrated her return as a miracle. They thought they would never see her again.

Mom felt as if she had been offered a second life, although she was still very weak, weighed less than 35 kg. But she overcame typhus, survived. Mala risked her life for my mother, both could have been sentenced to death. Mom knew that Mala saved other women in a similar way. She was an angel on earth, a guardian angel in the hell of Birkenau.

My mother was still very weak after the serious illness. Here again Mala Zimetbaum-Hartman came to her aid. During the roll call, when unfit prisoners were sent to their deaths, Mala stood beside her, supporting my mother. Although the kapos saw it, no one said a word. They respected Mala and maybe admired her courage as well. My mother was slowly coming back to life, but her physical weakness after typhus accompanied her until the end of the war.

Felicja Rosenbaum with her husband in Tel Aviv, around 1956. Photo from the family archive of Gila Berger

One day my mother heard that Mala, accompanied by her beloved Edek Galiński, had escaped from the camp. Mom was so happy. She hoped that the Germans would not find Mala and Edek. However, after a few weeks, the fugitives were caught, brought back to Auschwitz-Birkenau and executed. May the memory of Mala, the heroine to whom I owe my life, be blessed. “

Gila Berger, Tel Aviv, June 1, 2022

Testimony by Henia Frydman

Henia Frydman was born in Pinsk in 1924, but in 1931 the family emigrated to France. When the war started, Henia joined the Resistance Movement. In 1943 she was arrested and sent to Auschwitz. She survived thanks to the help of Mala Zimetbaum.

“Mala Zimetbaum had a good job in the camp. She was an interpreter and in the hospital she prepared lists of people who had recovered and were able to return to work. Mala helped many women and saved me from the gas chamber. Shetold Germans that I was her cousin and that if they sent me to gas, she should go there too. And because the Germans needed her, I was removed from this list. Mala saved me in a similar way several times. ” (Cited after: https://iit.aviaryplatform.com/collections/231/collection_resources/17612)

Auschwitz concentration camp, Henia Frydman’s registration card, prisoner number 46603. Photo from the Arolsen archives

Testimony by Louise Alcan

Louise Alcan was born in Paris in 1910. After France had been occupied by the Germans, she joined the Resistance Movement. On December 6, 1943, she was arrested and on February 3, 1944, deported to Auschwitz. She was a fellow prisoner of Mala Zimetbaum.

“I hope someday someone will tell about everything Mala did in Birkenau. Her life in the camp, like her death, should be an example. She did as much good as she could, risked it all, and died cursing her murderers. We will never forget her. ” (Quoted after: “Without arms and baggage”, “Sans armes et sans bagages”, Limoges, Les Imprimés d’art, 1947, p. 54)

Louise Alcan, photo from the website https://memoiresdesdeportations.org/personne/alcan-louise

Testimony by Simone Veil

Simone Veil (1927-2017) was born in Nice to a family of French Jews. In 1944, she was arrested in a round-up and deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. She lived to see liberation in Bergen-Belsen. After returning to France, she completed law studies in Paris. She was a politician and lawyer, minister of health and member of the European Parliament, and in the years 1979-1982 she was the president of the European Parliament.

“I didn’t know Mala Zimetbaum personally. But in my memory, as well as in the memory of many Auschwitz-Birkenau survivors, her name holds a special place because her personality was outstanding. In the camp, Mala was surrounded by a real aura. We knew that she tried to save the deportees whenever she could, especially since she had access to lists of people who were to be selected for the gas chambers. She managed to gain the trust of the Nazis, who allowed her to move freely within the camp. “ (Quoted after: G. Huber “Mala – une femme juive heroique dans le camp d’Auschwitz-Birkenau”, Éditions du Rocher, 2016)

Simon Veil, photo from the article https://wyborcza.pl/7,134835,22488966,simone-veil-13-07-1927-30-06-2017.html

Testimony by Giza Weisblum

Giza Gitel Weisblum was born in Tarnów in 1916; in 1937, she emigrated to Belgium together with her husband. After the outbreak of the war, she joined the Resistance Movement. In July 1943, she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. In the camp, she became friends with Mala Zimetbaum and it was to her that Mala wrote her farewell letter. After the war, she returned to Belgium, from where she later emigrated to Israel. In the 1980s, when the Bresko Yizkor book was being created, Giza wrote a chapter on Mala Hartman-Zimetbaum. She died in 2005.

“Mala was by then a “runner” and an interpreter. She was selected by the SS for this job because she knew several languages. She could move freely from one part of the camp to the other, which was strictly forbidden to ordinary prisoners. She used this privilege to establish contacts between members of separated families, often transferring messages and medicine at the risk of her life. With similar courage, she helped in the resistance movement which was then organized in the camp.

As soon as Mala learned about the arrival of a new transport, she rushed to warn and console the newcomers. One of Mala’s functions was to assign the discharged patients to various jobs. She always tried to assign women, who were still weak due to illness, to the lightest jobs. She also warned the sick about the upcoming selections, encouraging them to leave the hospital as soon as possible. Thus, she saved the lives of many women.

She had endless patience. Whenever someone asked for her help, she did everything she could, regardless of nationality or political sympathies. She was human in the fullest sense of the word. And being a human while being in Auschwitz was not an easy thing.” (Quoted after: Weisblum Giza “The Escape and Death of the Runner Mala Zimetbaum”)

Giza Weisblum. Photo from “The memory book of the community of the city of Briegel/Brzesko and its vicinity”, Ramat-Gan, Israel, 1980, p. 216

Testimony by Sara Nomberg-Przytyk

Sara Nomberg-Przytyk was born in Kołuszki in 1915. Before the war, she was a politically engaged journalist. As a Jewish woman, in 1944 she was sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, where she met Mala Zimetbaum. After liberation, she stayed in Poland, but in 1968 she was forced to emigrate. Sara died in Israel in 1990.

“Everyone in the camp knew Mala. She was a “runner”, fluent in several languages. And for me it was of particular importance that she spoke Polish well. She told me that her family had emigrated from Poland to Belgium, and because Polish was always spoken at home, she had not forgotten the language.

Mala was almost madly brave. No task was too difficult for her to complete. She was able to extract from the camp file registration documents of women who were to be gassed and replace them with the documents of deceased prisoners. Thanks to her skill and courage, she managed to save the lives of many women. She knew about everything that was planned in the camp. She brought us news about new transports and plans for deportations. ” (Quoted after: Sara Nomberg-Przytyk “Auschwitz”)

Sara Nomberg-Przytyk and her book “Auschwitz” (Polish title “Jews in Oświęcim”)

Testimony by Aniela Turecka-Wajda

Aniela Turecka-Wajda was born in Krakow on October 14, 1916, a hairdresser, was deported to Auschwitz on October 31, 1942, prisoner number 23368, in 1944 transferred to KL Flossenburg, liberated.

“In the spring of 43, I was in the hospital barrack number 23. I had typhus, I did not know anything about my child who had been left behind the wires. I was mentally devastated. And then Mala came to me. She brought me a picture of my baby girl. This was not allowed. We could receive letters, but not photos. At that time, I was terrified of the camp, I was sick and broken, because I learned that my husband had been shot. I didn’t want to live. I certainly wouldn’t have survived the camp had it not been for this incident. I was getting better and I was asking Mala, begging her to leave this picture with me. She said she would try to do something. She put some other picture in the documents, and she brought me the photo of my daughter. “

Aniela Turecka-Wajda. Photo from the Archives of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum

Mala Zimetbaum and Edek Galiński: a story of love, escape and death

Edward Galiński, called Edek by his colleagues, and Mala Zimetbaum would probably never have met under normal circumstances. However, they both ended up in Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they were brought together by love.

Edward Galiński was born on October 5, 1923, in one of the small villages near Jarosław. At the outbreak of war, he was less than 16 years old and studied in the naval school in Pińsk. He was arrested in the spring of 1940 along with a large group of classmates suspected of being members of the Union for Armed Struggle. In June 1940, he was transported from a prison in Tarnow to Auschwitz. This was the first transport of political prisoners to this camp. Galiński was given the prisoner number 531.

Edward Galiński, photo from the Archives of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum

Wieslaw Kielar, born in Przeworsk in 1919, in Auschwitz since June 14, 1940, prisoner number 290: “Edek was extremely handsome. Very masculine, courageous, with a tendency to take risks. In the camp he turned from a boy into a man. We were taken to Auschwitz in the first transport. Edek got number 531, I got 290.”

Wieslaw Kielar, photo from the documentary “From the Chronicle of Auschwitz. 04. Love,” 2004

With the passage of time and subsequent transports of prisoners, Edek’s position in the camp changed. While he was in Auschwitz I, he managed to get into a commando working in the camp’s locksmith workshop. Later he was placed in the installation commando in Birkenau. As a result, he enjoyed freedom of movement, maintained contact with civilian Polish workers, and had access to better food.

Camp card of Edward Galiński, prisoner number 531, locksmith; from the Archives of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum

When he worked in the locksmith workshop, his supervisor was an SS man from Bielsko named Edward Lubusch – one of the few camp supervisors who did not mistreat prisoners. Lubusch later played an important role in the story of Edek and Mala.

Camp locksmith workshop. In the foreground SS man Lubusch, behind him stands Edek Galiński, photo from the Archives of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum

Mala and Edek met at the turn of 1943 and 1944. A thread of affection quickly developed between them, and soon they fell in love with each other. Any love relationships were strictly forbidden in the camp.

Perhaps the best account of the love, escape and tragic death of Edek Galinski and Mala Zimetbaum is provided by their fellow prisoners.

Anna Szyller/Palarczyk, prisoner number 17524: “We met on the camp street and I asked her: “Mala, what’s up with you?” I already knew that there was Edek, that they loved each other. But I wanted to hear it from her. And Mala beamed in response: “I am in love, I am in love,” – she said it in Polish. “I am in love and I am loved.”

Wieslaw Kielar, prisoner number 290: “It seemed impossible. In the camp? Among those crematoria? With some, it even caused a certain distaste. Nevertheless, life is life. They desired each other.”

Mala Zimetbaum and Edek Galiński

Anna Tytoniak/Stefańska, born in Jaslo in 1920, in Auschwitz since April 27, 1942, prisoner number 6866: “Mala met with Edek mostly in the hospital in block 30. This block was the farthest from the camp street, the least visible from the guardhouse. Besides, since June 1943, when Rotte became the camp doctor, he forbade all SS men from outside the hospital to enter there. He argued that because of infectious diseases, they were not allowed to enter. Michal Kula, the equipment maintainer, had the keys to room with the X-ray machine. And it was thanks to him that Mala and Edek could meet.”

Anna Tytoniak-Stefańska, photo from the Archives of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum

Zofia Stępień-Bator, prisoner number 37255: “I met Mala again when she wanted to have her portrait to give to her beloved. She got coloured pencils from somewhere and I painted her. Mala was really grateful to me. She made a party: sandwiches spread with margarine. It was a royal party.”

Zofia Stępień-Bator, photo from the documentary “From the Chronicles of Auschwitz. 04. Love,” 2004
Portrait of Mala Zimetbaum by Zofia Stępień-Bator, collection of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum

In the spring of 1944, Edek began planning an escape from the camp together with Mala.

Wiesław Kielar, prisoner number 290: “I met often with Galiński. During one of our conversations we decided to organize an escape. We came to the conviction that it would be good to escape in SS disguises. Galiński stated that uniforms would be supplied by his work unit commander, SS man Lubusch.

During one of the conversations, Edek said that in addition to the two of us, Mala Zimetbaum will also be escaping. She, as a Jewish woman, will face death here, – he argued. They were close to each other, I already knew this at the time. He stated that he would first escape with Mala, and after the escape he would send a uniform and a pass to the camp. And then I would be able to arrange an escape for myself. We set the final date for the escape for Saturday, June 24, 1944.”

Wieslaw Kielar, photo from the documentary “From the Chronicles of Auschwitz. 04. Love,” 2004

On June 24, 1944, Mala put on the clothes she had prepared earlier, and Edek put on the SS uniform. To his belt he clipped a holster with a pistol containing two cartridges. He got it, as well as the uniform, from SS man Lubusch.

The two crossed the line of sentry posts, showing a forged pass, for the preparation of which Mala had previously stolen the appropriate form. They managed to get out of the camp and reach the village of Kozy, where they received help from Antoni Szymlak.

Wiesław Kielar, prisoner number 290: “Mala, dressed in a navy blue jumpsuit, carried a white porcelain washbasin over her head. Next to her walked Galiński dressed in the SS uniform. They walked along the road. I still saw them pass the barrier on the outer guard line. Edek showed the SS man his pass that he was leading a prisoner to install a sanitary device.”

Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Outside the fence, on the left, behind the guard turret, one can see the Blockfuhrerstube barrack. In the lavatory located in this barrack, Mala Zimetbaum changed into a work suit. Photo from the archives of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum

Wanda Marossanyi, prisoner number 7524: “I heard a siren. Someone was missing from the men’s camp. And then it turned out that someone was missing in our camp as well. Being a runner, Mala was often sent somewhere and did not come to the very beginning of roll call. She was ill with malaria. In view of this, Dreksler became frantically concerned about her – she might have fallen somewhere, might have been lying somewhere sick. And she told to look for Mala. Still there was no signal that she had escaped. The SS simply refused to believe it. It didn’t occur to anyone that such a privileged person had escaped. So the roll call went on for a very long time. We were waiting to see what would happen next. Finally, the sirens wailed and great joy prevailed among us, because the Slovak women, the laufer girls, friends of Mala, announced that for sure Mala had escaped and that for sure she had escaped together with Edek.”

Wanda Marossanyi, photo from the archives of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum

Anna Szyller/Palarczyk, prisoner number 17524: “It was something wonderful. There was no other escape like that. For a boy to escape with a girl? And even more so – a Pole and a Jewish girl? Plus it was clear that they really loved each other.”

Mala and Edek headed for Slovakia. There they intended to hide with Mala’s relatives. However, on July 7, 1944, they encountered a German patrol in Beskid Żywiecki

Telegram sent on July 27, 1944 by the Auschwitz commandant’s office notifying of the capture of escaped prisoners, Edward Galinski and Mala Zimetbaum. Photo from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Archives

Alice Roth-Jakubovic, born in 1922, prisoner number 1287: “For some time we knew nothing about them, until one day the news spread that Edek and Mala had been arrested. It was said that they had made a terrible mistake.”

Alice Roth-Jakubovic, photo from the documentary “From the Chronicles of Auschwitz. 04. Love,” 2004

Jerzy Brandhuber, born in Krakow in 1897, in Auschwitz since January 14, 1943, prisoner number 87112: “I was in the clothing warehouse and heard the footsteps of several people. When I looked out, I saw two civilians walking side by side, but at a distance, escorted by an SS man. They were being led from the gate to block #11.”

Jerzy Brandhuber, photo from the archives of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
Block #11 at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where Mala waited for execution after her unsuccessful escape.

Zofia Stępień-Bator, prisoner number 37255: “When we learned that they had been captured, that Mala was sitting in the bunker on death row, despair fell over the entire camp.”

Edek and Mala were imprisoned in separate cells of the camp detention center located in the basement of Block 11. They were tortured, but both remained silent. In the camp they were spoken of as heroes.

A card that Mala sent to a friend in Antwerp from Block 11. Photo of the card from https://www.kedem-auctions.com/en/content/two-postcards-handwritten-mala-zimetbaum-%E2%80%93-first-jewish-woman-escape-auschwitz-birkenau-%E2%80%93

Boleslaw Staroń, born in Berlin in 1919, in Auschwitz since July 6, 1943, prisoner number 127829: “I ended up in the collective cell in block 11 and found Edek there. He told me about his escape. They made it as far as the border with Slovakia. Mala was frail, in poor shape, she was very tired. She wanted to buy something offering as payment the gold they had taken out of the camp. In doing so, she attracted the attention of someone who reported her to the Germans. They promised each other that one would not leave the other; that if they died, they would die together. He went to that store to get her. And there he found a Gestapo officer talking to her. The Gestapo man told Edek to take off his cap. He showed his shaved head, and it revealed that he was a prisoner who had escaped from the camp.”

Boleslaw Staroń, photo from the documentary f “From the Chronicles of Auschwitz. 04. Love.”, 2004
The building in Auschwitz where Mala and Edek were interrogated; photo from the archives of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum

Zbigniew Kaczkowski, born in Krakow in 1921, in Auschwitz since June 24, 1943, prisoner number 125727: “In the cell adjacent to the punishment cell I met Galiński. We were together for about 10 days. Every evening he would stand at the door and with his face at the crack whistle some beautiful melody. And after a while, somewhere through those corridors from the other end of block 11, the same melody whistled by Mala would come to us. On death row, they continued to show love to each other in this way.”

Prof. Zbigniew Kaczkowski (1921-2018), former prisoner of the Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Ravensbruck camps.

Boleslaw Staroń, prisoner number 127829: “Once, after evening roll call, we could arrange a half-hour meeting between Edek and Mali. Later that evening, Edek began to make a drawing of a woman’s face in the plaster of cell #18. I presume, because he did not reveal this in his conversation with me, that this was a portrait of Mala, which he managed to complete. He also had a habit of making inscriptions in the plaster on the walls of the cells. Among other things, he often gouged his name and that of Mala Zimetbaum and their prisoner numbers.”

A fragment of the wall in the cell #r 20 in the basement of block 11.


Galinski Edward 6.VII.44


Mally Zimetbaum

Fragments of the wooden door (cell 23) and wall (cell 18) of block 11 with portraits of Mala made by Edek Galiński; photos from: J.P. Czarnecki “Last traces. The lost art of Auschwitz”, NY, 1989, p. 83, 85.

Wanda Marossanyi, prisoner number 7524: “They escaped on June 24. They were caught on July 6. And on September 15 they were already sentenced.”

Wiesław Kielar, prisoner number 290: “One day, Edek Galiński was led to the annex near the kitchen, where kapo Jupp was preparing the victims for death by hanging. But before he bound his hands, Edek asked him for a piece of paper and a pencil, because he wanted to write a few last words. Jupp agreed to do so. He was a bloody hoodlum who abused prisoners. But in this case he behaved in a gentlemanly manner. He delivered the cards. Edek didn’t write much. He put in the locks of hair he had prepared earlier and wrote his name and the name and prisoner number of Mala Zimetbaum. Jupp gave me the piece of paper he received from Galiński.”

A memento of Edek and Mala kept in the collection of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Attached is Wieslaw Kielar’s statement dated January 29, 1968: I am donating two locks of human hair to the museum. They are wrapped in paper printed in German. On the edge of the paper there is an inscription in pencil: “Mala Zimetbaum 19880, Edward Galiński 531″ This is the inscription made by Galiński and his and Mala Zimetbaum’s hair… This tragic memento went through all the camps with me and I have kept it to this day.”

Edek was led to the gallows. He was very brave. He walked with his head held high. He only said: “Fellows, avenge me.”

Wieslaw Kielar: “He climbed onto a stool. They began to read the sentence in German and Polish. Before it was finished, Galiński put his head in a noose and bounced off the stool. Immediately Kapo Jupp ran up to him and freed him from the noose by placing a stool under his feet. Again the sentence began to be read out. The last words had not yet resounded when Galiński began to raise a cry of “Still Pol…” but that “Poland” was already trapped in his throat. Jupp pulled up a stool and then there was silence.”

Anna Tytoniak/Stefańska, prisoner number 6866: “A roll call was declared before the commandos even returned. It wasn’t a normal roll call to count us, but they gathered all the female prisoners who happened to be working in the camp – in the offices, the clothing warehouse.”

Ewa Grinbal/Feldenkreis, born in1923, in Auschwitz since January 19, 1943, prisoner number 29682: “Standing by Mala was an SS man of small stature. On the other side there stood the camp manager Maria Mandel. We stood and waited to see what would happen.

Mandel finally spoke up and said that in accordance with an order from Berlin, for the escape from the camp, Mala would be burned alive in the crematorium… At the moment Mandel uttered the above words, Mala reached out with a slight movement to the bundle held in her hand. She then started cutting her veins with complete composure, her right hand in her left. I noticed with amazement how the yellow colour gradually disappeared from her face.

None of the Jewish women standing in front of the kitchen said a word. But something must have been evident in our faces, because at one point the SS man turned toward Mala and noticed what she was trying to do. His reaction was immediate. He simply grabbed her arm preventing her from continuing her intention.”

Anna Szyller/Palarczyk, prisoner number17524: “The SS man snatched that razor blade from her. And she slammed him in his face. This is probably one of the strongest memories from Auschwitz – that the SS man got slammed in his face. He then grabbed her hand and broke it. It was such a dry crack of a breaking bone. It was perfectly audible. The whole ceremony, the whole parade was interrupted.

Mala was bleeding a lot. She was taken to lager A, to the infirmary. They wanted to stop the blood so that they could carry out the sentence.”

Anna Tytoniak/Stefańska, prisoner number 6866: “A prisoner carried her, all covered with blood, to the hospital. Doctors, nurses hovered around her. They bandaged her hands. But there was no way to save her. After a while she was taken back. The camp commandant walked behind and they drove Mala toward the black gate of the crematorium.”

A. Roth-Jakubovic, prisoner number 1287: “Two versions about the later events at the crematorium circulated later. The first was that Mala was brought to the crematorium and there one of the SS men recognized her. He felt sorry for her and said that he preferred to shoot her because he didn’t want to throw her into the fire alive. The second version is that the SS man gave Mala poison, which she swallowed. According to the third version, Mala had a poison capsule with her, which she took in the crematorium with the SS man’s permission. But no one knows, what actually happened, because none of us was there.”

Commemoration of Mala Zimetbaum

Mala Zimetbaum was murdered, but was not forgotten. The grateful memory of Mala was preserved not only by the dozens of women she rescued and their descendants. As early as 1946,there was produced the feature film “The Last Stage” largely based on Mala’s story. In the decades that followed, numerous articles, books and biographies of Mala were published and translated into more than a dozen languages.

Posters promoting the film “The Last Stage” (Poland, 1946, directed by Wanda Jakubowska)
Books dedicated to Mala Zimetbaum to Mala Zimetbaum

Exhibitions dedicated to Mala Zimetbaum can be seen in many museums, including the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland, the MAS museums (Museum aan de Stroom) in Antwerp and Kazerne Dossin in Mechelen, Belgium.

Exhibition at the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum

In 2002, the premiere of Nikos Karvelas’ musical “Mala. Music of the Wind” took place at the Pallas Theater in Athens; dramas dedicated to Mala can be seen at theatres in Germany, the UK and the US.

Premiere of Nikos Karvelas’ musical “Mala. Music of the Wind”, Pallas Theater, Athens, 2002, with Anna Vissi in the role of Mala

The Yad Vashem Museum in Israel has a scholarship fund named after Mala Zimetbaum, and in 2018 Mala was honoured with a diploma awarded to Jewish heroes who saved Jews during the Holocaust.

Diploma awarded to Mala Zimetbaum in recognition of devotion, courage and heroism she exhibited when rescuing fellow Jews during the Holocaust

There is a commemorative plaque on the wall of the tenement house at Marinisstraat 7 in Antwerp, where Mala had lived before the deportation, and an entire wall of a nearby building is covered with a mural dedicated to Mala.

A commemorative plaque on the wall of the building at Marinisstraat 7 in Antwerp where Mala lived.
Mural by Joachim Lambrechts (2019) near the building where Mala Zimetbaum lived in Antwerp.

Mala Zimetbaum,  Brzesko-born heroine of Auschwitz.

A postcard with Mala Zimetbaum’s likeness.

Quotes from the testimonies by fellow prisoners of Mala Zimetbaum and Edward Galinski come from the documentary “From the Chronicles of Auschwitz. 04. Love” (2004; directed by Michał Bukojemski), Wiesław Kielar’s book “Anus Mundi” (Oficyna Wydawnicza Atut, 2004), the documentary “An Auschwitz Love Story”(1989, directed and scripted by Michał Żarnecki, Jacek Bławut), and the archives of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.


In 2023, Mala Zimetbaum was commemorated in her hometown. On September 10, a plaque in Hebrew and Polish was unveiled at the Brzesko Jewish cemetery, where Mali’s ancestors are buried.

Strength and dignity are her clothing

The teaching of kindness is on her tongue

In memory of the renowned martyr

Mala Zimetbaum

Born in Brzesko on January 20, 1918

Brutally murdered in Auschwitz on September 15, 1944

May her soul be bound in the bond of life

Plaque commemorating Mala Zimetbaum at the Brzesko Jewish cemetery, September 10, 2023. The plaque was designed by Damian Styrna; the text of the Hebrew inscription was proposed by prof. Jonathan Webber; implementation of the project by the association “Memory and Dialogue. Common History” with financial support from John Paul Leavey. Photo by Anshel Pfeffer

The quote from the book of Proverbs (31:25-26) contained in this inscription expresses  the essence of Mala’s character, her inner strength and love for the people whom she was helping. The solemn ceremony of unveiling the plaque was attended by Mala’s closest living relative, Mr. Jehuda Hartman, and Mrs. Mala Meyer, whose mother was saved in Auschwitz by Mala Zimetbaum.

Mrs. Meyer tells the story of how Mala Zimetbaum saved her mother, Sara Felsenstein. Photo from the archives of the Brzesko City Hall
Jehuda Hartman recites Kaddish for Mala Zimetbaum. Photo from the archives of the Brzesko City Hall
Damian Styrna, the author of the design of the plaque commemorating Mala, offers flowers during the ceremony. Photo from the archives of the Brzesko City Hall

Mala Zimetbaum does not have a grave, her body was burned in the crematorium in Auschwitz. But we hope that her soul will find solace in the memory that lives not only in the descendants of the women saved by Mala, but also in the residents of her hometown. And this plaque in the cemetery, where the tombstones of her ancestors have survived, will become a tangible symbol of our memory and care.

© Anna Brzyska, 2022, 2023