Malka Zimetbaum, also known as Mala Zimetbaum (January 26, 1922 - 1944), was a young 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.
Mala Zimetbaum was born in Poland, the youngest of five children. In her childhood the family relocated to Belgium. In school as a child, she excelled in mathematics and languages. In September 1942, she was among the Belgian Jews deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp. After an initial Selektion she was sent on to the women’s camp at Birkenau.
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 interceeded 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. Mala also got food and medicine for people in need, cheered people up and encouraged them, and was trusted by everyone in the camp, staff and prisoners alike.
Edward “Edek” Galinski planned to escape from the camp with his friend Wieslaw Kielar (Auschwitz survivor and author of autobiographical novel 5 Years in Auschwitz). The two men fell out when Kielar lost a pair of SS guard’s uniform pants they needed as a disguise for their escape. Edek told his friend that he would escape with Mala instead, and would later find a way to send the uniform back to Kielar for his subsequent escape. Mala wanted to escape so that she could tell the world what was going on at Auschwitz and thus save lives. She is said in some sources to have been heading to a resistance group.
The plan was as follows: Edek would dress up as the SS guard and escort Mala through the perimeter gate, pretending that he was escorting a prisoner to install a washbasin. Mala 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. Edek would show them a forged pass and they would be let out. Mala 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, Mala 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. Mala wanted to buy something. Edek told Mala to stay put somewhere while he went into a store to try and buy some bread with gold he had stolen in the camp. Someone in the store became suspicious and called the authorities, who arrived and ordered Edek to take his hat off. When they saw Edek’s shaven head, he was arrested. When Edek did not return, Mala turned herself in. They had promised to stay together, no matter what happened.
Mala and Edek were taken to Block 11 in the main camp at Auschwitz, a punishment barracks known as “the Bunker.” They were put in separate cells. Edek was eventually put in a group cell with another man. Edek scratched his and Mala’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 Edek and Mala would whistle to each other down the hall. When outside for exercise, Edek would stand near the window he thought was Mala’s cell window and sing an Italian aria.
Edek and Mala were taken out to be executed at the same time, in the men’s and women’s camp respectively. Edek jumped into the noose before the verdict was read, but the guards put him back on the platform. Edek 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 Edek and they all did, to the fury of one guard in particular. Meanwhile, Mala 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. Some say she shouted at the guard she slapped that she was dying a heroine while he would die a dog. Some say that she shouted at the assembled prisoners to revolt, that is was worth risking their life for and that 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 Mala 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. Mala said weakly to the assembled prisoners, “The day of reckoning is near”. On the way to the crematorium, Mala 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. Some say a guard took pity on her and shot her in the crematorium. Some say a guard took pity on her and gave her poison at the crematorium. Some say 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 Mala 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.
Information regarding Mala 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.