This post is edited from the Find a Grave biography I wrote for this amazingly brave young woman.
“Do not cry; the day of reckoning is near. Remember everything they did to us.”
Malka (Mala) Zimetbaum, 26 January 1918–1944
Mala was the youngest of Pinkas and Chaya Zimetbaum’s five children, from Brzesko, Poland. They moved back and forth from Germany and Poland for several years, and settled in Antwerp in 1928.
Mala was a brilliant student, particularly in languages and math. She fluently spoke German, Flemish, English, Polish, French, and Yiddish. Mala also joined Hanoar Hatzioni, a Zionist group committed to moving to Israel. After her father went blind, Mala put her education on hold to help to support the family. She worked as a seamstress at Maison Lilian, a very important fashion house, and as a secretary and linguist in Antwerp’s diamond industry.
In summer 1942, Mala went to Brussels, hoping to find a hiding place for her family. On 22 July, upon her return to Antwerp, she was arrested as she got off the train and taken to Fort Breendonk. Five days later, she was taken to Dossin Barracks at Mechelen Town, and worked in the registry until her deportation to Auschwitz on 15 September 1942.
Mala’s extensive knowledge of the European languages earned her a job in the camp administration. This privileged position gave her luxuries like decent clothes, access to many areas of the gigantic camp, the ability to bathe, and a bunk with only one other person. Mala also got to keep her hair.
She never used this prestigious position to her advantage, but rather to help others, such as sneaking them extra food, newspaper clippings, messages from other inmates, and medicines, and urging them to take better care of themselves so they might survive. One of her duties was selecting work details, and as often as possible, she selected weaker people for details where work wasn’t so hard. She paid no mind to whether they were Jewish, Christian, Polish, German, Belgian, or anything else. Mala saw them as people, not members of a particular group.
She regularly warned people about upcoming selections, so they knew to leave or avoid the “hospital.” She also sent messages to her family, cryptically warning about what might happen. Unbeknownest to her, her parents and three of her nephews had already been murdered. Everyone loved, trusted, and respected her, and even the S.S. eventually grew to trust and respect her.
Edward (Edek) Galiński, 10 May 1923–15 September 1944
Mala fell in love with Edward Galiński (Edek) in late 1943 or early 1944. Edek was one of the earliest prisoners still alive, from the very first transport, with the very low number of 531. They had one of the camp’s few successful romances, with fellow inmates putting their lives on the line to arrange meetings and keep the affair secret.
Edek was making plans to escape with a friend, and Mala begged to come along. Edek agreed, but his friend wasn’t so sure three people could make it undetected. It was decided only Edek and Mala would escape.
Edek got an S.S. uniform, and Mala obtained a map of southern Poland, a work pass, and a dress to wear under overalls. On 24 June 1944, they escaped and weren’t discovered missing till that evening. The three women she’d shared her quarters with refused to reveal anything, and were sent to the Penal Company.
Mala and Edek were recaptured on 6 July while attempting to cross the border into Slovakia, taken to a police station in Bielsko, and positively identified the next day. They were held in separate cells in the notorious Block 11 upon their return. Neither gave any names or information, even under torture. To avoid implicating one another, they maintained they’d escaped separately, wearing S.S. uniforms.
Despite being in different cells, they sometimes whistled to one another down the hall, and sometimes Edek stood by the window he believed to be Mala’s and sang Italian arias to her.
Block 11, copyright Agatefilm
Various dates are given for their executions, ranging from mid-July to 22 September, but the most likely dates were 22 August or 15 September. At the gallows, Mala slit her wrists with a smuggled razor blade and slapped one of the S.S. guards.
Pandemonium broke out, and Mala was beaten, tied up, and taken to the “hospital,” where nurses were forbidden from helping her. Accounts vary on whether she died on her way to the crematorium, if she were put in alive, or if the S.S. shot her or gave her poison.
Survivors regularly gather to remember Mala; there’s a plaque on her house in Antwerp; and a scholarship and B’nai B’rith lodge have been named for her. In 2005 and 2006, the U.K.-based Holocaust Project produced a play, Mala and Edek—A Tale of Auschwitz, which toured at various locations around the U.K. and continental Europe.