Malka “Mala” Zimetbaum

Irene North
5 min readJun 23, 2022

Despite the odds, one woman refused to let the Nazis decide her fate.

Malka “Mala” Zimetbaum was born on Jan. 26, 1918 in Brzesko, Poland. Her family later moved to Antwerp, Belgium, arriving on Nov. 17, 1926.

By all accounts, Mala was a brilliant student, notably in languages and mathematics. She had to drop out of school because her father, who worked in a diamond factory became blind. Mala began working in the same factory to make money for the family.

She was 24 years old when she was arrested during the third Antwerp raid of Sept. 11–12, 1942. She was held in the Dossin Barracks in Mechelen, a city in the province of Antwerp. On Sept. 15, she was transferred to Belgian Transport 10. Its destination — Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. During the initial selection, she was sent to the women’s camp in Birkenau. She was no longer 24-year old Mala. She was #19880.

Life expectancy, if you survived initial selection and weren’t sent straight to the gas chambers was a few months. Mala, had an advantage. She was fluent in Flemish, French, German, Polish, and Italian. Some sources include Yiddish. She became an interpreter for the camp.

Mala could have lived her life in the camp in comfort. Her position provided her with better food and housing conditions. She received warm winter clothes and could take showers. If she got sick, she was taken to the Aryan hospital in the camp which excluded patients from being taken to the gas chamber.

Mala didn’t sit back and enjoy this privileged position. Everyone — staff and prisoners — trusted her. That trust could have corrupted her, but Mala could not be corrupted. She used her position to save as many prisoners as possible.

She spent nearly all of her time helping other inmates. When she though they were not fit for hard labor, she advocated to get them easier work.

As Giza Weisblum relates:

One of Mala’s responsibilities was to assign the sick released from the hospital to various work details. She always tried to send the women who were still weak from their illnesses to the lightest type of work. Also, she always warned the patients of the coming selections, urging them to leave the hospital as quickly as possible. In this way, she saved

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Irene North

Writer and journalist in Western Nebraska. I write about life in western Nebraska and interesting women from history.