On the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and Marek Edelman
“The one who stayed” The Age, April 16, 2010 Arnold Zable Marek Edelman, the last surviving leader of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, is the most remarkable man I have met. We conversed in a Warsaw apartment in September 2006. For many of his former comrades, Edelman was an enigma. There are survivors in Melbourne who were with him in the city of Lodz in 1948, the night before they left for the Polish border to escape to the West. In postwar Poland, Edelman became revered as an innovative cardiologist and stalwart of the Solidarity movement that finally toppled the communist dictatorship in 1989. But his former comrades could not understand why he did not escape with them. He remained a mystery and became known as the one who stayed behind. Like Edelman, my parents were pre-war members of the Bund, the Jewish labour movement that commanded a mass following in Poland in the inter-war years. For Edelman, whose father died when he was young and whose mother died when he was 14, the Bund was family. Formed in Vilna in 1897, in response to mass impoverishment and anti-Semitism, the party’s focus shifted to Poland after the Bolshevik revolution. Its democratic ideals and love of Yiddish culture would sit easily alongside contemporary ideals of multiculturalism but had no place in totalitarian Russia. All but annihilated in the Holocaust, the remnants of the Bund regrouped in far-flung Jewish communities, among them Melbourne. In the 1950s and ’60s, the community would assemble on the evening of April 19 at the Kadimah Hall in Lygon Street, North Carlton, opposite the Melbourne General Cemetery. At those memorial evenings, and on weekly Sunday afternoon meetings of the Bund youth group, we came to know the details of the uprising. At its height, there were up to half a million Jews crowded into the five square miles of the Warsaw ghetto. By April 1943, the population had been reduced to just over 60,000 through deportations, disease and starvation. Beginning in July 1942, inmates were transported to the Treblinka death camp where they were killed in gas chambers. Edelman was a co-founder of the Jewish Fighting Organisation, a coalition that united members of the Bund, left-wing Zionists, communists and others under the leadership of 24-year-old Mordechai Anielewicz. The resistance was formed as a response to mass murder. Its aim was to disrupt the deportations and to make a final stand. The young fighters had no illusions about their chances but reasoned it was better to inflict as much damage as possible on the enemy, and to choose their own way of dying. Early morning, on April 19, 1943, the first day of Passover, a German force of more than 2000 men, with SS and police units, entered the ghetto to begin the final liquidation. The walls were surrounded with armed guards and more security forces were on standby. The streets were deserted. The inmates had retreated into hiding. The force was met by gunfire from the rooftops and windows, and a barrage of Molotov cocktails. The Germans retreated in panic. There were, according to Edelman, just 220 ghetto fighters armed with a limited arsenal of pistols, home-made grenades, a few automatic weapons and rifles. The fierce battles continued for weeks. The buildings were razed street by street, and burnt to the ground to flush out the fighters. The ghetto ceased to exist on May 16. All that remained were piles of charred rubble. On those Sunday afternoons in Carlton, we heard tales of extraordinary feats. We were in awe of the fighters, among them children who had smuggled in dynamite and pistols through the sewers. We were haunted by images of young men and women dashing through the flames, jumping from burning buildings, swallowing cyanide rather than fall into the hands of the enemy. We heard tales of the teenage commander Dovid Hokhberg, who, when cornered in a bunker with his battalion and several hundred civilians, blocked a narrow opening with his own body, allowing the others to escape before his bullet-riddled corpse could be dragged clear. And of Mikhal Klepfish, the young engineer who set up a secret factory manufacturing Molotov cocktails and who, on the second day of the revolt, threw his body against a machinegun, allowing his comrades to escape from their besieged attic. We learnt of the exploits of teenage fighter Yurek Blones, who held off a Nazi attack single-handedly and continued shooting as he led his battalion to the surest escape route, the sewers. Edelman was a leading figure in the pantheon, reputed to have led his fighters in a red sweater and brandishing two pistols. As commander of the Bund battalion in the brush-makers’ factory district, he was admired as a calm and calculating strategist who valued human life. “We fought to protect the people in the ghetto, to extend their life by a day or two or five,” he once said. The ghetto uprising became a part of my childhood dreaming. It was one of the reasons I journeyed to Poland in 1986 to explore the Polish towns and villages my parents were raised in, and to reflect upon the fate of my murdered grandparents and their families. At the time the Soviet-controlled dictatorship was still in power but facing growing resistance from the Solidarity movement. Edelman’s name came up in almost every conversation I had with Solidarity activists. I learnt he had been jailed when martial law was imposed on December 13, 1981. The following year he was kept under house arrest. He was admired for his resolve and daring, and referred to as the moral conscience of Poland. Twenty years later, in the autumn of 2006, I returned with my 12-year-old son to show him the towns and villages of his forebears. We spent our first few nights in Dom Literatury, the House of Literature, located in the old quarters of Warsaw. The fourth floor served as a hotel for writers, while the others were given over to literary groups, among them the Polish Centre of International PEN. As a result I was able to meet the vice-president, Adam Pomorska. Again, Edelman’s name came up in conversation. In recent years he had defended Roma Gypsies whose camps were destroyed by the police. He had expressed solidarity with multicultural Sarajevo in the 1990s when the city was under siege, and participated in the 1989 talks that led to the introduction of a democratic system in Poland. At 87, he was still working as a cardiologist in Lodz, still active in human rights. Edelman was due in Warsaw to be honoured as one of the founders of KOR, the workers’ defence group formed in response to government repression in 1976, and a precursor to Solidarity. Would I like to meet him? I was elated. Two weeks later I was ushered into the living room of a Warsaw apartment by Edelman’s assistant and close friend, Paula Sawicka, president of Open Republic, the Polish association against xenophobia and anti-Semitism. As forewarned, Marek Edelman was a crusty old warrior, wary of sentiment. He warmed when we conversed in Yiddish, a language that evokes a sense of fraternity and intimacy. We were connected as members of the Bund family. He inquired after his two former comrades still alive in Melbourne, Pinche Wiener and Avram Zeleznikow, who had been with him on the night before they escaped Poland. Yes, he did get drunk with Pinche that night, he confirmed. Edelman was known to be a connoisseur of cognac. When our conversation turned to the uprising, Edelman was forthright. “Anyone can learn how to shoot,” he said. “Far more important than the number of fighters was their spirit. The uprising began in the first days of occupation, and intensified when the ghetto was set up. The Bund organised underground schools and theatres, social welfare groups, public kitchens.” He singled out Bund activists who taught children songs in the ghetto tenements and courtyards. He reiterated what he had once written: “In all of the filth that lay about, the hunger, the humiliation and waste of every kind of human feeling, in spite of everything, we managed to give these children a little joy, a little bit of a cheerful life. For a few hours daily, they lived a normal life as if the war, the ghetto, and all the rest didn’t exist.” Edelman extended his understanding of resistance to the parents who tried desperately to buoy their children’s spirits, and those who chose to accompany loved ones to the death camps. It was far more difficult to go to your death in Auschwitz and Treblinka, he said, than to die with a gun in hand. He had escaped the burning ghetto on May 10, 1943, with the help of members of the Polish resistance, waiting 48 hours in a sewer 71 centimetres high, where the water reached to his lips. He moved about hiding places in Warsaw and fought in the ill-fated Polish uprising against Nazi occupation in August 1944. The Red Army had advanced to the outskirts of the city but stood by and waited until the fierce battles were over and the city levelled. “We had no illusions about the Stalinists,” said Edelman. By 1948, the Polish communists had ruthlessly consolidated their power, establishing a de facto single-party dictatorship and creating a satellite state of the Soviet Union, despite mass opposition. This was the final straw for Edelman’s comrades. There could be no viable future for the Bund in postwar Poland. Yet Edelman stayed even after his wife, Alina Margolis, a nurse in the Warsaw ghetto, finally left Poland in 1968 after anti-Semitic purges instigated by the government. A paediatrician, she settled in Paris with their two children and became active in the human rights group Doctors Without Borders. So why did he remain in Poland, I asked. “Why should I have left?” Edelman retorted. “Is it any better anywhere else? All countries face the challenge of protecting human rights and opposing racism. The fight for democratic rights and social justice has to be fought here as elsewhere.” Edelman was emphatic. His life had been “one consistent, unbroken thread” that stretched from his youth as a pre-war member of the Bund and through his struggles against the Nazis and the postwar Stalinists. With the fall of the Polish communist regime in 1989, his main goal had been realised. With each passing year the democratic culture was more deeply rooted. “Poland is now another world,” he said. “The people have finally put an end to dictatorship and occupation.” His struggle had borne fruit, although he was pessimistic about the recent rise of the nationalist right in Europe. On further reflection, he quietly echoed remarks he had made before. He had remained in Poland because “someone had to stay here with all those who perished. You don’t leave and abandon the memory of them.” In many interviews and writings, Edelman continued to document the deeds and names of fighters. Each year on the anniversary of the uprising, he would lay flowers at Warsaw’s monument to the ghetto heroes. The Edelman I met was a hardened activist without illusions. A wry sceptic and an acute observer of character, he valued most his work as a cardiologist. Better to heal than to kill, he said. The young ghetto fighters had taken up arms because there was no other way. He was wary of nationalism and retained a dim view of humanity. “People have to be educated — from kindergarten on — against hatred,” he said. On April 19, 2009, confined to a wheelchair, Edelman laid the flowers for the final time, and called for tolerance. He died on October 2, aged 90, in the apartment where I had met him — “at home, among friends, among his close people”, said Paula Sawicka. Several thousand mourners, including the president of Poland, attended his state funeral. Edelman’s coffin was draped with the Bund banner. A band played klezmer-style arrangements of jazz standards as the procession made its way past key sites of the former ghetto to the Warsaw Jewish cemetery, where a choir sang the Bund anthem by the graveside. On Monday in Melbourne, the Bund community will again gather and light the six candles. We will recall the feats of the ghetto fighters and recite the works of its poets. We will honour the 6 million who perished, and recall the victims of contemporary genocides, from Armenia to Rwanda. And six months after his passing, we will pay tribute to Marek Edelman, a legendary leader of the Warsaw uprising, a healer and lifelong fighter against injustice. The one who stayed behind.
This article appeared in the AJDS newsletter, Just Voices #9 – Freedom/Oppression, during Passover 2016.