By Arnold Zable
On this day, April 19, 1943, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising broke out, ushering in an extraordinary battle for freedom and dignity. We gather tonight, as we always do on this date, to honour those who took part in this, and many other uprisings during this period, and those who escaped to the forests and continued the struggle as partisans. On this night we recall many forms of resistance – including cultural resistance – the underground ghetto theatres, schools, the children who stole out via the sewers and returned with food for the starving and arms for the resistance… and the simple acts, those who stayed with their elderly family members, at the risk and often the cost of their own lives, to provide comfort and protection… On this day I also recall the most remarkable man I have met – Marek Edelman – one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, who also fought in the Polish uprising a year later and who remained in Poland post-war to become a legendary fighter for freedom and social justice, a revered member of Solidarity and an innovative cardiologist. Here is an article I wrote about him, and our meeting in Warsaw in 2006—published in The Age after his death in 2010. At one point, when I asked him why he remained in Poland whilst so many others left, he replied:
“Why should I have left?… 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.
Yes – we have our own battles against racism here in Australia – we have that in mind too as we honour the memory of those who were prepared to risk all for freedom and dignity on this day in April 1943.
“The one who stayed”
The Age, April 16, 2010
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.
shtikl – a little bit of something
By Clare Fester
When we think about 1950s Australia we often associate it with Robert Menzies’ long Liberal rule, social conservatism, and the White Australia policy. It was a period when migrant political participation was almost unheard of. Labour movement disinterest combined with the disinterest of migrants themselves, meant demands for economic equality and social recognition were not won until the 1970s. The New Australians Council (NAC), a small migrant auxiliary section of the Victorian ALP that existed in 1955-1959, punctuates this vision.
Led by a small group of migrants active in Melbourne’s Jewish Labour Bund, the NAC leadership grew to include ten migrants from eight different nationalities, represented approximately 200 workers from migrant backgrounds, and may have indirectly influenced many more. In 1957 the NAC held a successful meeting in Wonthaggi, a rural coal mining town in Gippsland. NAC secretary for the full four years it functioned and leading Bundist Bono Wiener, alongside L. Zandendea, a migrant activist from Italy, joined Assistant State Secretary R. Balcombe to address a mixed Australian-born and migrant audience of 67 people, including 25 Italian miners. Zandendea, who a year later would join the NAC’s executive, spoke in both English and Italian.At the end of the meeting several Italians joined the party.
In part the council existed to help the ALP assimilate and recruit new migrants. It ran Victorian ALP election campaigns directed at migrants. But it also served as a place for migrants to access and participate in Australian society. It was run for and by migrants themselves, producing English and foreign language media and material for migrant union members, and held quarterly conferences to discuss migrant issues.
That the NAC began to conceive counter-proposals to the assimilation agenda of the 1950s is in part due to its Bundist leadership. Every year at least one Bundist was represented on the NAC leadership. In its final year three Bundists joined the executive: Wiener, Joseph Winkler and Jacob Kronhill. This was far in excess of the proportional Bundist presence in the Australian migrant community.
The Jewish Labour Bund grew out of the revolutionary movements in Tsarist Russia and inter-war Poland, calling for Jewish civil, political and national rights. Forever a minority wherever they found themselves, Bundists understood (at least rhetorically) that the liberation of the Jewish working class was intimately bound up in the fate of the working class around it. In 1957, the year of the NAC’s first migrant worker conference, the International Jewish Labor Bund released a publication for its sixtieth anniversary stating: “The Bund has always held that only through joint action with the non-Jewish Socialist and labo[u]r organi[s]ations and other progressive elements in the countries where they live, can Jews improve their lot.”
Due to their very marginality, Bundist ideology allowed its members to understand themselves as a culturally distinct minority in the context of surrounding cultures.This understanding was borne out in practice through the NAC: it created the potential to facilitate united fronts between Jews and non-Jews. According to Wiener, Bundists were
… Jews who believe [in] the ideals of social justice as expressed in the Labor party [and] strive for the rights of those who are oppressed and persecuted because they are Jews, Spaniards, Czecks [sic] or Greeks. We want the smaller people to have the same rights in life as the stronger.
These principals, along with the Bund’s vehement anti-Communism, often came into conflict with the NAC’s benefactors in the ALP. As is clear today, the ALP leadership’s support for migrants (whether they come by boat or as skilled workers) is ambivalent and unreliable. The ALP was the architect of Australia’s post-war mass migration program for the purposes of population and economic growth. However, fears about economic conditions, the political division caused by the ALP/DLP Split in 1955, and its electoral weakness, fractured the party’s position on migration.
As Bundists reported in their Yiddish-language journal Undzer Gedank in 1956, an organised anti-foreigner sentiment was re-emerging in the party. A union delegate at an ALP conference brought a motion calling on the federal government to immediately halt its migration program until there were enough houses and jobs for locals, implying that migrants were to blame for decreasing living standards. Wiener intervened from the floor:
People must force the government to create better conditions for migrants. We do not come here in order to depress the lives of Australian workers, only together with you can we struggle for better conditions… I request tolerance … and for Australians and New Australians to struggle together … Let us have more immigration and not less.
Indeed, statistics from 1958 do not show any correlation between housing shortages and migration. In WA migration was proportionally higher than in NSW, yet there was no housing shortage in WA. Rather, the housing crisis was the product of public under investment. The WA state government invested £8.3 per capita in public housing development, while NSW invested only £3.2 per capita.
The NAC positioned Wiener and his comrades as party activists capable of mobilising migrants to join the ALP. But it also allowed them to penetrate the ALP in a way that few migrants could during the 1950s. This opened an opportunity for them to disagree with the party and articulate a clear pro-migrant position from inside it. They wanted to be part of an ALP that fought for the jobs and living conditions of every worker in Australia, regardless of their birthplace.
The NAC existed only four years because it was perpetually mired in sectarianism. Like most political forums in 1950s Australia, the NAC became a breeding ground for Communist and anti-Communist infighting, particularly between Jewish political factions like the Bund and members of the Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism.
In 1958 Wiener led a campaign against an ALP senate candidate, claiming he was at least a Communist sympathiser, if not a member of the Communist Party of Australia. The Victorian ALP, having lost many of its anti-Communist members in the Split, had softened its relationship with the CPA and the leadership was deeply reluctant to take Wiener’s campaign seriously. Wiener had somewhat of an obsession with the matter and was eventually expelled from the ALP. Although the conflict did not involve the NAC as such, the press nonetheless reported that the NAC’s dissolution in 1959 was a direct result of Wiener’s anti-Communist fallout with party. When the ALP launched a new Australians sub-committee tightly controlled by the state executive in 1959, it invited former NAC members to take part. Bundists were conspicuously absent.
A tiny organisation with politics from another place and time, the Bund needed the NAC as its lifeline to the ALP and the Australian working class. But this also spelled the NAC’s downfall. Wiener and his comrades became entangled in the political obstacles and conflicts of the period, and were too small to carry through their pro-migrant and anti-Communist positions from within the ALP. Whatever nascent social democratic cultural pluralism they envisioned existed largely in the minds of Melbourne Bundists, not on the shop floors of the Australian working class.
The history of the NAC and the Bund’s involvement in it tell us some important things for today. We may not associate 1950s Australia with migrant political participation. But the NAC shows us that migrants challenged the profound limitations imposed upon them by Australian society at this early juncture. For the Bund this meant fighting for a more inclusive country that truly welcomed migrants. The NAC, for all it failings, was a critical vehicle through which the Bund carried out this struggle. Importantly, the NAC also shows us that the ALP leadership is capable of taking a pro-migrant position – when it is economically and politically advantageous. When the party enters political crises or economic uncertainty, this position can falter. In this case, it is up to activists like Wiener to make the argument that migrants are not the cause of unemployment or worsening living standards. It is not new migrants who write austerity budgets or fail to invest in jobs and services. That only a united Labour movement that cuts across ethnic and cultural lines can demand jobs and services for all, which was Wiener’s argument in 1956, is just as true today.
The Australian Jewish Democratic Society (AJDS) fully endorses the following statement by the Jewish Labor Bund in regards to the Abbott government’s new asylum seeker policies.
We are appalled and alarmed by the cruelty and brutality of the Abbott’s government’s asylum seeker policies. They constitute a chilling abuse of human rights and are robbing asylum seekers of all hope and dignity. We are appalled at reports of men, women and children living in tents on Nauru, in sweltering tropical heat, appalled at the conditions of the single man’s camp, where the 350 inmates with access to just four toilets, have been reportedly hit with an outbreak of gastroenteritis, having to wait for in line for a two minute shower to wash away their indignity.
We are appalled at reports of children running amok, their unsupported parents powerless to look after them, at reports of a four-year-old child who has become catatonic and is refusing to eat. We are appalled at the conditions of the 1128 inmates on Manus Island, who, according to Age reports are living in tents, in shipping containers, or world war two bunkers, without mosquito nets, subject to Malaria and a lack of malaria tablets. Appalled at the living conditions of the 100 men crammed in bunks lined up against each other.
We are alarmed at the regime of secrecy of the Coalition’s Minister of Immigration, aided and abetted by the military style Operations Sovereign Borders. We are appalled at the cases of family separation, men being divided from woman and children, at the Iranian asylum seeker who has been told he will not be allowed to accompany his pregnant wife from Nauru to Darwin to be present at her birth. We are appalled at the up to 30,000 asylum seekers on mainland Australia, who are destitute and without hope, an increasing number of whom are living in a state of depression and anxiety, denied of work rights, and forced on relying on charity.
We are appalled at a government that has completely lost its moral compass, and at the cruelties being committed in our name. We are appalled at the punitive measures taken against people who are only doing what our own forebears did. Dismayed by the Minister Scott Morrison’s directive that the asylum seekers be called illegals, despite the fact that we are signatories to UN conventions that explicitly state that seeking asylum is a basic human right.
We have forgotten that we too were once immigrants and refugees in search of a better life, that except for indigenous people, we are, give or take a few generations, are a nation of boat people.