Marek Edelman, a staunchly anti-Zionist Jew who was a deputy commander of the ill-fated Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and a true inheritor of the tradition of Jewish radicalism bequeathed by the likes of Rosa Luxembourg, passed away at his home in Warsaw on October 2nd. In India, that same day, the birthday of Mohandas Gandhi, in whose life there is yet another model of resistance to oppression, was being observed. The struggle to retain a memory of what Edelman stood for will now commence: time gnaws at everything, sometimes taking little morsels, at other times satisfied with nothing but big chunks. Memory is yet another form of the struggle in which life and death are inextricably inter-locked.
Poland had, before the war, the largest Jewish population of any state in Europe. Few of its three million Jews survived the concentration camps; fewer still were those who offered opposition to the Germans and lived to tell the tale. With the German blitzkrieg against Poland on 1 September 1939, World War II commenced; the Germans overran Poland within days. The Jewish neighborhood of Warsaw was, over months, transformed into a ghetto, bounded by barbed wire and brick walls; and something like 480,000 Jews were confined in that space. Edelman described, in a pamphlet published to mark the 45th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the sentences meted out to those Jews caught trespassing in the ‘Aryan section’: at 4 AM on 12 February 1941, to furnish one illusion, shrill cries woke up the population to announce that 17 Jews who had left the ghetto ‘in pursuit of a piece or bread or a few pennies’ were being executed. The ghetto, Edelman wrote, ‘could clearly feel the breath of death.’ Over the next several months, well into early 1942, Edelman and the ghetto’s inhabitants heard stories and reports of mass executions of Jews taking place. Edelman is candid in describing what some people still have difficulty in believing, or admitting: ‘people dismissed as untrue the story of the wholesale slaughter of almost the entire transport of German Jews brought the previous year to the vicinity of Lublin.’ The stories were too horrible to be plausible. ‘The ghetto did not believe.’
By early 1942, Edelman, who was active in Jewish socialist and labor politics, had come around to the view that the Nazis were engaged in wholesale and systematic extermination of Jews, beginning with the most active elements of the Jewish population. This view was clearly expounded in the 19 April 1942 issue of Der Weker, one of several periodicals published in the ghetto. Still, few people in the ghetto could bring themselves around to the acceptance of this view. It would be one year from that day, on 19 April 1943, that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising would commence, at a time when only 60,000 Jews were left alive in the ghetto. Many years later, Edelman would contest attempts to elevate the number of resistance fighters beyond 220: while it might have been comforting to believe that more of the ghetto’s residents had been prepared to enter into a struggle that was doomed from the outset, pitting young, emaciated, hungry, poorly equipped and ill-trained men against a much larger force of German soldiers armed with artillery and machine-guns, Edelman’s own resolute fidelity to the truth would not allow him to enhance the numbers. In the three weeks during which the resistance fighters held out, Commander Mordechai Anielewicz was killed; Edelman made good his escape, living to take part in the equally futile Warsaw Uprising of 1944.
Having survived the war, Edelman went on to have an eminently successful medical career, becoming one of Poland’s most renowned cardiologists. I would like to believe that it is no accident that he treated diseases of the heart. His fellow survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto made their way to Israel, but Edelman found himself unable to abandon one of the most poignant homes of European Jewry. To leave Poland would have been tantamount to cutting away a piece of himself. Like many other survivors, he insisted that those who had not been witness to the calamities of the Holocaust could not say much about how the survivors exercised their moral choices. The uprising, for instance, was liable to be interpreted as a heroic act of resistance, but Edelman was quite clear what it meant: ‘We fought simply not to allow the Germans alone to pick the time and place of our deaths.’
For many years after the end of the war, Edelman maintained a studious silence; but, in 1986, he finally opened up to the Polish Jewish writer Hanna Krall. The record of their conversations, Shielding the Flame, yields many luminous insights, and I hope to advert to this book, buried amidst the thousands of works on the Holocaust, in a later post. But for the present I wish to conclude with a brief account of the controversy surrounding Edelman in Israel. In later life, Edelman was among the most prominent Jewish figures, and that too a survivor of the Holocaust, to embrace the view that Israel’s conduct towards the Palestinians was too reminiscent of the Nazi repression of Jews. Edelman became a vigorous critic of the occupation: thinking, no doubt, about the massively unequal forces that were pitched in battle during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, he recognized as well the enormous disequilibrium of power between the Palestinians and the state of Israel. But, as his letter of August 2002 addressed to ‘all the leaders of Palestinian military, paramilitary and guerilla organizations’, and ‘to all the soldiers of Palestinian militant groups’, makes amply clear, Edelman was equally critical of their easy and heady embrace of violence. ‘We were fighting with a hopeless determination,’ the letter states, ‘but our weapons were never directed against the defenseless civilian populations, we never killed women and children. In a world devoid of principles and values, despite a constant danger of death, we did remain faithful to these values and moral principles.’ Marek Edelman lived a life exemplary to the last, a life of luminosity, dignity, probity and moral awareness.