Death of Marek Edelman
Arran socialist Colin Turbett looks at the remarkable life of Marek Edelman one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943.
Marek Edelman, the only surviving commander of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943 died recently at the age of 89 . Obituaries have appeared in the press throughout the world but many of these will have missed aspects of this remarkable man’s life that are truly inspiring for socialists.
Born into a Jewish family with socialist leanings Edelman grew up in Warsaw and joined the Jewish Socialist organisation, the Bund, as a teenager. Prior to the war the Bund worked with the Polish Socialist Party in joint struggles to combat anti-semitism which was stirred up by the right wing dictatorial government in Poland who paved the way for the Nazi invasion of 1939.
After the Nazi invasion the Jews were forced into city ghettos throughout Poland, the largest being in Warsaw. The Ghetto’s population was soon swelled from 300,000 to over 400,000 by an influx of Jews cleared from the surrounding countryside. Arbitrary killings and insecurity were the order of the day in the Ghetto and it was clear what was coming to the Jews of Poland and elsewhere under Nazi occupation. In November 1940 the Warsaw ghetto was walled off from the rest of the city and mass murder and starvation of the population soon followed.
In January 1942 the Jewish political organisations in the Ghetto, principally the Socialists and the Zionists, came together and determined that armed resistance was necessary. The Jewish Fighting Organisation, the ZOB, was formed as a result of this decision and Marek Edelman, as a prominent young socialist, became one of its commanders. The bravery of these comrades, who faced betrayal, torture, and death on an unbelievable scale, cannot be overstated. From the start the socialists retained their own organisation and circulated papers and put up posters telling the truth of what was happening. They also began reprisals against particular Jewish police officers and others who were collaborating with the Nazis, as well occasionally against the occupiers themselves. Communication and collaboration with the Polish resistance organisations outside the Ghetto were important for the socialists.
In July 1942 the Nazis began forced evacuation of the population starting with the most vulnerable – the sick and the elderly. They were soon demanding that the Jewish Council handed over 10,000 people per day for “resettlement” in the East. The ZOB sent a member out of the ghetto to follow one of the trains. He reported back that the journey ended at an extermination camp, Treblinka, not far from Warsaw. This information was eventually passed on by Polish Home Army courier to allied commanders in London and Washington, but demands to act to stop the extermination of Europe’s Jews were ignored.
By the Spring of 1943 only 40,000 people remained in the Ghetto – all the others having been taken to their deaths in the network of extermination camps throughout Poland, principally Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec (the role of Auschwitz-Birkenau in the Nazi’s final solution was only just beginning at this point in the war) . Those that remained included the youngest and fittest whose survival had depended until then on their aptitude for slave labour. Edelman later recalled the profound impact of directly witnessing 400,000 people passing him on their way to their deaths: one of his jobs in the ZOB was to stand beside the railway platform from which the transports departed and point out to Jewish Police involved in the resistance, those who needed to be pulled aside and saved because of their use to the organisation. On several occasions he nearly got caught up in the transports himself, owing his survival to chance and good fortune. By this time the ZOB had decided that as soon as the Nazis moved in to eradicate the Ghetto entirely, they would fight back. At this point few weapons had successfully been smuggled in from the other side of the wall where they were anyway in short supply: Edelman later wrote that they had one pistol and ten to fifteen bullets for each of their three hundred or so fighters, a few rifles per section, and one machine gun in the entire ghetto. In addition they had a number of grenades and home made Molotov cocktails. Edelman, at 22, was one of the oldest of the fighters.
The Ghetto Resists
The Nazi final action commenced on April 23rd 1943 when SS troops moved in to begin clearing the Ghetto. To their surprise they were attacked by the ZOB and several hundred killed. The SS troops, experienced, well armed and well trained, were forced to retreat entirely from the Ghetto. However, backed by tanks, artillery and aircraft, they were back the next day. The Nazi SS General Stroop concluded that the Ghetto would be liquidised by burning out the population and this process began. It was no walkover and systematic resistance continued until mid May, and was not finally crushed until June 1943. By this time over 1200 SS troops had been killed.
Edelman’s 1945 account of the uprising tells of incredible heroism. Early on in the fightback he and the fighters under his command are cornered in an attic: one of his number, Michal Klepfisz, jumps onto the machine gun firing at them, clearing a path for the others to escape. Another fighter, Dawid Hochberg, who was still in his teens but nonetheless a battle group commander, was in a bunker where several hundred civilians as well as five ZOB battle groups were hiding. The Germans approached and the end for them all seemed inevitable: however, relinquishing his weapons, Hochberg blocked the narrow passageway with his own body. He was killed but before his wedged-in body could be removed, everyone else had time to escape. On another occasion Edelman recalls burying several fallen comrades at night in the rubble and a small group quietly singing the “Internationale” over the grave.
Meantime outside the Ghetto, life carried on as normal in Warsaw. A funfair was even situated by the wall. Many who would later fight back in the general Warsaw uprising the following year, took inspiration from the battle raging in the Ghetto. After the war eyewitnesses claimed to have seen the Polish flag alongside the Star of David flying from blazing buildings. Edelman himself dismissed this on the basis that the fighters had neither the energy nor the resources for such gestures.
Spirit of Rebellion
Edelman and his comrades proved that Jews did not have to go to their deaths without resistance and that even in situations that might seem hopeless, a fightback was possible. He was always keen to point out that their actions were not unique: throughout Poland there were other, if less enduring examples: in Sobibor and Treblinka there were mass breakouts, in Auschwitz-Birkenau a group of inmates blew up a gas chamber, and in a number of ghettoes including Bialystok, Tarnov , Bendin, Czenstovochow and Borislaw, there were smaller scale armed rebellions. In February 1943 the unarmed inhabitants of the Lodz Ghetto went on a general strike which successfully stopped a series of mass executions.
Within the burning Warsaw Ghetto, the Ghetto commander Mordchaj Anilewicz, and many of the combatants were surrounded on 8th May. Seeing the end as inevitable they committed mass suicide. Edelman and a number of others arranged escape through the sewers with the collaboration of the Polish Peoples Army (the Communist resistance) outside the wall. On 10th May a small number of armed men and women, led by Edelman, emerged blackened and filthy onto a Warsaw Street from a manhole cover, to a reception from a stunned crowd. Failure of their comrades to arrange effective cover meant that they had to make quick their escape in a speeding lorry - a number of their group were left behind to die in the sewers.
After their escape, Edelman and his colleagues joined the partisans outside the city in the forests, continuing their armed struggle against the Nazis, who by this time were facing eventual defeat after the turning point battle at Stalingrad. By July 1944 he was back in Warsaw to take part in the doomed general uprising that started on 1st August. Encouraged by Stalin the combined resistance armies of the AK (the London controlled Home Army) and the AL (the smaller People’s Army controlled from Moscow) launched a general armed uprising just as the Soviet Army, exhausted and stretched after major advances into Poland, stopped at the Vistula River on the edge of the city. Hopes that the Red Army would help liberate Warsaw were unfounded and the uprising was crushed by overwhelming force. The jury is still out on whether Stalin deliberately held his armies back in order to let potential opposition to a Soviet dominated Poland be crushed, but the outcome was general defeat and surrender to overwhelming German forces on 2nd October 1944.
Unlike most of his fellow Jews, Edelman survived the war and wrote up his uprising experience in “The Ghetto Fights” in 1945. He also chose to stay in Poland (unlike many contemporaries who went to Palestine/Israel) and help try to construct a socialist society. With the war over he seems to have sunk into torpor and apathy – what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. He emerged to finish medical school and continue the mission he had started in the Ghetto, to save lives by “Shielding the Flame” (the title of a widely read book based on interviews with him published in the 1970s). He remained in the leadership of the Bund, and opposed its merger into the ruling Polish United Workers Party in 1948 – after which it was disbanded by the ruling party.
In the decades that followed, Edelman’s role in the Ghetto uprising was forgotten, the post-war Moscow dominated regimes in Poland preferring dead icons to live ones. He became an eminent cardiologist in Lodz, playing a leading role in the discovery of pioneering heart surgery methods. In 1968 Poland saw a wave of officially sponsored anti-semitism, under the guise of anti-zionism in the wake of Israeli aggression in the Middle East. Many prominent Jews were forced out of work and left the country. Edelman’s own wife left for Paris with their children, but characteristically, he refused to leave Poland.
Edelman emerged from the shadows as Solidarnosc, the independent trade union, began to lead demands for reform in the 1980s. In 1981, at Solidarnosc’s first and last congress (before it was outlawed), a delegate who was being feted for his role in the wartime resistance pointed out that another delegate from Lodz had a greater claim to fame: to rapturous applause Marek Edelman was introduced as the only surviving commander from the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Not long after this Edelman was interned for his activities in Solidarnosc. In 1983 he refused to take part in the official celebrations to mark the fortieth anniversary of the uprising, remaining under house arrest in Lodz. In other years he celebrated this event by walking quietly with friends to the spot where his friend Anilewicz and other comrades died in their bunker. In his old age he stood up for the Palestinians and against Zionism - the State of Israel rewarded him by refusing to recognise his wartime heroism. Universities there also refused him honorary doctorates despite lobbying by prominent Israelis.
Edelman died on October 2nd 2009. Despite his experiences, Marek Edelman never lost faith in the ability of humankind to transform itself into something better and confound the forces that would drag it down and snuff it out. There could be no better epitaph than these words to journalist Hannah Krall in 1977:
“God is trying to blow out the candle and I’m quickly trying to shield the flame, taking advantage of His brief inattention. To keep the flame flickering, if only for a little while longer than He would wish…….You know, when you’ve seen all those people off on the trains, later on you have something to settle with him. And they all passed me by because I stood there from the first day to the last. All of them. Four hundred thousand people passed right by me.”