A legacy of resistance

October 12, 2009

Annie Levin gives tribute to one of the leaders of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

MAREK EDELMAN, the last surviving leader of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, passed away on October 2 at the age of 90.

For occupied people the world over, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising has long been a symbol that resistance is possible, even in the face of overwhelming military odds. During the Israeli assault on Gaza this past January, many Palestinians saw their own struggle in parallel with the Warsaw Ghetto fighters.

Palestinian scholar Joseph Massad recalled, "Their uprising was always inspirational to the Palestinians. In the heyday of the PLO as a symbol of Palestinian liberation, the organization would lay flower wreathes at the Warsaw Ghetto monument to honor these fallen Jewish heroes."

In 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, launching the Second World War. The following year, the Germans rounded up 400,000 Polish Jews and sealed them inside Warsaw Ghetto, where they died in the thousands, from starvation, disease and violence. In 1942, the Nazis began the mass deportations from the ghetto, packing thousands of Jews into train cars to be carried away to the death camps.

Marek Edelman
Marek Edelman

Deportations to the camps took place across Europe. But in Warsaw, where the Nazis least expected it, they met with mass armed resistance from the Jewish population.

The story of how this resistance was organized forms the text of The Ghetto Fights, Marek Edelman's powerful firsthand account of the uprising.

Only 20 years old when the Nazis invaded Poland, Edelman was a member of the Jewish anti-Zionist group, the Bund. As an organized socialist, he helped pull together an underground network inside the Ghetto of socialists, trade unionists, and Jewish youth groups.

This underground worked for years to expand their numbers, provide combat training, acquire arms and prepare for a future confrontation with the Nazis.

Edelman explained that most of the ghetto population refused to believe the rumors about the existence of the death camps, and were willing to board the trains because it was a way to escape the slow and certain death inside the ghetto. Sometimes the Nazis even bribed starving crowds to get on the trains by offering them bits of bread.

Therefore, the underground saw that its main task was to convince the ghetto population that the trains were, in fact, taking them to their deaths, and that armed resistance to the deportations had to be carried out. Edelman wrote,

All our clandestine activities, we decided, would now be carried out with a single view in mind: to prepare our resistance...

The same day the first issue of our paper, On Guard, in which we warned the population not to volunteer for deportation, and called for resistance, appeared.

"Utterly helpless as we are," Comrade Orzech wrote in the editorial, "we must not let ourselves be caught. Fight against it with all means at your disposal!"
However, on January 18th, 1943, the ghetto was surrounded once again and the "second liquidation" began. This time, however, the Germans were not able to carry out their plans unchallenged. Four barricaded battle groups offered the first armed resistance in the ghetto.
Public opinion, Jewish as well as Polish, reacted immediately to the ghetto battles. For now, for the first time, German plans were frustrated. For the first time the halo of omnipotence and invincibility was torn from the Germans' heads.

For the first time the Jew in the street realized that it was possible to do something against the Germans' will and power. The number of Germans killed by [our] bullets was not the only important thing. What was more important was the appearance of a psychological turning point. The mere fact that because of the unexpected resistance, weak as it was, the Germans were forced to interrupt their "deportation" schedule was of great value.

IN APRIL 1943, the Germans launched their final assault to liquidate the ghetto. The ranks of the resistance had been so decimated that Edelman reported they were down to a mere 220 poorly armed, half starved fighters, facing off against the enormous, overconfident German war machine

Now the SS-men were ready to attack. In closed formations stepping haughtily and loudly, they marched into the seemingly dead streets of the central ghetto. Their triumph appeared to be complete. It looked as if this superbly equipped modern army had scared off the handful of bravado-drunk men, as if those few immature boys had at last realized that there was no point in attempting the unfeasible, that they understood that the Germans had more rifles than there were rounds for all their pistols.

But no, they did not scare us and we were not taken by surprise. We were only awaiting an opportune moment. Such a moment presently arrived...

Strange projectiles began exploding everywhere (the hand grenades of our own make), the lone machine-gun sent shots through the air now and then (ammunition had to be conserved carefully), rifles started firing a bit farther away. Such was the beginning.

The Germans attempted a retreat, but their path was cut. German dead soon littered the street.

Now something unprecedented took place. Three officers with lowered machine-guns appeared. They wore white rosettes in their buttonholes--emissaries. They desired to negotiate with the Area Command. They proposed a 15-minute truce to remove the dead and the wounded...

Firing was our answer. Every house remained a hostile fortress. From every storey, from every window bullets sought hated German helmets, hated German hearts.

The Nazis had to burn the ghetto to the ground to end the resistance. Edelman led 50 comrades through an underground sewer to escape the inferno and, in that way, he narrowly survived to fight another day.

The following year, in 1944, Edelman joined the heroic 63-day Warsaw uprising, when the Polish resistance tried, and failed, to liberate the city from German occupation.

Only 280,000 of Poland's 3.5 million Jews survived the Holocaust. But Edelman refused to emigrate after the war, telling one interviewer,

"Warsaw is my city...Someone has to stay here with all those who died."

EDELMAN BECAME a cardiologist in Poland, but he maintained his commitment to the working class and the oppressed for the rest of his life. As a Jew, he was repeatedly fired from his hospital positions during the Stalinist regime's periodic anti-Semitic witch-hunts.

By the 1970s, few Poles had heard of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, a history that the Stalinist state did its best to suppress, for obvious reasons. So In 1976, Edelman finally ended his own silence about his experience, and gave a book-length interview about the uprising to the underground, anti-Stalinist press. Though the book had to be printed secretly, it sold 40,000 copies.

In the late 1970s, Edelman joined the Workers Defense Committee, the group that developed into the powerful Polish workers movement, Solidarity. When Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski cracked down on Solidarity and declared martial law in 1981, Edelman was among those detained by the state.

In 1983, when that same regime asked him to join the organizing committee for a state celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Ghetto uprising, Edelman refused, stating that to do so "would be an act of cynicism and contempt" in a country "where social life is dominated throughout by humiliation and coercion."

To the end Edelman was stubborn in the face of institutional pressure when it came to speaking out about his beliefs.

After Edelman died last week, the Israeli newspaper Ha'Aretz published an article called "The Last Bundist," by writer Moshe Arens, who knew Edelman personally. Arens commented, with some puzzlement, that to the end of his life, Edelman stayed true to his Bundist political principles--belief in socialism and opposition to Zionism.

Arens also noted that Edelman was a frequent critic of the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians and wondered if that uncomfortable fact might explain why, when "I tried to convince a number of Israeli universities to award Edelman an honorary doctorate in recognition of his role in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, I ran into stubborn opposition led by Holocaust historians in Israel."

Thus, in the last year of Edelman's life, his historic struggle was embraced by the Palestinians in Gaza, and rejected by the Israeli establishment. His legacy of resistance lives on, a hero to the oppressed and a threat to the oppressor.

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