Jewish resistance fighter Marek Edelman died recently, aged 90. John Rose looks at the story and legacy of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto anti-Nazi uprising he led
“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 realised that there was no point in attempting the unfeasible.
“But no, they did not scare us and we were not taken by surprise. We were only waiting an opportune moment.
“Battle groups barricaded at the four corners of the street opened concentric fire on them.
“Strange projectiles began exploding everywhere, the hand grenades of our own make, the lone machine pistol sent shots through the air now and then—ammunition had to be conserved carefully.
“They attempted a retreat but their path was cut. Their dead soon littered the street.”
Thus Marek Edelman describes the first major battle for the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto in his stunning memoir The Ghetto Fights.
Edelman, who died recently aged 90 in his native Poland, was the last survivor of the five-person command group which led the Ghetto uprising.
He is describing the beginning of the 1943 uprising against the Nazi Holocaust in Poland.
Two thirds of the 400,000 Jewish men, women and children sealed in the ghetto had already been deported to the death camps.
The uprising was triggered by the Jewish Fighting Organisation (in Polish, Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa, or “Zob”). It was formed from three political parties—the Anti-Zionist Jewish Socialist Bund, the Socialist Zionists and the Communists.
Two days fighting resulted in “something unprecedented”, he continues. “Three officers with lowered machine pistols appeared. They wore white rosettes in their buttonholes: emissaries.
“They desired to negotiate with the Area Command. They proposed a fifteen minute truce to remove the dead and 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 end came only when the Nazis set the Ghetto ablaze. Edelman was one of the lucky few to escape by crawling through underground sewers.
The fire was the only way the Nazis could “save their military honour”. Heinrich Himmler, Nazi chief military thug, had panicked. He ordered the total destruction of the Ghetto.
“Otherwise,” he said, “we shall never pacify Warsaw, which continues to be a dangerous centre of disintegration and diversion.”
Himmler was right about that. A year later the Polish Underground, inspired by the Jewish ghetto fighters despite their defeat, led the city-wide uprising against the Nazi occupation.
Remarkably, Edelman took part in that uprising too.
Edelman’s remarks about “hand grenades of our own make” and the “lone machine pistol” firing only occasionally to conserve ammunition—comments echoed in other memoirs—have been seized upon by some historians.
Don’t they prove the deep rooted, endemic antisemitism, the anti-Jewish hatred, of wider Polish society? Why, even the anti-Nazi Polish Underground was unable or unwilling to arm the Ghetto properly.
Marek Edelman always dismissed these accusations. In 1989 I visited him at his home in Lodz, Poland, to seek his agreement to produce a first British edition of The Ghetto Fights.
He told me then that nearly 50 years of reflection had not changed his mind about the basic decency of the Polish people.
His humanist Judaism and trenchant political beliefs forged in the struggles of his teenage years as a cadre of the Bund had instilled in him an unshakeable belief that racism could be overcome, and in the potentially enormous power of solidarity.
Yes, there was a weakness of solidarity from the Polish Underground in 1943 but it reflected their own weakness, lack of arms and terrible sense of their own political isolation.
The Red Army might have helped deliver the knock-out blow against Hitler in the end, but the 1944 Polish uprising was defeated because Stalin ordered them to halt outside Warsaw.
Israeli ideologues and politicians have always bitterly resented Edelman’s decision to live in Poland, and ignore and even dare criticise Israel.
They sneer at his positive attitude to Polish solidarity. But “Antek” Zukerman agreed with Edelman. Antek was Zob’s liaison with the Polish Underground, Edelman’s comrade in the Zob leadership – and a staunch Zionist who ended his days on the Ghetto Fighters Kibbutz in Israel.
Antek watched the Ghetto burn from the outside.
In his own astonishing memoir, A Surplus of Memory, he writes, “With my own eyes I saw Poles crying, just standing and crying.
“One day the ghetto was shrouded in smoke and I saw masses of Poles, without a trace of spiteful malice.”
Antek even called it a “sin” to condemn the Polish people. He also knew all about Polish solidarity.
Here he is describing rank and file Polish Communists: “Until they were corrupted by authority and even more so by Stalin, those people demonstrated exceptional personal and movement integrity.”
The basic conviction of the Ghetto Fighters was that the struggle of fellow Poles suffering at the hands of the Nazis was the same struggle as their own.
This led to the publication, as the Ghetto was on the brink of collapse, of a “Manifesto to the Poles”, which must rank as one of the last century’s greatest appeals to liberty, equality and fraternity.
“Poles, citizens, soldiers of Freedom!” it begins.
“Through the din of German cannon, destroying the homes of our mothers, wives and children; through the noise of their machine guns, seized by us in the fight against the cowardly German police and SS men…
“Through the smoke of the Ghetto that was set on fire, and the blood of its mercilessly killed defenders, we, the slaves of the Ghetto, convey heartfelt greetings to you.
“We are well aware that you have been witnessing breathlessly, with broken hearts, with tears of compassion, with horror and enthusiasm, the war that we have been waging against every brutal occupier these past few days.
“Every doorstep in the Ghetto has become a stronghold and shall remain a fortress until the end! All of us will probably perish in the fight, but we shall never surrender!
“We, as well as you, are burning with the desire to punish the enemy for his crimes.
“It is a fight for our freedom as well as yours! We shall avenge the gory deeds at Oswiecim, Treblinka, Belzec and Majdanek!
“Long live freedom! Death to the hangmen and the killer! We must continue our mutual struggle against the occupier until the very end!
“Signed, the Jewish Armed Resistance Organisation.”
Marek’s fight for freedom did not end
After the war ended, Marek Edelman became a heart surgeon in his native Poland—continuing the task of “saving lives”, as he saw it.
And he remained politically active all his life, supporting the independent Solidarity trade union movement that would remove the Stalinist regime in Poland in the 1980s.
At Solidarity’s congress in 1981, in the shipbuilding city of Gdansk, where the union was founded, a veteran of the Polish Underground that led the 1944 uprising against the Nazis, one year after the Ghetto uprising, halted the applause for himself.
He pointed to a hero “of considerably greater stature” in the hall—Dr Marek Edelman.
The Communist authorities, fearful that Edelman would emerge as an iconic figure for Solidarity, offered him belated Polish military honours, which he refused.
In the summer of 2002, Edelman, still going strong, intervened in Israel’s show trial of the now jailed Palestinian resistance leader, Marwan Barghouti.
He wrote a letter of solidarity to the Palestinian movement, and, though he criticised the suicide bombers, its tone infuriated the Israeli government and its press.
Edelman had always resented Israel’s claim on the Warsaw Ghetto uprising as a symbol of Jewish liberation. Now he said this belonged to the Palestinians.
He addressed his letter to the Palestinian “Zob”: the “commanders of the Palestinian military, paramilitary and partisan operations” and “all the soldiers of the Palestinian fighting organisations”.
The old Jewish anti-Nazi Ghetto fighter had placed his immense moral authority at the disposal of the only side he deemed worthy of it.