Marek Edelman, hero of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, is dead
On 2 October 2009 the BBC reported the death of Marek Edelman in its Warsaw ghetto uprising head dies. The Guardian carried an obituary by Lawrence Joffe on 4 October. And Lenin’s Tomb provides an interesting overview of his life and unique contribution in a posting Marek Edelman on Monday, 5 October, reproduced below (which ends with a link to an extract from Edelman’s moving account The Warsaw Ghetto: The 45th Anniversary of the Uprising).
This is what Marek Edelman did. In April 1943 he, along with some confederates of his – notably Mordecai Anielewicz, Chaim Frimmer and Adam Halperin – embarked on a violent uprising, using a combination of home-made and obsolete weapons, against the Nazis. Their aim was to stop the Nazis from transporting them to Treblinka, one of the Operation Reinhard camps, and murdering them. Two thirds of the ghetto’s population had already been taken away by the time the Jewish Fighting Organisation was formed. The Nazi regime in Poland was powerful, and had a powerful ally in Polish antisemitism. The institutions of segregation that the Nazis had introduced upon entering Poland were effective at isolating the Jewish population, and opportunities for coordinated resistance were few in number. Individual acts of resistance, such as escape, ‘passing’ as gentile, hiding possessions rather than allowing them to be taken, refusing to doff one’s cap to a German soldier, and so on, had been accompanied by more collective forms of resistance, such as the setting up of schools for children, the observation of Jewish holidays, and clandestine political activity. But until 1943, there was no insurgency to speak of.
Poland had, on the Nazi invasion, been divided into sections integrated into the Reich, an eastern section ruled by Russia, and a remaining territory ruled by the Nazis, known as the ‘General Government’. Warsaw was under the control of the General Government. In that territory, well before the promulgation of the Final Solution, Jews could expect to be beaten, rounded up for menial labour, forced to dance naked for the amusement of German troops, and have their property siezed. They were excluded from owning businesses, and from participating in certain occupations, and by the end of September 1939, the first stages of ghettoization were under way. By the end of 1940, Jews in Warsaw were confined to an area not much larger than one square mile. The peak population of the Ghetto was half a million, at which point the average room occupancy was thirteen. Deprived of jobs and incomes, much of the population began to starve, turning to beggary or smuggling to survive. But smuggling was dangerous, as anyone caught climbing the wall – usually children – would be gunned down on sight by any German soldier. Residents had to develop self-help organizations to ensure the survival of the poorest. But it wasn’t enough. By May 1941, half the residents of the Ghetto were starving to death.
By 1942, news began to filter through of the massacres taking place, and of the extermination that was afoot. But for a long time few people were ready to believe such accounts, and there remained optimism that the Nazis would be defeated in the war, and life would return to normal. Edelman recorded: “The Warsaw Ghetto did not believe in the reports. All who clung to life would not believe that their lives could be taken from them in such a manner.” But mass deportations began in July of that year, with thousands sent to Treblinka every day for six weeks on end. Even then, the response was to seek protection by getting employment in German industries, as it was thought that this would protect one from being deported. The Nazis sought to encourage any confusion they could by forcing victims to write reassuring postcards and letters back to the Warsaw Ghetto, before putting them to their deaths. Some of the traditional religious leadership argued that God would deliver a miracle and save the situation. The Zionist leader Dr Isaac Schipper argued that collective resistance would bring “annihilation upon the ghetto”. On the other hand, communists, Bund socialists, and socialist Zionists believed that annihilation was afoot whatever they did, and urged collective resistance. Only when all hope was lost, then, was there any hope of resistance.
At the end of September 1942, two organisations emerged to resist the Nazis: the Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa (ZOB) or Jewish Fighting Organisation, and the Żydowski Związek Wojskowy (ZZW) or Jewish Military Union. The latter was led by right-wing Betari youth inspired by revisionist Zionism, and the former by a coalition of leftists. It was the ZOB to which Edelman belonged, as a member of the leftist Jewish bund. Those who could ‘pass’ as ‘Aryans’ slipped out of the ghetto, risking death to smuggle in weapons. The ZOB and ZZW forcibly taxed those few remaining Jews – mainly those in the Jewish police – who had still had assets or income to speak of, and used this to build their armoury. The Jewish police received the most severe treatment, as they had purloined the property of Jews who were sent off to be exterminated. By April 1943, the ZZW had about 400 members armed with pistols and hand grenades, and the ZOB had 500 members who had acquired pistols, hand grenades, some machine guns and submachine guns, and 30 rifles. They were ridiculously outgunned and, if it came to it, outnumbered. But as the Nazis prepared their final expulsion, to begin on 18 April 1943, the remaining population – only 30,000 by then – was hidden in prepared bunkers. The fighters situated themselves in the vacated apartments, and waited.
It took a month of bitter fighting, with Europe’s most ruthless killing machine pitted against a poorly armed guerilla outfit, before General Jurgen Stroop could declare Warsaw ‘judenrein’. The Ghetto was in ruins, and most of the residents were either dead or caught and sent to the death camps. But the Nazis would have killed every last resident far more efficiently if there had been no resistance, and for the first time their aura of invincibility was cracked. They suddenly had to deal with rebellions in Treblinka, in August 1943, and in Sobibor in October the same year. These rebellions, by prisoners working under constant surveillance with little access to materials, and in the most unpromising circumstances possible, were circumvented, and hundreds of prisoners were killed in reprisals, though many were able to make an escape.
Edelman had escaped the Warsaw Ghetto on 9 May 1943, using the sewers. The next year a general uprising took place across the whole city of Warsaw, in which he also took part. That too was ruthlessly crushed, and the Nazis didn’t hesitate to wipe out hundreds of thousands of civilians in the aftermath. Again, Edelman escaped, and when the Nazis were finally defeated he went on to live as a cardiologist in Poland. He resisted Stalinism as well, becoming active in the workers’ defence committees in the 1970s, and had a key role in the Solidarity movement when it emerged. Though he was politically centrist in his later years, particularly after the collapse of the USSR, Edelman could still arouse controversy. His resistance to the Nazi holocaust did not lead him to become a supporter of Zionism. He refused to move to Israel, and he always rejected Zionism’s claim that the Warsaw Ghetto was a model of Jewish liberation that led to the establishment of the Israeli state. He sent a letter to the Palestinians in 2002 that, while it criticised tactics such as suicide attacks, affirmed solidarity with their struggle and compared theirs with that of the Jews of Warsaw.
One last thing. I have been hearing about this film, in which a crack squad of Jewish soldiers, led by an American with Brad Pitt’s face, hunt down, torture, terrorise and kill Nazis. And I have been thinking about how unsatisfying this is. It is a revenge fantasy, not a document of resistance. It is not about stopping the judeocide, but about exacting a price in blood – seeking payment for a moral debt that could, by definition, never be discharged. I was thinking how much better it would be if there had been Marek Edelmans organising resistance in the ghettos of Germany in 1938. I’d certainly take Edelman over Tarantino any day of the week.
You can read Edelman’s account of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising here.