Saturday, 6 April 2013

The story of Marek Edelman and the Warsaw Ghetto uprising

Marek Edelman, a leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in April 1943
This week sees the 70th anniversary of the start of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising (April 1943). I wanted to use the occasion to share with you the story of one of the leaders of the uprising – Marek Edelman. What follows is information cleaned from a number of obituaries that appeared after Edelman’s death in 2009.

My interest in Edelman is that his way of looking at Jewish history is rather different from the mainstream Zionist historiography that attempts to show every misfortune and tragedy of Jewish history as evidence of the impossibility of Jews to live ‘among the nations’ in safety, security and respect. For Zionism, every calamity is proof that Jews can only protect their identity, their culture and their religion if they have the trappings of the modern nation state. Edelman did not see it that way nor did he believe that the ghetto uprising had somehow contrasted ‘muscular Judaism’ with the ‘passive victims’ who were forced into the gas chambers of Treblinka. If anything, Edelman believed it was those that died in the death camps that had  shown the greatest courage. For Edelman, there were lessons to be learnt for Jews and gentiles alike after the Holocaust, and they were universal lessons about our responsibility to all humanity.

Born in 1919 into a Jewish family in Poland, Marek Edelman grew up in Warsaw and joined the Jewish Socialist organisation, the Bund, as a teenager.

The Bundists did not believe in waiting for a Jewish messiah to solve their problems (as orthodox Judaism did), nor did they agree with Zionism's answer of building a new Jewish State in Palestine as the way to solve the ‘Jewish Question’ in Europe. Bundists believed that Jews should be citizens of the nations in which they lived and that they should be committed to political systems that respected the rights of all minorities.

After the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, the Jews were forced into city ghettos throughout the country, the largest being in Warsaw. The ghetto’s population soon swelled from 300,000 to over 400,000 by an influx of Jews cleared from the surrounding countryside.

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 Bundists and the Zionists, came together and determined that armed resistance was necessary. The Jewish Fighting Organisation, the ZOB, was formed and Marek Edelman became one of its commanders.

Over the next few months, 100,000 people died inside the ghetto from hunger and disease, and over 300,000 were sent to Nazi death camps, mainly to Treblinka in eastern Poland. When Edelman and his comrades were finally able to launch their revolt against the Nazis, there were fewer than 60,000 left in the ghetto.

Those that remained included the youngest and fittest whose survival had depended on their ability to withstand the terrible conditions of ghetto life.

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.

Their uprising began on the eve of Passover 1943.

"We knew perfectly well that we had no chance of winning," Edelman recalled. "We fought simply not to allow the Germans alone to pick the time and place of our deaths. We knew we were going to die. Just like all the others who were sent to Treblinka." Indeed, Edelman added, far from going passively, those who went steadfastly to Treblinka had shown the ultimate courage. "Their death was far more heroic. We didn't know when we would take a bullet. They had to deal with certain death, stripped naked in a gas chamber or standing at the edge of a mass grave waiting for a bullet in the back of the head. It is an awesome thing, when one is going so quietly to one's death. It was easier to die fighting than in a gas chamber."

After escaping through the Warsaw sewers with the surviving members of the uprising, Edelman joined the Polish resistance.

After the war, he chose to stay in Poland and help try to construct a socialist society. He trained to a doctor, eventually becoming a highly respected heart specialist.

In the decades that followed, Edelman’s role in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising was forgotten. He stayed active in politics and was a critic of the oppressive Soviet Russia backed governments in Poland in the 1970s.

In the early 1980s, he joined Solidarity, the independent Polish trade union that was campaigning to bring greater political freedom than that allowed by the communist government. When Solidarity was outlawed by the Polish government Edelman was arrested and imprisoned for a time.

As he grew older, Edelman continued to speak out on issues of political freedom. In the 1990s, he was concerned about the events in Bosnia, then in Kosovo. He went with a humanitarian convoy to Sarajevo, and made an appeal to the NATO leadership in April 1999 that was published in leading Western newspapers. In it, he wrote:

“I appeal to you, leaders of the free world, not to stop the air strikes and to send soldiers to Kosovo so that what I witnessed in the Warsaw Ghetto will not be repeated. In the current situation, only the presence of NATO soldiers can save the Albanians from genocide. I know how painful it is for those sending their soldiers to war to know that they could die. But I also know-as do all those of my generation-that freedom has a price. A price that we must be willing to pay.”

Marek Edelman was a critic of Israel and its policies towards the Palestinians. As a result his role in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising was never given the acknowledgement that others received. But he also condemned the Palestinian leadership when suicide bombing became a tactic of their resistance. Edelman wrote a public letter to the Palestinian military commanders:

"My name is Marek Edelman, I am a former Deputy Commander of the Jewish Military organization in Poland, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Insurrection, In the memorable year of the insurrection - 1943 - we were fighting for the survival of the Jewish community in Warsaw. We were fighting for mere life, not for territory, nor for a national identity. We were fighting with a hopeless determination, but our weapons were never directed against the defenceless 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."

Despite his experiences, Marek Edelman never lost faith in the ability of people to transform themselves into something better. He believed that all people should be able to live in freedom, without fear and with respect and dignity. For Edelman, the lessons of the Holocaust were for all people to learn if the cry of 'Never Again' was to have real meaning. He never lost his Jewish Bundist outlook on the world that saw the special contribution that Jews could bring to building a just world.

Marek Edelman died on October 2nd 2009 aged 90. He was the last surviving member of the Ghetto uprising.


  1. Thank you for this great article.

    Regards from Poland

  2. Marek Edelman wasn't the last surviving member of Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but the last surviving of its leaders. Anyway, there only three surviving members of the Uprising by now, among them Symcha Ratajzer-Rotem aka "Kazik" who guided Edelman and the survivors of his troop through the sewers to the so-called "aryan part of Warsaw".

    Fine article, regards from Poland from me also.

  3. I appreciate your words about Marek Edelman, and have no problem with your reproduction of his criticism of suicide bombings. But if you are going to quote this, I find it unacceptable that you do not mention that in the same letter he expressed solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.

  4. I appreciate your words about Marek Edelman, and have no problem with your reproduction of his criticism of suicide bombings. But if you are going to quote this, I find it unacceptable that you do not mention that in the same letter he expressed solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.