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.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Soundtrack to a Paradigm Shift...or...

...Now That's What I Call, the Essential, Ultimate, Best of, Gold Collection, Israel-Palestine music crowd-sourced by readers of Micah's Paradigm Shift

I'm looking for your help to compile the ultimate Israel-Palestine music playlist. You can read my own suggestions below but before we get down to business, here's the topical connection and some (musical) notes by way of background.

I've just seen reported that Pink Floyd founder member, Roger Waters, is rounding up fellow musicians to record an song calling for a boycott of Israel in support of Palestinian rights. Waters is no slouch when it comes to campaigning on Israel-Palestine, as you can tell from the recent interview he gave to the Electronic Intifada

As a teenage Floyd fan in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I remember Waters name-checking the then Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, in his song about cruel and sadistic world leaders, 'The Fletcher Memorial Home'. It was 1982, the year of Israel's first Lebanon war and the massacre by Christian Phalangist militia of Palestinians living in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut (under the watching eyes of the Israeli Defence Forces). The passing mention of Begin was enough to start me on a long journey to understand the history of the State of Israel and the Zionist political philosophy that underpins it.

At the same time as buying Pink Floyd albums, I was also catching up on early Bob Dylan and discovering the world of protest songs. Looking back, it now seems as though the 1960s were the high point of this particular musical genre. The U.S. Civil Rights and the anti-Vietnam movements intersected perfectly with a creative musical explosion. For a few critical years in the mid-20th century, good politics and good popular music brilliantly coincided. All of this was built on the hard work work of previous generations, notably Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and the entire Black Gospel tradition that in turn led to Soul music. My own favourites from this time are Dylan's 'Masters of War' (with a tune borrowed from the English folk tradition) and the Curtis Mayfield Gospel/Soul classic 'People Get Ready'. Anything by Mavis Staples gets my vote too. If you want dive deep into the whole history of popular protest music then look no further than Dorian Lynskey's 33 Revolutions Per Minute published last year.

So, like many young people over the years, it wasn't political tracts, books or speeches that sparked my curiosity about what makes the world tick, but rather melody, rhythms, harmonies, back-beats, passionate vocals and inspired lyrics. 

I'm a firm believer that every socially progressive movement for change deserves its own musical soundtrack. A set of songs to keep the foot soldiers and keyboard tappers motivated and inspired through the long haul to the new world.

The international campaign for Palestinian rights and peace for all the inhabitants of Israel-Palestine is no different. However, so far, the musical aspect of this particular struggle has failed to take off despite a few concerted attempts.

For those readers that remember the anti-Apartheid era of the 1980s, there was Peter Gabriel's Biko from 1980, which reached no. 38 in the UK charts and then 'Free Nelson Mandela'  by the Special AKA in 1984 which reached no.9. Then in 1987 there was the techno-pop-jazz 'Bring Him Back Home' by the exiled South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela which gained world-wide attention.. Songs like these introduced my generation to the situation in South Africa and left us politicised for life. Only later did I integrate my thinking into a Jewish religious tradition that sanctifies all human life as equally precious in the eyes of God and that demands the eternal pursuit of  prophetic justice.

For a while now I've been looking out for songs that attempt to make sense of what's been happening in that tiny strip of land in the Middle East. Compared to South Africa, it seems to be taking a lot longer to reach the tipping point in the public's imagination so that a song akin to 'Free Nelson Mandela' can take hold and become the soundtrack of social change. That tells us something about how difficult it is to cut through the political dynamics that govern this particular conflict. But still, you have to start somewhere.

So below is my current Israel-Palestine iPod playlist (most tracks available via iTunes). There's a distinct bias in favour of British and American artists with a folky/country bent. Meanwhile, Jewish Israeli and Muslim and Christian Palestinian contributions are rather lacking at the moment.

So this is where I need your help. Take a look at my list and the 'sleeve notes' below and then let me know what you would like to add to the catalog. The songs need to be commercially available. You can post a comment below or use the Contact Micah form to send through your contributions. And let me know why your choices mean something to you.

In a few weeks I'll update the list.

Soundtrack to a Paradigm Shift 
(hyperlinks take you to YouTube clips)    
  1. Freedom for Palestine - One World
  2. The Lonesome Death of Rachel Corrie - Billy Bragg
  3. Road to Peace - Tom Waits
  4. On the Wrong Side of the Wall -  Rory McLeod
  5. Long Live Palestine -  Lowkey
  6. Jerusalem - Steve Earle
  7. My Father's Jewish World - Leon Rosselson
  8. On an April Day (Deir Yassin Remembered) - Garth Hewitt
  9. Song of the Magi - Anais Mitchell
  10. Donestan - Robert Wyatt     
Sleeve notes

1. Freedom for Palestine:  One World's straight-ahead, up-beat, dance-pop anthem for Palestine and Palestinian human rights "We are the people, And this is our time, Stand up, Sing out, for Palestine". Composed and produced by Dave Randall (Slovo\Faithless). The aim was to break through into the mainstream pop charts and so force broadcasters like the BBC to air the message. It didn't quite happen (only no.79 in the UK) but a noble effort and a great track.

2. The Lonesome Death of Rachel Corrie: Billy Bragg, the UK's post-punk doyen of protest song, borrows a tune and format from Bob Dylan's Civil Rights era to tell the story of the American peace activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer as she attempted to protect a Gazan family's home from demolition in Rafah in 2003. Bragg laments the fact that "the spilt blood of a single American is worth more than the blood of a 100 Palestinians." Full lyrics here.

3. Road to Peace: Tom Waits in his trade mark voice, shredded by razor blades, tells the story of a Palestinian suicide bomber during the second intifada who murders 17 Israeli Jews on a Jerusalem bus. The song goes on to recount the tit-for-tat consequences of the attack ("they say the killing has intensified along the Road to Peace") with the mood being one of a 'plague on both your houses'. However, Waits does call out the United States for its role in perpetuating the conflict. The final verse is worth pondering: "And if God is great, and God is good, Why can't he change the hearts of men ? Maybe God himself is lost and needs help, Maybe God himself needs all of our help, He's lost upon the Road to Peace."

4. On the Wrong Side of the Wall: This song by the highly talented UK folk singer Rory McLeod was written as part of a song project ('All Along the Wall') about Hadrian's Wall, the Roman built separation wall between England and Scotland. McLeod's, upbeat, jaunty tune with a catchy chorus uses the Roman wall as the epitome of all walls that separate people, exerting power and repression.There's no doubt that the Israeli separation wall was firmly in his mind: "Because the gates were closed we lost our crops, All gone to seed and flower, The wall is a way to grab our land, They tell us the wall's our security, But it stops us all who live nearby and we can't travel free."

5. Long Live Palestine: Lowkey is the 'rapper name' for Kreem Dennis, the London born rap activist who has an Iraqi mother and English father. His second album 'Soundtrack to the Struggle' is full of sharp, impassioned deconstructions of various political hypocrisies. The Long Live Palestine EP contains versions of the song with contributions from the Palestinian rap group DAM and the Anglo-Palestinian singer Shadia Mansour. One line, among many, that demands attention is: "Nothing is more Anti-Semitic than Zionism". I could write a whole blog post unpacking that one.

6. Jerusalem: American Steve Earle brings his Nashville country background to his political songwriting. In this song he wakes up to hear the news of "death machines rumblin' cross the ground where Jesus stood" and for a moment Earle is taken in by the news commentator saying there's "nothin' anyone could do or say" before regaining his senses and looking into his heart to find the way forward.

7. My Father's Jewish World: Leon Rosselson made his name in the early 1960s writing satirical folk songs for the UK's 'That Was the Week That Was' show. This song may be my favourite in this list. These lines come towards the end: "Now it's my father's face that meets me in the mirror, And I wonder what to me his Jewish legacy has been, The state of always being an outsider, Of asking why, and then asking why again, That precious strand of Jewishness that challenges authority, And dares to stand against the powers that be."

8. On an April Day (Deir Yassin Remembered): Garth Hewitt  (known as 'the troubadour' to friends, family and fans) has been treading the folk gospel scene around the world since the early 1970s harnessing the power of scripture to his social action agenda. Hewiit has more strings to his guitar though, founding the human rights charity Amos Trust in 1985, he was its director for 26 years. Hewitt's also a leading light of the Greenbelt festival. Here he tells the story of the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin and the massacre perpetrated by Jewish terrorist groups, notably the Irgun led by Menachem Begin, in 1948. It's the most well know example of what would now be described as 'ethnic cleansing' during the '48 war. "The children couldn't speak at all on an April day, They'd seen and heard too much, on an April day."

9. Song of the Magi: Anais Mitchell is an American folk singer who's made quite an impact on the UK folk scene in the last couple of years. This song from from her album 'The Brightness' tells the story of the three wise men and their journey to Bethlehem. The setting though is the Occupied West Bank: "We came through the cold, We came bearing gifts of gold, And frankincense and myrrh, And there were trumpets playing, There were angels looking down, On a West Bank town, And he so loved the world."

10. Donestan: Robert Wyatt's simple, jazz syncopated observation that: "Palestine's a country, or at least it used to be."  Snare drum and piano carry along Wyatt's child-like repetition of the facts.

Okay, now it's your turn and let's see what Roger Waters comes up with too.

Even before I publish this post, my older daughter, Rosie, wants to be first off the mark to suggest an addition. It's a political comedy song by Tim Minchin (now best known for writing 'Matilda - The Musical'). It's called 'Peace Anthem for Palestine' and you can see Minchin performing it on Youtube. The killer line is: "So if you don't eat pigs, and we don't eat pigs, why not, not eat pigs together!".

I look forward to hearing from you!!