Marek Edelman - lifelong fighter for everyone's freedom
Marek Edelman, whose death was reported on Saturday, was the last surviving leader of the Warsaw ghetto revolt. Throughout his life he fought, as the Jewish resisters manifesto proclaimed in 1943 "for your freedom and for ours '.
There is some uncertainty exactly where and when Edelman was born, in 1919 in Homel (now part of Belarus), or 1922 in Warsaw. But there is no doubt as to his background history and where it would take him. Marek's mother, Cecylia Edelman (died 1934), was an active member of the Jewish workers' Bund, the mass socialist movement that arose in the western regions of the old Russian empire in the 19th century, preceding the general Social Democratic Labour Party, and remained an important political party in pre-war Poland. His fatherNatan Feliks(died 1924) was a trudovik (Labourist) activist, one of a group that broke from the Socialist Revolutionists. Pre-war Poland had the world's biggest Jewish population, and they formed a big part of the country's urban working-class.
As a child, Marek was a member of the Socjalistiszer Kinder-Farband, Socialist Children's Association, then in 1939 he joined Bund's youth organisation, Tzukunft (Future). That year the Germans - and the Soviet Russians -invaded Poland. After heavy bombing, and fierce resistance, Warsaw fell to the Nazis, who then began setting up the infamous ghetto, to which they confined the city's Jewish population. Later they forced many Jews from elsewhere into the Warsaw ghetto, while reducing its area.
Food was short in the ghetto, and people died from hunger and cold. But while the Nazis relied on a stooge Judenrat and police to keep order, underground political and cultural activity thrived under their nose. When the Nazis prepared to deport Jews from the ghetto to camps like Treblinka, the Jewish underground managed d with the help of Polish railway workers to find out just what happened there, and to report.
They decided to resist. A Jewish Fighting Organisation was est up, the ZOB. Mordechai Anielewicz, of the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement was commander in chief, Marek Edelman of the Bund one his three sub-commanders. They tried to obtain arms from the Polish underground, and manufactured home-made bombs in the ghetto. Bunkers and underground tunnels were dug. The first action took place in January 1943 when a Nazi unit rounding up Jews for deportation was surprised by a group of them producing concealed weapons. Then in the Passover period, April-May 1943, the Nazis began their planned "liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto". The Bund had smuggled some children out to shelter with families on the "Aryan side". But the Jewish fighters who resisted building by building knew they had little chance of saving themselves or the rest of those remaining in the ghetto. They were determined to make the enemy pay a heavy price.
By the time the ghetto fighting was finished the Germans had found it necessary to employ artillery and aircraft, and the ghetto fighters had waged the longest resistance battle in Europe, at least outside Yugoslavia that is..After Mordechai Anielewicz was killed, Marek Edelman succeeded him as commander, going on to fight in the August 1944 Warsaw Uprising as a member of the Communist-led Armia Ludowa (People's Army).
After the War, Edelman studied medicine at Lodz, going on to become a cardiologist. But he had not abandoned his political awareness. Remaining in Poland despite repressive moves and antisemitism such as met the 1968 unrest, he joined Workers Defence Committee(KOR) formed in 1976, and later supported Solidarnosc. During 1981 when martial law was imposed he was interned. Then in 1983 the authorities asked him to join a committee to commemorate the Warsaw ghetto revolt. Edelman refused. He left it to Israel's representatives, their own government blooded by the Lebanon war and Sabra and Shatila massacres, to join General Jaruzelski on the official platform, while he walked with friends to Mila 18, where Mordechai Anielewicz' resistance bunker had been.
In 1990 the little book which Marek Edelman had written about his wartime experiences, The Ghetto Fights, was republished in English by Bookmarks, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) publisher, with an introduction by John Rose, a Jewish academic and SWP member who had been to see Edelman in Poland. The book was well-received as a contribution to anti-fascist writing and Jewish history, except by some Zionist hacks who, having themselves tried to write both Edelman and the Bund out of the ghetto story, could not.make their mind up now which of his offences was worse, writing the book, or giving the anti-Zionist SWP the right to publish it.
Not that Edelman shared the outlook of the SWP or much of the Left on things. Some in Poland considered him naive about Solidarnosc's leaders and Western 'democracy'. But what really stands out is his speech on the 50th anniversary of the ghetto revolt, when upbraiding those content with repeating "Never Again", the Jewish veteran said: "It is happening again, but to the Moslems of Bosnia. And Europe is behaving as it did to the Jews of the Ghetto". Edelman urged that something be done at least to bring aid to Bosnia's beleagured civilians. That call, which some did their best to meet through initiatives like Workers Aid to Bosnia, was ignored by the SWP which, if not actually siding -as some did - with the Serb nationalists responsible for massacres, was nevertheless opposed to Workers Aid and anyone who tried to help the victims.
What really outraged Israel's Zionist Establishment and its agents however was the letter which Marek Edelman addressed in 2002 "To all the leaders of Palestinian military, paramilitary and guerilla
organizations, To all the soldiers of Palestinian militant groups:..." In this the former ghetto fighters' leader drew a distinction between his comrades' battles with the Nazi military, and attacks which targeted civilians. He urged those fighting for Palestinian liberation to play their part in securing a just peace for both peoples. Edelman had probably met Palestinians in Poland, in the course of his professional work if not his political activity. But while his letter was clearly critical of some Palestinian actions, and admonishing them to his standards, what enraged the hacks was that he was addressing the Palestinians as "soldiers", and speaking as a former commander, implying that their struggle had anything in common with the one he had led. How the fire of Israeli condemnation rained down on the "Zionist-hating Marek Edelman"!
It will be interesting to read the various obituaries and encomiums that appear for Marek Edelman, and see who leaves out which bits that do not fit their attempts to appropriate, or dismiss, the man. But though I never met him, and might not have agreed with him on some things, one thing is clear. Marek Edelman was a mensch, a hero, and a man we can not only admire but learn from.