His spirit goes marching on
GHETTO fighter, doctor, socialist, a man who believed in freedom and justice for all, and stuck stubbornly to his faith in humanity through terrible times. Marek Edelman, who died in Poland on October 2, 2009, rightly figures big in the latest issue of Jewish Socialist magazine, which came out this week.
The son of socialist parents who died while he was still young, Edelman joined the Tzukunft, (Future), the youth movement of the Jewish workers' Bund, which did not believe in waiting for the Messiah to end oppression, nor in moving Jews to Palestine to become oppressors in their turn. Its watchword was "zoikeit", to fight for your rights and a better future, alongside others, where you are, in the here and now.
When the Nazis invaded Poland and herded the Jews of Warsaw into a ghetto, the Bund organised underground, - eventually quite literally, with the digging of underground bunkers and tunnels. With the help of Polish railway workers it ascertained the grim reality about the camps to which Jews were being sent. Together with Zionist youth movements and Communists, the Jewish Fighting Organisation was formed to resist. The uprising began at Passover, in April 1943. After the commander, Mordechai Anilewicz of Hashomer Hatzair, perished with his comrades in the bunker at Mila 18, Marek Edelman took his place.
Later, with other surviving ghetto fighters, Edelman fought in the general Warsaw uprising of 1944.
After the war, Marek Edelman turned to saving lives. His mother had been a hospital worker. He studied medicine, and was to become a cardiologist. But he also wrote his account of the wartime struggle, 'The Ghetto Fights'. Published in Polish in 1945, and the following year in English and Yiddish editions by the Bund, it did not appear in Hebrew until 55 years later. This "typifies the attitude of the Israeli state towards Edelman and the movement he represented", writes David Rosenberg, in Jewish Socialist.
Marek Edelman upset the Zionists, as an obstacle to their appropriation of the ghetto struggle for themselves, and by stubbornly remaining in Poland, and seeking a future and freedom in what they called "a graveyard for the Jews". This did not prevent Israeli leaders coming for official commemorations of the ghetto revolt, whoever was in charge. In 1983, having been detained as a supporter of the dissident Workers Defence Committee, Edelman declined to attend the official event, telling Jaruzelski "Don't use me to cover you shame". Ten years later, when Lech Walesa invited Edelman, it was the Israeli government which told Walesa that its delegation could not take part if Marek Edelman was present.
Knesset member Shulamit Aloni managed to arrange a private meeting between Yitzhak Rabin and Edelman, who surprised the Israeli prime minister by telling him he had a Bundist uncle from Vilna; and also told Rabin that he must make a proper peace with the Palestinians.
We know the fate of Rabin, and the 'peace process'. But Edelman had not finished. In 2002, as Palestinian resistance leader Marwan Barghouti went on trial, the Warsaw ghetto veteran addressed a letter to the "Commanders of the Palestinian military , paramilitary and partisan organisations" and all the soldiers. It was critical of Palestinian tactics which hit civilians, contrasting this with the ghetto fighters' actions. But what outraged the Zionists was that Edelman addressed the Palestinians as fellow-fighters, whose cause was comparable to that of the ghetto, rather than the evil continuation of its enemies depicted by Zionist propaganda. Significant as it was, this letter was not a one-off, as Edelman began corresponding with Dr.Mustafa Barghouti, director of the Palestinian Medical Relief Committees.
Besides David Rosenberg's article - originally a talk he was invited to give by the Palestine Society at SOAS - and a report from Barry Smerin who attended Edelman's funeral in Warsaw, Jewish Socialist has personal memories by Wlodka Blit-Robertson, herself rescued from the Warsaw ghetto, who knew the young Edelman and his wife, and Mike Shatzkin, whose family took in a young girl whom Edelman and the Bund had gelped get to the United States.
Memory is one of the things that makes us human, and among the most precious things that can be handed down over generations. The Jewish Chronicle, which claims to reflect "What the Jewish world is talking about", failed to even report Marek Edelman's death, and then took five weeks before it got around to publishing an obituary. As Jewish Socialist notes in its editorial, this is the same weekly organ whose editor Stephen Pollard refuses to believe ill of right-wing Polish politician Michal Kaminski, leading Tories in the European Parliament, though widely condemned for his attitudes to minorities. Kaminski can't be an antisemite, because he is a friend of Israel, so the argument goes. Edelman would have remembered how right-wing Zionists valued support from the antisemitic Polish colonels.
Not that this Jewish Socialist is focused on the past, or only on Jewish experience. "For your freedom and for ours", as the Warsaw ghetto fighters' banner said. There are updates on Goldstone and Gaza, as well as an interesting account of a visit to an Najah university in Nablus, articles on Palestinian art as well as London Jewish music hall. Two papers from last year's East End rising conference take us from the East India Company to current Bangladeshi community politics, and Mike Gerber -whose book Jazz Jews is to be launched next month - looks at how Gershwin's 'Porgy and Bess' has been given fresh life with the Cape Town Opera.
I gave up my place on Jewish Socialist's elected -and unpaid - editorial board last year, giving myself a break and someone else a chance. I am happy to say the comrades are still making a good job of it, indeed it has got better, if anything!