Thursday, April 19, 2012

Heart of the Battle

TODAY is the anniversary of an important World War II battle. Here is an extract from a participant's account, first published while the writer was still young, and the battle scars still fresh:

"Finally, the Germans decided to liquidate the Warsaw ghetto completely, regardless of cost. On April 19th, 1943, at 2 a.m. the first messages concerning the Germans' approach arrived from our outermost observation posts. These reports made it clear that German gendarmes, aided by Polish "navy blue" policemen, were encircling the outer ghetto walls at 30-yard intervals. An emergency alarm to all our battle groups was immediately ordered, and at 2:15, i.e. 15 minutes later, all the groups were already at their battle stations. We also informed the entire population of the imminent danger, and most of the ghetto inhabitants moved instantly to previously prepared shelters and hide-outs in the cellars and attics of buildings. A deathly silence enveloped the ghetto. The ZOB was on the alert.

(Jewish Fighting Organisation, in Polish - Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa, ŻOB; Yiddish: ייִדישע קאַמף אָרגאַניזאַציע)

"At 4 a.m. the Germans in groups of threes, fours, or fives so as not to arouse the ZOB's or the population's suspicion, began penetrating into the "inter-ghetto" areas. Here they formed into platoons and companies. At 7 o'clock motorized detachments, including a number of tanks and armoured vehicles, entered the ghetto. Artillery pieces were placed outside the walls. Now the SS-men were ready to attack. In closed formations stepping haughtily and loudly, they marched into the seemingly dead streets of the central ghetto. Their triumph appeared to be complete. It looked as if this superbly equipped modern army had scared off the handful of bravado- drunk men, as if those few immature boys had at last realized that there was no point in attempting the unfeasible, that they understood that the Germans had more rifles than there were rounds for all their pistols.

"But no, they did not scare us and we were not taken by surprise. We were only awaiting an opportune moment. Such a moment presently arrived. The Germans chose the intersection at Mila and Zamenhofa Streets for their bivouac area, and battle groups barricaded at the four corners of the street opened concentric fire on them. Strange projectiles began exploding everywhere (the hand grenades of our own make), the lone machine-gun sent shots through the air now and then (ammunition had to be conserved carefully), rifles started firing a bit farther away. Such was the beginning.

"The Germans attempted a retreat, but their path was cut. German dead soon littered the street. The remainder tried to find cover in the neighbouring stores and house entrances, but this shelter proved insufficient. The "glorious" SS, therefore, called tanks into action under the cover of which the remaining men of two companies were to commence a "victorious" retreat. But even the tanks seemed to be affected by the Germans' bad luck. The first was burned out by one of our incendiary bottles, the rest did not approach our positions. The fate of the Germans caught in the Mita Street-Zamenhofa Street trap was settled. Not a single German left this area alive. The following battle groups took part in the fighting here: Gruzalc's (Bund); Merdek's (Hashomer); Hochberg's (Bund); Berek's (Dror); Pawel's (PPR).

"Simultaneously, fights were going on at the intersection of Nalewki and Gesia Streets. Two battle groups kept the Germans from entering the ghetto area at this point. The fighting lasted more than seven hours. The Germans found some mattresses and used them as cover, but the partisans' well-aimed fire forced them to several successive withdrawals. German blood flooded the street. German ambulances continuously transported their wounded to the small square near the Community buildings. Here the wounded lay in rows on the sidewalk awaiting their turn to be admitted to the hospital. At the corner of Gesia Street a German air liaison observation post signalled the partisans' positions and the required bombing targets to the planes. But from the air as well as on the ground the partisans appeared to be invincible. The Gesia Street-Nalewki Street battle ended in the complete withdrawal of the Germans.

"At the same time heavy fighting raged at Muranowski Square. Here the Germans attacked from all directions. The cornered partisans defended themselves bitterly and succeeded, by truly superhuman efforts, in repulsing the attacks. Two German machine-guns and a quantity of other weapons were captured. A German tank was burned, the second tank of the day.

"At 2 p.m., not a single live German remained in the ghetto area. It was the ZOB's first complete victory over the Germans. The remaining hours of the day passed in "complete quiet", i.e. with the exception of artillery fire (the guns were in positions at Krasinski Square) and several bombings from the air".

Though they could not defeat the might of the German Reich, the ill-fed and poorly armed ghetto fighters were determined to inflict a heavy price for their lives, and set an example. "For Your Freedom and Ours" was their call, and outside Yugoslavia theirs was the longest resistance battle in Europe, lasting longer than some countries had done against Nazi invasion.

Marek Edelman, a member of the Jewish Workers' Bund and one of the leaders of the ghetto uprising, produced his account, "The Ghetto Fights", in 1945. An English edition was published by Bundists in the United States the following year. In 1990 it was published again, in Britain, by agreement with the author, and with an introduction by John Rose, by Bookmarks, the Socialist Workers Party publisher. But it took 55 years from the book's first appearance before anyone in Israel would get around to publishing a version in Hebrew.

Edelman's account did not suit two Zionist narratives, the story that the Jews of Europe succumbed to their fate under the Nazis "like lambs to the slaughter", or the more sophisticated version in which Zionist youth movements provide the sole resistance, and then as a mere prelude to fighting for the State of Israel.

Not that Edelman denies anyone credit where due (including those whose resistance took other forms). Nor did he cease battling after the Nazis were defeated in 1945. But while making a new life for himself by training as a cardiologist to save the lives of others, he remained true to the principles he had grown up with in the Bund - that Jews could fight for freedom in the countries where they lived, alongside, and certainly not against others; and the workers could fight for their rights, and a better world.

In 1968, when Polish Stalinists confronted by student rebellion launched a barely veiled antisemitic campaign, Edelman's wife Alina, who had been a nurse in the ghetto and became a pediatrician, left for France with the children. She was to be a founder of Medecins Sans Frontieres. But Edelman, though hounded from his position, clung stubbornly on. Later, when the regime wanted to use him to decorate an official commemoration of the ghetto uprising he declined, aligning himself with the Workers Defence Committee and eventually Solidarnosc. Then in 1993 on the fiftieth anniversary of the rising when an official Israeli delegation came to Warsaw they made clear they did not wish to attend an event alongside the anti-Zionist Marek Edelman.

Then in 2002 it was Edelman's turn to upset the Israelis, when through contacts with the Palestinian doctor Mustapha Barghouti, whose brother resistance leader Marwan Barghouti was imprisoned that year, he came to write a letter addressed to all the Palestinian commanders and "soldiers of the Palestinian fighting organisations". Though Edelman's letter was critical of terror attacks which targeted civilians, what outraged the Zionists was that he recognised the Palestinian militants as fellow fighters, implicitly comparing their struggle with that of the ghetto resistance.

Edelman was being consistent. He protested the ill-treatment of Czech Roma, and spoke out for Bosnian Muslims, even joining an aid convoy to Sarajevo. As he had written, "to be a Jew means always being with the oppressed, never with the oppressors".

Marek Edelman died in 2009. There were all sorts of tributes paid by the great and good, including of course some who had wanted nothing to do with him when he was alive. But Freedom in His Heart, a tribute to Marek Edelman published in December by the Jewish Socialists' Group, is a very sincere appreciation of the ghetto fighter and socialist, with an account of his life and struggles by David Rosenberg, and personal testimonies from Mike Schatzkin and Wlodka Blit-Robertson. Wlodka was smuggled out of the embattled ghetto as a child. The booklet also contains extracts like that I quoted from The Ghetto Fights.

Freedom in His Heart is available at £3 plus 50p postage and packing from Jewish Socialist Publications, JS, BM3725 London WC1N 3XX.

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