Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Marek Edelman (died October 2009)

Over a period of months, Marek Edelman saw 400,000 people walk past him and go to their deaths. He was a messenger at the ghetto hospital, and stood at the place where the Jews were assembled in Warsaw to be deported to the death camps. His job was to save a handful of individuals classified as too sick to be transported to their deaths, according to the insane logic of the time. He was in fact one of the very few in the Warsaw ghetto who had a pass to go the 'Aryan' side, and could have escaped at any time, but he used this opportunity to deliver reports between the resistance groups inside and outside the ghetto. Many of the detailed wartime reports informing the Allies about the ghettos and the death camps were delivered via his hands.

Marek Edelman, together with a handful of young street toughs and political activists, formed the Jewish Combat Organisation (ZOB) and led the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. He was the only commander to survive, and he wrote the definitive report of what happened, the pamphlet entitled 'The Ghetto Fights' [1]. A few hundred young people fought thousands of heavily armed Germans as they moved in to liquidate the ghetto and kill the few thousand remaining there. Against all the odds, they fought on for weeks, district by district, street by street, house by house, room by room. The other leaders of the ZOB committed suicide in their bunker as the attackers closed in on them. Edelmann continued the fight, and led a small contingent out via the sewers. He refused to allow some non-combattants to accompany the group, and those left behind died. As they waited for almost two days in the narrow fetid tunnel, he sent a small group away to find another exit. Then their helpers arrived and opened the manhole cover, and the small group was never saved.

Marek Edelman survived the Warsaw Uprising, fighting with the red and white armband of the Home Army. When Warsaw was destroyed, he walked to the second largest city in Poland, Lodz, and signed up for a medical degree. Marek Edelman was not a Zionist, and had no wish to leave his country.

Marek Edelman believed in God, but he believed that God was trying to kill people. He took it upon himself to protect those in danger and to save the few that he could, whether by taking up arms or treating his patients. Edelman became a cardiologist, and saw many of his patients die. He became a innovative and daring surgeon, developed radical new heart surgery techniques and saved many lives. His mission was to shield the fragile flickering flame of human life from a vengeful and murderous deity.

Marek Edelman refused the label of hero, and chose not to speak about his experiences for several decades. He refused opportunities to take revenge, or even to condemn the Germans. He was asked to give evidence against J├╝rgen Stroop, commander of the German troops in the liquidation of the ghetto, but said that he's never seen the man before, and did not have evidence to contradict Stroop's statements. Stroop was condemned to death in any case.

Marek Edelman rejected the implication that those who had gone quietly to their deaths were somehow less heroic. When he did finally speak, he claimed that to take up arms was not heroic, but that they had simply chosen the means of their deaths, and he had somehow survived. He explained how those who had been seen as heros in the ghetto at the time were the doctors and nurses who had killed their patients to save them from execution by the German troops. In an interview in the 1970s, he described how, as the Germans surrounded the ghetto hospital, the doctors and nurses gave lethal doses of poison to their patients. A doctor delivered a baby and handed it to a nurse, who knew what to do. She smothered the baby. Edelman says that this nurse was a hero. She survived and became a leading paediatrician after the war. The interviewer does not press the point, but knew that Edelman's wife, Alina, was a nurse in the ghetto who later became a paediatrician.

Marek Edelman lived through the disgraceful anti-semitic purges in Poland in 1968. He lost his job, and his wife and daughter emigrated to France, but he simply took up a post in another hospital in Lodz.

In the 1970s he joined the Workers' Defence Committee and was involved with several political groups opposing Poland's Communist regime. He took part in the Polish Round Table Talks of 1989 as a member of Solidarity. He did not wish to stay active in party politics, but continued to work as a cardiologist into old age, and continued to speak out controversially on many issues. Marek Edelman was never a pacifist. He welcomed NATO's air strikes against Serbia, claiming that another Holocaust must be stopped. His analysis of what was happening in Bosnia, and the supposed remedy, were deeply controversial and problematic. But his willingness to go against the grain and take unpopular positions, his ability to raise and go to the heart of extremely uncomfortable issues, and his outright bravery should be an inspiration to us all.

1. The Ghetto Fights by Marek Edelman etext

Thursday, 28 June 2007

John Sinclair 1933-2007

I first met John under the best of circumstances. It was at the idyllic surroundings of his Tuscan Word Centre, and I had four days of exposure to his ideas, his barbed criticisms of my work, and his unrivalled hospitality. I could also add that it was my first visit to Italy, and that I'd also just fallen in love, and my partner, a close colleague of John's at the time, had ensured a place for me on the course, all of which added to the glamour and excitement of the trip.

But I have to say that on first acquaintance I found him somewhat arrogant, as well as deliberately and pointlessly controversial, and I didn't agree with him on some key points about the design and analysis of corpora. Not to mention the fact that he appeared to fall asleep every time I starting speaking. Having said that, I had a wonderful and stimulating time in Tuscany, and met several people whom I still value as colleagues and friends.

In subsequent years, I was invited back several times to teach on TWC courses, meeting many more wonderful people, hearing the same talks from John and Elena, and also reflecting on his ideas in my work, and slowly realising their value. I will treasure for ever the opportunity that he gave to me to take part in his hugely influential work at the TWC in training a new generation of scholars in his ideas. Furthermore, I had the opportunity to work with him for a short time on the TELRI project, through which I saw the enormous impact he had on corpus and computational linguistics in Central and Eastern Europe, and the huge esteem in which he was held in many countries.

Which is not to say that I came to agree with John about everything. I will now forever regret not having completed in John's lifetime and received his response to an unfinished paper under the working title of 'There is no degree zero of text encoding' in response to his appeals to eradicate markup and maintain the integrity of electronic text.

In 2001 I applied for a job at the Oxford Text Archive, but was unable to attend the interview because I was teaching at the TWC. Oxford kindly allowed me to have a telephone interview, which I conducted from John's office. I was fortunate enough to get the job.

When I came to work in Oxford, I soon received a query from Birmingham about whether I could track down in the archive a copy of John's 1963 spoken corpus which had been collected and analysed for the OSTI report. Birmingham University Press wanted the corpus, or a sample of it, to print in the republication of the OSTI report. Unfortunately, the copy of the corpus which we held in the OTA appeared to be incomplete. As far as we could work out, what is likely to have happened is that a deal would have been made with John in which he would deposit a copy of this corpus in the archive, and in return the OTA would scan some documents for him for his next corpus-building project. OTA texts were normally collected in this way by some sort of barter process in those days. But John liked to drive a hard bargain. It appears that he must have only given us half the corpus, without anyone at the OTA realising at the time. Unfortunately, this subterfuge rebounded on him 20 years later when he found that he no longer had a copy and wanted it back. If nothing else, this now stands as an excellent cautionary tale in the field of digital preservation. (The half-corpus is freely available now from the Oxford Text Archive, catalogued as the Lexis corpus, catalogue number 0163).

I was thrilled to have the opportunity to invite John to talk at the first event I organised in Oxford, a seminar on corpus building, and to have him contribute a key chapter to a book which I edited, Developing Linguistic Corpora: a Guide to Good Practice. John not only completed his chapter ahead of the deadline, he contributed exactly the type of chapter I wanted, and was also on hand to chivvy me periodically about the delays in publication. This chapter will stand, I hope, as a summary and testament to his views on corpus design (available free online at http://www.ahds.ac.uk/linguist-corpora/)

Whenever my email client told me I had mail from John, I opened it with trepidation, wondering what inactivity or backsliding I was to be taken to task for this time. He was a spiky character, although I found his views always stimulating and his criticism constructive. His uncompromising attitudes and strong work ethic were a constant inspiration.

After John attended a PALA conference in Istanbul in 2003 as a keynote speaker, he confided in me that he was horrified that, to his mind, no-one was following an authentically empirical and evidence-based approach to stylistics, and typically he had no hesitation in pointing out that I was as guilty as anyone. But his criticism led to the proposal of a practical and constructive organisational solution, namely a project to invite PALA members to write a short analysis of a poem, in which every interpretative assertion is backed up by clear linguistic evidence - a project which, to my shame, I was not sufficiently well-organised to have put into operation in time for him to be able take part.

After struggling for some years to find a text which adequately presented his theories and methods, I was extremely pleased to see the appearance of Trust the Text in 2004. John's death is a great loss to scholarship, but this work, along with the republication of English Collocation Studies, stand as great testaments to his work. We can also look forward to the posthumous release of several papers currently in press from the highly productive final period of his life.

Yet another recent successful initiative of John's was to get the agreement of the Scottish ministry of education to make corpus resources available to every child in Scottish schools. A corpus and an analysis tool have been developed for this project. When he recently unveiled the tool, I was astonished to see that rather than simply presenting the data to the student for them to conduct their own data-driven analysis and learning, the tool will pre-process the concordance lines, find typical examples and present only these to the user. After years of training from John and Elena to read concordances to find patterns in the co-text, I was horrified. The user won't have the opportunity to see for themselves repeated patterns of usage in the corpus. I think this is a big mistake. But I have learned to expect that, once more, I will be wrong and he will be proved right, and that this project will start another revolution the teaching of English.