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