Marek Edelman passed away on 2 October 2009

Marek Edelman was member of Helsinki Committee in Poland, a Jewish-Polish political and social activist and cardiologist. Before his death he was the last surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Before World War II, he was a General Jewish Labour Bund activist. During the war he co-founded the Jewish Combat Organization. He took part in the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, becoming its leader after the death of Mordechaj Anielewicz. He also took part in the city-wide 1944 Warsaw Uprising.

After the war he remained in Poland and became a noted cardiologist. From the 1970s he collaborated with the Workers’ Defence Committee and other political groups opposing Poland’s Communist regime. As a member of Solidarity, he took part in the Polish Round Table Talks of 1989.

Following the peaceful transformations of 1989, he was a member of various centrist and liberal parties. He also wrote books documenting the history of wartime resistance against the Nazi German occupation.

Details of Marek Edelman’s birth are not known for certain; sources give two possible dates of birth, either 1919 in Homel (now Belarus), or in 1922 in Warsaw. His father, Natan Feliks Edelman (died 1924), was a member of the SRs. His mother, Cecylia Edelman (died 1934), a hospital secretary, was an activist member of the General Jewish Labour Bund, a Jewish socialist workers’ party. After Edelman’s mother died when he was 14, he was looked after by other staff members at the hospital where she had worked in Warsaw, the city he always called home.

As a child, Edelman was a member of S.K.I.F. (Sotsyalistishe Kinder Farband), the Jewish Labour Bund’s youth group for children. In 1939 he joined and became a leader in Tsukunft (“Future”), the Bund’s youth organization for older children. During the war, he restarted these organizations inside the Warsaw Ghetto. After the war, he would ascend to leadership of the Bund itself.

The defiance and organization of the Bund made their mark on Edelman. As conditions for Jews worsened in the 1930s, Bund members preferred to challenge the mounting antisemitism rather than flee. Edelman later said: “The Bundists did not wait for the Messiah, nor did they plan to leave for Palestine. They believed that Poland was their country, and they fought for a just, socialist Poland in which each nationality would have its own cultural autonomy, and in which minorities’ rights would be guaranteed.”

In 1939, after the German invasion of Poland Edelman found himself confined—along with the other Jews of Warsaw—to the Warsaw Ghetto. In 1942, as a Bund youth leader he co-founded the underground Jewish Combat Organization (Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa). In the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April–May 1943, led by Mordechai Anielewicz, Edelman was one of the three sub-commanders and then became leader after the death of Anielewicz.

When In September 1942 the Germans had stopped their campaign of transporting Ghetto residents to Treblinka, only 60,000 had remained. Edelman and his comrades, however, had had little doubt that the Germans would resume the job. The Jewish Combat Organization had begun acquiring weapons and organizing into units that would make up for lack of training and munitions with an intimate knowledge of the Ghetto, both above ground and in its sewer network.

The Nazis resumed their attack on the Ghetto on 19 April 1943 with over 2,000 troops. According to Edelman: “The Germans weren’t expecting resistance of any kind, let alone that we would take up arms.” Some 220 Jewish Combat Organization fighters had split into small groups, each armed with a pistol, a few grenades and some home-made explosives. The Ghetto fighter’s strong resistance forced the German troops to withdraw.

It was on the second day of the Uprising, while protecting the retreat of Edelman and other comrades, that another prominent insurgent and Bundist, Michał Klepfisz, was killed.

Over the next three weeks, the fighting was intense. The Jewish fighters killed dozens of Nazi soldiers but inevitably sustained far greater losses. On May 8, Jewish Combat Organization’s commander, Mordechai Anielewicz, was surrounded by German forces. He committed suicide which meant that now Marek was in charge. “After three weeks,” Edelman recalled, “most of us were dead.”

The Germans proceeded to flush out the few remaining fighters by burning down the Ghetto – Edelman always insisted, “We were beaten by the flames, not the Germans.” At that juncture, couriers from the Polish underground outside the Ghetto came through the sewers that still linked it with the rest of Warsaw. On the morning of 10 May 1943 Edelman and his few remaining Jewish Combat Organization comrades escaped through the sewers and made their way to the non-Ghetto part of Warsaw to find safety among their Polish compatriots. At this point the Uprising was over and the fate of those fighters who had remained behind is unknown.

After World War II, the Ghetto Uprising was sometimes given as an unusual instance of active Jewish resistance in the face of the horror perpetrated by the Germans. However, Marek never saw a difference in the character of those who fought in the Uprising and those who were sent to the death camps, as, in his view, all involved were simply dealing with an inevitable death as best as they knew how.

“We knew perfectly well that we had no chance of winning. We fought simply not to allow the Germans alone to pick the time and place of our deaths. We knew we were going to die. Just like all the others who were sent to Treblinka…. Their death was far more heroic. We didn’t know when we would take a bullet. They had to deal with certain death, stripped naked in a gas chamber or standing at the edge of a mass grave waiting for a bullet in the back of the head…. It was easier to die fighting than in a gas chamber.”

In mid-1944, Edelman participated in the city-wide Warsaw Uprising, when Polish forces rose up against the Germans before being forced to surrender after 63 days of fighting.

Edelman’s hospital upbringing had proven invaluable in the Warsaw Ghetto. After World War II, he studied at Łódź Medical School and became a noted cardiologist who invented an original life-saving operation.

In 1948 Edelman actively opposed the incorporation of the Bund into the Polish United Workers’ Party (Poland’s Communist party), which led to the Communists disbanding the organization.

In 1976 he became an activist with the Workers’ Defence Committee (Komitet Obrony Robotników) and later with the Solidarity movement.

Edelman publicly denounced racism and promoted human rights.

In 1981, when General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law, Edelman was interned by the government. In 1983 he refused to take part in the official celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising sponsored by Poland’s Communist government, believing that this “would be an act of cynicism and contempt” in a country “where social life is dominated throughout by humiliation and coercion.” Instead, he walked with friends to the street where Mordechai Anielewicz’s bunker had been located.

Edelman took part in the Round Table Talks as Solidarity’s consultant on health policy and served as a member of the Sejm (parliament) from 1989 to 1993. In 1993, he accompanied a convoy of goods into the city of Sarajevo while that city was under siege.

On 17 April 1998 Edelman was awarded Poland’s highest decoration, the Order of the White Eagle. He also received the French Legion of Honour.

Moshe Arens, former Israeli Defence Minister and Foreign Minister, visited Edelman in Warsaw in 2005 to discuss the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Arens admired Edelman and tried unsuccessfully to gain official Israeli recognition for his heroism. Following Edelman’s death, Arens recalled in Haaretz:

“Many of the survivors of the uprising who settled in Israel could not forgive Edelman for his frequent criticism of Israel. When on my return from Warsaw I tried to convince a number of Israeli universities to award Edelman an honorary doctorate in recognition of his role in the Warsaw ghetto uprising, I ran into stubborn opposition led by Holocaust historians in Israel. He had received Poland’s highest honor, and at the 65th commemoration of the Warsaw ghetto uprising he was awarded the French Legion of Honor medal. He died not having received the recognition from Israel that he so richly deserved.”

Edelman died, aged 90, on 2 October 2009. Edelman’s coffin was covered with a Bund banner which had “Bund – Yidisher Sozialistisher Farband” inscribed upon it and the Bund anthem, “Di Shvue” was sang by a choir.

Władysław Bartoszewski, a former Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs, led the tributes to Edelman, saying: “He reached a good age. He left as a contented man even if he was always aware of the tragedy he went through”. He denied that the activist was “irreplaceable” before acknowledging that “there are few people like Marek Edelman”. Catholic bishop Tadeusz Pieronek said: “I respect him mostly for the fact that he stayed in this land, which made him fight so hard for his Jewish and Polish identity. He became a real witness, he gave a real testimony with his life”.

Former head of Israel’s parliament and former Israeli ambassador to Poland Shevah Weiss said: “I’d like to offer my condolences to Marek Edelman’s family, to the Polish nation and to the Jewish nation. He was a hero to all of us”.Ian Kelly, an official spokesperson for the United States expressed sympathies and confirmed the United States “stands with Poland as it mourns the loss of a great man”.

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