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Marek Edelman at around the time
of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
|Born||1919 or 1922|
|Died||October 2, 2009|
|Allegiance||General Jewish Labour Bund|
Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa
|Years of service||1942–1944|
|Rank||Deputy commander (ŻOB)|
|Battles/wars||Warsaw Ghetto Uprising|
|Awards||French Legion of Honor|
Order of the White Eagle
Yale University, honorary doctorate
Marek Edelman (Yiddish: מאַרעק עדעלמאַן, born either 1919 in Homel or 1922 in Warsaw – October 2, 2009 in Warsaw, Poland) was a Jewish-Polish political and social activist and cardiologist. Edelman was the last surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and long before his death he was the last one who stayed in Poland despite harassment by Communist authorities.
Before World War II, he was a General Jewish Labour Bund activist. During the war he co-founded the Jewish Combat Organization (ŻOB). He took part in the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, becoming its leader after the death of Mordechaj Anielewicz. He also took part in the citywide 1944 Warsaw Uprising.
After the war, Edelman 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 of Poland.
Details of Marek Edelman's birth are not known for certain; sources give two possible years of birth, either 1919 in Homel (present-day Belarus), or in 1922 in Warsaw. His father, Natan Feliks Edelman (died 1924), was a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party (his father's brothers, also Socialist Revolutionaries, were executed by the Bolsheviks). 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 Cecylia died when he was 14 years old, he was looked after by other staff members at the hospital where she had worked in Warsaw, the city he always called home. He said in 2001: "Warsaw is my city. It is here that I learned Polish, Yiddish and German. It is here that at school, I learned one must always take care of others. It is also here that I was slapped in the face just because I was a Jew."
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, ŻOB). In the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April–May 1943, led by Mordechaj Anielewicz, Edelman was one of the three sub-commanders and then became the leader after the death of Anielewicz.
When the Germans had stopped their campaign of transporting Ghetto residents to Treblinka extermination camp in September 1942, only 60,000 had remained. Edelman and his comrades, however, had had little doubt that the Germans would resume the job. The Jewish Combat Organisation 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 Germans resumed their attack on the Ghetto on April 19, 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." The outnumbered and outgunned Ghetto fighters' 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 and wounded scores of Nazis but inevitably sustained far greater losses. On May 8, ŻOB's commander, Mordechaj Anielewicz, was surrounded by German forces. He committed suicide, which meant that now Edelman was in charge. "After three weeks," he 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 May 10, Edelman and his few remaining 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.
In mid-1944, Edelman, as a member of the leftist Armia Ludowa (People's Army), participated in the citywide Warsaw Uprising, when Polish forces rose up against the Germans before being forced to surrender after 63 days of fighting. After the capitulation, Edelman together with a group of other ŻOB fighters, hid out in the ruins of the city as one of the Robinson Crusoes of Warsaw before being rescued and evacuated with the help from the centrist Armia Krajowa (Home Army).
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.
In post-communist Poland, Edelman was a member of several centrist liberal parties: the Citizens' Movement for Democratic Action, Democratic Union, Freedom Union and Democratic Party – demokraci.pl. He supported the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia as well as the 2003 Iraq war, both of which he saw as instances of American democracy saving countries from fascism again.
As an appointed Senator of the Republic, he lent public support to anti-fascist initiatives and to organisations combatting antisemitism. In 1993, he accompanied a convoy of goods into the city of Sarajevo while that city was under siege. Edelman strongly condemned international indifference during the Bosnian Genocide in the early 1990s, calling it a disgrace for the rest of Europe and "a delayed victory by Hitler – a victory from the grave."
Edelman was a lifelong anti-Zionist. In a 1985 interview, he said Zionism was a "lost cause" and he questioned Israel's viability. He remained firmly Polish, refusing to emigrate to Israel.
In his old age, he spoke in defence of the Palestinian people, as he felt that the Jewish self-defence for which he had fought was in danger of crossing the line into oppression. In August 2002, he wrote an open letter to the Palestinian resistance leaders. Although the letter criticised the Palestinian suicide attacks, its tone infuriated the Israeli government and press. According to the late British writer and activist Paul Foot, "He wrote [the letter] in a spirit of solidarity from a fellow resistance fighter, as a former leader of a Jewish uprising not dissimilar in desperation to the Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories." He addressed his letter "To all the leaders of Palestinian military, paramilitary and guerilla organizations — To all the soldiers of Palestinian militant groups".
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 him. Following Edelman's death, Arens recalled in Haaretz:
Marek Edelman was married to Alina Margolis-Edelman (1922–2008). They had two children, Aleksander and Anna. When his wife and children emigrated from Poland to France in the wake of antisemitic actions by the Polish communist authorities in 1968, Edelman decided to stay in Łódź. "Someone had to stay here with all those who perished here, after all." He published his memoirs, which have been translated into six languages. Each April he laid flowers in Warsaw for those he had served with in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Edelman's wife Alina, likewise a Warsaw Ghetto survivor, died in 2008. They were survived by their son and daughter.
Edelman died on October 2, 2009. He was buried in Warsaw with full military honours on October 9, 2009. His coffin was covered with a Bund banner inscribed "Bund - Yidisher Sozialistisher Farband," and a choir sang the Bund anthem, "Di Shvue." The Polish President Lech Kaczyński and the former President Lech Wałęsa were present at the funeral, attended by about 2,000 persons.
Władysław Bartoszewski, former Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs and an Auschwitz survivor, 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." Bartoszewski denied that the activist was "irreplaceable," before acknowledging that "there are few people like Marek Edelman." Roman Catholic Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek said: "I respect him most 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." The former Polish Prime Minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, was also present and said Edelman had been a model for him.
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, official spokesperson for the United States, expressed sympathies and affirmed that the United States "stands with Poland as it mourns the loss of a great man."
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