Truly Inspiring Life: Marek Edelman

HE WAS sure that once he started fighting, he was going to die. No point in
being scared about it. Death was death; there was nothing more, nothing
bigger, that could happen to him. At least in this way, taking up arms, he
could die on his own terms rather than theirs. His time, his place. Suicide
would have been another way to do it, but he never considered that. Going to
the gas chamber or the mass grave with quiet, considered dignity, like many
of the residents of the Warsaw ghetto, was another way: far more admirable
and more difficult, he thought, than running through random bullets as he
did. But it was not for him. Only by dying as publicly as possible, loudly
and with his gun blazing, could he let the world know what the Nazis were
doing to the Jews in Poland.

The odds were overwhelming. He was deputy commander of 220 untrained “boys”
with pistols and home-made explosives. Against them were around 2,000 Nazi
soldiers, the pick of the Wehrmacht, with plenty more behind them. The Nazis
had come on the eve of Passover, April 19th 1943, to liquidate the Warsaw
ghetto, from which they had been deporting 6,000 Jews a week to the death
camps. For almost a month Mr Edelman helped keep them at bay, barricaded in
the streets around the brushmakers’ district until the whole place was
burned down round him.

The ghetto had been established in October 1940 to cut off the city’s Jews,
with a high wall and wire, from the general population. Jews were crammed
into its four square kilometres from all over the city, Poland and the
German Reich. By April 1942 half a million people lived there, many on
filthy straw mattresses directly on the ground. Around 1,500 were dying each
week from hunger and disease. In those conditions, Mr Edelman said, the most
important thing was just to be alive: not to be one of the naked corpses
wheeled past on carts, heads bobbing up and down or knocking on the
pavement. A “terrible apathy” took hold, in which people no longer saw or
believed the random horrors round them. He tried to rouse them, first by
staying up night after night to print mimeograph newspapers, and then by
Through the sewers

As a messenger at the ghetto hospital, Mr Edelman was one of the few allowed
out. He passed on news of Nazi atrocities to the larger Polish underground,
and gathered up weapons and fighters. Precisely how much help he got is
still disputed. He implied later that gentile Poles both couldn’t do much,
and wouldn’t, to help the Jews they still distrusted, even though they faced
a common enemy. But the beleaguered Jews were disunited too: secular,
socialist, non-Zionist Jews like him, with ardent Zionists and communists,
all bickering over tactics at the edge of the abyss.

He considered himself both a Pole and a Jew, despite his white armband with
its blue star. Warsaw was home to him; his parents had died when he was
young, leaving him to be brought up by staff in the hospital. He spoke
Polish, Yiddish and Russian. His dream was not of some Zionist homeland, but
a socialist Poland in which Jews would have cultural autonomy. He continued
to hope for that all his life.

During the final throes of the ghetto uprising 50,000-60,000 Jews were
deported to the camps. Mr Edelman survived, escaping with a handful of
colleagues along tunnels barely two feet high, slimy water up to his lips,
to safety. Some 16 months later, in August 1944, he took part in the larger
Warsaw uprising, which was crushed after 63 days. It led to the razing of
the city by the Nazis in a last act of revenge.

After the war, Mr Edelman was one of the few Jewish Holocaust survivors who
stayed in Poland. He moved to Lodz, where he graduated in medicine.
Subsequent waves of anti-Semitism did not dislodge him: not even one in 1968
when up to 20,000 Jews left, including his wife and daughter. When he lost
his job, he merely moved to another hospital. Nothing else terrible happened
to him, as he put it. In 1981, having become an activist for the Solidarity
movement, he was briefly interned under martial law. He had known worse.

Mr Edelman could be brusque and difficult with colleagues. But it was his
quiet thoughtfulness that most irritated people. He refused to express open
hatred for the Nazis, and for years would not talk about the ghetto
uprising. As Bronislaw Geremek, another ghetto survivor, said once, he was
“a hero who didn’t like heroism”. Only in old age did he start to speak out,
not least to try to influence the present. In 1999 he publicly supported
NATO strikes in the Balkans, arguing that a policy of pacifist
non-intervention only played into the hands of dictators.

His expertise was in cardiology (uninhibited by his chain-smoking), and the
heart and its emotions seemed to intrigue him more as the years passed. His
last book, published this year, made a point of describing the love affairs
of the Warsaw ghetto: the “marvellous things” that happened, and the
ecstatic moments of happiness, when terrified and lonely people were thrown
together. Man was naturally a beast, but love could overwhelm him, and love
could also be taught. As for his general devotion to medicine, that was
easily explained. Someone who had known so much death, he used to say, bore
all the more responsibility for life.

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