October 15, 2009
A hero apart
Marek Edelman died on October 2, 2009. His death became a major news in Poland. TV programs reported it at length. A leading daily paper devoted to the obituary almost the whole first page, the whole second page, and more! His funeral, on October 9, began at the Warsaw Ghetto monument and continued at the Warsaw Jewish cemetery. During the ceremony Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the first non-communist prime minister of post-World War II Poland, called Edelman the guardian of memory and the guardian of moral principles. Former president Lech Walesa and the current president Lech Kaczynski were present, but were not asked to speak. Why did Edelman’s funeral attract thousands? Why were they, many of them non-Jewish, happy to listen to singing in Yiddish – S’brnt, a lament on the shtetl in flames, and Di Shvue, the anthem of Bund? Why was Edelman honored with military salute? This funeral reveals as much about Edelman himself as it does about contemporary Poland.
Marek Edelman, born in 1919, was a heroic leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943. He survived, remained in Poland, and became a noted cardiologist. Member of the left wing Jewish party Bund, advocating Jewish cultural autonomy in the Diaspora, he was always anti-Communist, and in 1970s became an active member of KOR (Workers’ Defense Committee), the main group in the democratic movement opposing the Communist regime. Later Doctor Edelman was a leading activist in the initial and then underground Solidarity. After 1989, in free Poland, he was a mentor, a moral authority, widely respected, quoted, close to many of the most influential politicians, but never a politician himself.
Even though he wrote his account of the Ghetto Uprising right after World War II, Edelman remained unknown until Hanna Krall published a book-length interview with him 30 years later. His honesty and rejection of the heroic version of history was stunning. He described the bunker in which the commanders of the uprising were hiding as the shelter to which they were admitted by its original builders, ghetto prostitutes. He told the readers that to fight with grenades in the hand was easier than to choose to go to the transport to Treblinka death camp with one’s elderly parents, a truly heroic act. These and many other lessons about life and death have influenced many of us in Poland. He never abandoned the campaign against death. His passion was to cure patients, especially those most seriously ill, and to assist them till the end.
The ghetto, the war, the fight were in this book, as they were in many later interviews, the vehicles to teach us about the highest values, like freedom and dignity, about faithfulness and the drama of the situations when each option is tragic, about bravery and its insignificance vis-à-vis the supreme power of chance. But no wonder that his antiheroic account was not accepted by other combatants, including his closest friends. They mostly found their way to Israel, and Edelman remained a Bundist for whom Zionism was not an option. Indeed, to him it was a mistake: I remember that he once told us that the State of Israel was not really Jewish. “It’s an Arab state with the Jewish religion,” he said. When in 1980 he met with us, a group of young Jews in the middle of their journey of discovery of roots and Jewish traditions, he looked at us and said, “You think you’re Jews? No, Jews had been murdered.” To him, Jews were the Yiddish speaking working class masses he identified with. They were, indeed, no more. Thus, while Edelman’s Jewishness was integral, obvious, public, indeed historic, his relations with the living Jewish community, be it in Poland, in Israel or elsewhere, were strained.
However unfair his opinions were, I knew he had the right to his views. He was always completely honest, never playing games. He remained a Bundist, as fervently anti-religious as he was anti-Zionist and also anti-Communist. Though contemptuous of every religion, he was an embodiment of the highest principles, which, in my understanding, and against his own opinion, refers beyond nature, to Transcendence. We did not agree with him on various Jewish issues, but he always remained a most important point of reference. Edelman was a towering figure and many people, Polish Jews and non-Jews, were happy that he chose to stay in Poland and be active in Poland, even though his wife and children left in the wake of 1968 anti-Semitic campaign. In Paris, his wife, Alina Margolis-Edelman, was one of the founders of Physicians Without Borders, the Nobel Prize winning organization devoted to bringing medical help to the weakest and most helpless in the world.
Edelman’s Jewish activities were connected to World War II period. Each year he was organizing his private commemorations, always on April 19, at noon, in front of the Ghetto monument, the well known memorial erected in Warsaw in 1948. Before 1989, he was sometimes joined by dissidents and underground Solidarity. The most notable moments were 1983 and 1988. In 1983, he publicly protested against the official commemorations organized by the Communist government with a large numbers of Jewish guests invited from other countries. Why? The government that had introduced martial law in December 1981 tried to get recognition in the West, but Edelman did not accept their use of the memory of the Jewish struggle for political goals. An independent commemoration was organized, but Edelman was kept under house arrest, so it was the only year he did not show up at the Ghetto monument. In 1988, he was leading a huge independent commemoration. All the opposition took part, the government could not do anything to prevent it, and it was clear that the days of the regime were counted. The memory of the ghetto, we noticed, was used, after all, for political purposes. But these were noble purposes. Marek Edelman would not have supported anything morally questionable.
Stanislaw Krajewski is the American Jewish Committee (AJC) representative in Warsaw, Poland.