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Marek Edelman z”l: Hero of the Warsaw Ghetto

This is a cross post by Ben Cohen from Z-Word

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A friend of mine in Warsaw emailed me earlier today with the sad news that Marek Edelman (zichrono livracha) – the last surviving leader of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising – has passed away at the age of ninety.

In 1942, Edelman was one of the founders of the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB) which united Bundists, Zionists, communists and others to confront the Nazi threat. The uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto the following year was the first act of mass civilian resistance in Nazi-occupied Poland – a salient fact that should be remembered by those who portray the victims of the Holocaust as having passively accepted their fate.

When German troops began their operation to liquidate the Ghetto in April 1943, they met with a fierce response from the resistance fighters. Here’s a good account of what happened:

ZOB commander Mordecai Anielewicz (who was a leader of the Socialist-Zionist Hashomer Ha’tzair movement – BC) commanded the Jewish fighters in the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Armed with pistols, grenades (many of them homemade), and a few automatic weapons and rifles, the ZOB fighters stunned the Germans and their auxiliaries on the first day of fighting, forcing the German forces to retreat outside the ghetto wall. German commander SS General Jürgen Stroop reported losing 12 men, killed and wounded, during the first assault on the ghetto. On the third day of the uprising, Stroop’s SS and police forces began razing the ghetto to the ground, building by building, to force the remaining Jews out of hiding. Jewish resistance fighters made sporadic raids from their bunkers, but the Germans systematically reduced the ghetto to rubble. The German forces killed Anielewicz and those with him in an attack on the ZOB command bunker on 18 Mila Street, which they captured on May 8.

Though German forces broke the organized military resistance within days of the beginning of the uprising, individuals and small groups hid or fought the Germans for almost a month.

At the annual memorial ceremony for the Uprising in 2008, Edelman paid a simple, moving tribute to his fallen comrades:  “Remember them all — boys and girls — 220 altogether, not too many to remember their faces, their names.”

For Edelman himself, the struggle against totalitarian rule did not end with the defeat of the Nazis. After the war, with Poland under a communist regime, he established himself as a cardiologist in Lodz. In 1968, when the communist regime embarked on a campaign of antisemitic persecution officially dressed as “anti-Zionism,” Edelman’s wife and son fled the purges for Paris. Edelman could not abandon Poland though:  he stayed put. In the 1980s, he became an activist with the Solidarity movement and was imprisoned when the regime of General Jaruzelski imposed martial law.

Marek Edelman led an extraordinary life, one that is humbling to those of us who can only marvel at what he survived and what he achieved. Just as he exhorted us to remember the valiant fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto, so must we now remember him in the same spirit.