Marek Edelman, Last Leader of Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Has Died

Bloomberg News/October 3, 2009

Marek Edelman, the last living leader of the uprising by Jews incarcerated in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II, has died in Warsaw. He is thought to have been 87.

Edelman was imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto, an area walled off by Poland's Nazi occupiers in 1940 to separate the city's Jews from the rest of the population. As a member of the Bund labor organization that worked underground to spirit Jews into hiding or out of the country, he was one of the masterminds of the plan to resist the Ghetto's liquidation.

Edelman, who had suffered from ill health for many years, died in Warsaw late yesterday. His death was confirmed by a friend, Paula Sawicka, whose family he had lived with in recent years.

"He fought for his country more than anyone else," Michael Schudrich, Poland's chief rabbi, said in an interview. "He wasn't fighting for himself, but to show that the Jews in the ghetto weren't passive, that they wouldn't go like sheep to the slaughter."

The Ghetto uprising began on April 19, 1943, the eve of the Jewish festival of Passover and the day Nazi commanders planned to have the remaining people in the ghetto killed. With few weapons, Edelman and his colleagues forced the Germans to retreat. When the operation's leader, Mordechai Anielewicz, died during the uprising, Edelman took his place. The fighters kept the occupiers at bay for almost a month in total.

Ghetto Liquidated

By the end of the uprising on May 16, almost all of the Ghetto's 50,000 to 60,000 remaining inhabitants had been killed or deported, mainly to the Treblinka extermination camp. About 350,000 people were locked into the Ghetto when it was built; only a few thousand survived its liquidation. Edelman was one of the few fighters who escaped, through underground sewers.

In contrast with many Jewish Poles who survived the war, Edelman decided to stay and settled in the central Polish city of Lodz, where he became a cardiologist. In an interview, he said his work as a doctor enabled him to save lives, which he was unable to do in the ghetto.

"The Lord already wants to blow out the candle, and I have to hide the flame quickly when his attention is distracted for a little while," he said.

Edelman was probably born on Jan. 1, 1922, in Homel, a city located in present-day Belarus. His birth date and place of birth are disputed, and Edelman refused to confirm his age in interviews.

Move to Warsaw

The family soon moved to Warsaw, where his father died when Edelman was young. He was left an orphan at about the age of 13.

In 1946, a year after the end of the war, Edelman moved to Lodz, where he remained for the rest of his life. There he married Alina Margolis, also a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto. He finished his medical studies there and became a cardiologist, working until an anti-Jewish campaign in 1968 instigated by the communist authorities led to his dismissal.

While his wife emigrated that year to France, taking the couple's two children with her, Edelman refused to leave Poland. He later explained his decision by saying "someone had to stay here with all those who died."

In the 1970s, Edelman became involved in the anti-communist Solidarity movement and was interned after the imposition of martial law in 1981. He was released after a few days thanks to protests by Western intellectuals, and continued his resistance until the fall of communism in 1989.

Edelman was a leading member of the Freedom Union, the party of Poland's first post-communist prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki. He reflected on his experiences in the Warsaw Ghetto in a book-length interview by the Polish journalist Hanna Krall in the 1970s that has been translated into several languages. In 1998, Edelman was awarded the Order of the White Eagle, Poland's highest decoration.

Praise from Leader

Vaclav Havel, leader of the Czech opposition movement and the first democratically elected president of the Czech Republic after the fall of communism, wrote to Edelman after a biography by Witold Beres and Krzysztof Burnetko was published in 2008.

"I deeply respect everything that you have done in your life, your uprightness, your courage," Havel wrote. "For me, you are an example of a true Pole, the authentic personification of all that is best in Poland."

In April 2009, Edelman joined leading Polish filmmakers and writers in a protest to the government after a former neo-Nazi took over the running of the country's public television network.

"People who publicly support racism and anti-Semitism shouldn't be allowed to play a role in public life," he wrote in an open letter to Prime Minister Donald Tusk. "Don't forget that evil can grow bigger."

Edelman is survived by two children, Aleksander and Anna. His wife died in 2008.

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