The last surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, Marek Edelman, is dead at 90.
WIth all of the cartoonish declarations by the likes of Beck, Hannity, Radosh and Horowitz about the alleged “socialist” politics of neo-stalinists like Bill Ayers and Van Jones, the sad passing of Edelman serves as a reminder of what a real socialist looked like through some of the worst periods of modern human history. Of course, Jones and Ayers think of themselves as radicals and “socialists” despite their affinity with authoritarian movements like that of Hugo Chavez, Castro and Daniel Ortega. Both sides in this strange collusion have an interest in perpetrating the myth.
Thus, despite the sadness of today’s news it offers a refreshing opportunity to consider the biography of a genuine socialist and radical.
Edelman was 23 when he took part in the ghetto uprising as a member of the Bund, a socialist and anti-zionist Jewish group. The Germans had walled off part of Warsaw and the Jews inside realized their eventual fate. Some 300,000 residents of the ghetto were sent to the gas chambers at Treblinka before the uprising. Despite sure failure some 200 mostly young Jews like Edelman formed the Jewish Fighing Organization and rose up and inflicted significant casualties on the Nazis. In the end more than 55,000 remaining Jewish residents were massacred. Edelman was a sub commander and rose to commander of the entire force when the uprising’s lead organizer Mordechai Anielewicz was killed.
Edelman escaped the massacre through the sewer system beneath the streets of Warsaw and joined the wider resistance movement in Poland. The destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto was portrayed movingly in the recent film The Pianist.
Although gentile Poles failed to come to the aid of the Jewish uprising, Edelman joined their 1944 wider Warsaw Home Army uprising against the Nazis, in the hope that Warsaw, and Poland, would become free in advance of the Soviet Red Army’s assault.
The Soviets could have aided the uprising with artillery fire from across the Vistula river but kept their guns silent. Cynically Stalin hoped the Germans would do his dirty work for him and there would be a pliant Warsaw waiting to be “liberated” by his occupying Red Army. Stalin’s calculation proved correct and FDR abandoned Poland in part of the carve up of the world at Yalta.
After the war, Edelman and his wife became doctors and moved to Lodz, the textile capital of Poland and one of its important working class centers. He refused to leave Poland even in the face of anti semitic purges in the late 60s although his wife fled to Paris. He helped to organize key groups that would lead to Polish Solidarity’s uprising in 1980 when shipyard workers in Gdansk went on a general strike. Edelman was part of KOR, a defense committee of activists and intellectuals set up to help Polish workers facing harassment by the Stalinist regime.
At its height, Polish Solidarity stood up against both the Stalinist regime in Poland and its Russian backers but also the emerging neo-liberal economic forces of the Reagan era that had burdened Poland with billions in debt. It was in December 1981 when Polish Solidarity leaders advocated democratic self management of the Polish economy that the Polish regime cracked down, on Soviet orders, thus guaranteeing that western bankers would be repaid.
Edelman was one of the thousands of Solidarity activists thrown in jail although his celebrity led to his quick release. He later served in the Polish Parliament once the Communist regime fell in 1989.
He backed NATO’s invasion of Albania and the US invasion of Iraq which I think was unfortunate but his concern about the potential of another Holocaust was certainly understandable in both instances. Edelman was also a strong supporter of the rights of Palestinians and wrote a letter addressed to the “Palestinian fighting organizations” saying the legacy of the Warsaw ghetto uprising now passed to them.
It may not surprise KH readers to learn that the New York Times obituary of Dr. Edelman fails to mention his socialist and anti-zionist political history although it gave the news enough space to discuss the ghetto uprising in some detail. They also ignore the collusion of the Red Army in the German suppression of the 1944 Warsaw uprising.
The biography of this stalwart figure stands as a record of human courage in the face of authoritarianism from the west and east.