‘All night we walked through the sewers, sometimes crawling, passageways booby-trapped with hand grenades let gas into the mains, in a sewer where water reached our lips, we waited 48 hours to get out. Finally two trucks halted at the trapdoor. In broad daylight with almost no cover, the trapdoor opened and one after another, with the stunned crowd looking on, armed Jews appeared from the depths of a black hole.”
These words are taken from The Ghetto Fights, Marek Edelman’s stunning memoir of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943 against the Nazi Holocaust in Poland.
They describe the truly amazing escape for the lucky few from the Ghetto’s burning remnants. The Nazis had finally set the Ghetto on fire because, as Edelman says, that was the only way they could win and “save their military honour”.
Edelman is the sole survivor of the five-man command group which led the uprising.
In his memoir he describes the initial disbelief of Jews in their fate. Nearly 400,000 Jewish men, women and children had been sealed into the Ghetto in 1940—the prelude to the final solution, which murdered almost all of Poland’s three million Jews, half of the final total. Paralysis and fear was the dominant mood:
“To overcome our own terrifying apathy, to fight against our own acceptance of the generally prevailing feeling of panic, even small tasks required truly gigantic efforts on our part.”
To this day Edelman blames the traditional Jewish leadership for allowing the Ghetto passively to accept their fate.
The Nazis succeeded in “deporting” two thirds of the Ghetto population to the death camps before the Jewish Fighting Organisation, (in Polish, Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa, ZOB), was finally formed from three political parties, Edelman’s Jewish Socialist anti-Zionist Bund, the Socialist Zionists and the Communists.
The Jewish police chiefs, who had assisted the Nazis, were the first targets of the ZOB assassination squads.ZOB lost many fighters in their battles with the Nazis but they had an impact, “For the first time German plans were frustrated.
“For the first time the halo of omnipotence and invincibility was torn from the Germans’ heads. For the first time the Jew in the street realised that it was possible to do something. It was a psychological turning point.”
Though defeat was inevitable for the Ghetto fighters, Nazi leader, Goebbels, paid them an unintended tribute. He said, “The Jews have actually succeeded in making a defensive position of the Ghetto. It shows what is to be expected of the Jews when they are in possession of arms.”
It is argued that the Ghetto fighters were isolated and defeated not just because of the dominant military position of Nazi occupation forces but also because of the intense anti-semitism of the local Polish population. Edelman has always fiercely rejected this view.
He refused to emigrate either to the US or Israel. He became a heart surgeon in his native Poland.
He remained politically active all his life supporting the independent Solidarity trade union movement.
At Solidarity’s congress in 1981, a veteran of the Polish underground that led the rising against the Nazis, one year after the Ghetto rising, in 1944, halted the applause and pointed to the hero “of considerably greater stature” in the hall, Marek Edelman.
The Stalinist authorities, fearful that Edelman would emerge as an iconic figure for Solidarity, offered him belated Polish military honours which he refused.
In the summer of 2002, Edelman, still going strong, intervened in Israel’s show trial of the now jailed Palestinian resistance leader, Marwan Barghouti.
He wrote a letter of solidarity to the Palestinian movement, and though he criticised the suicide bombers, its tone infuriated the Israeli government and its press. Edelman had always resented Israel’s claim on the Warsaw Ghetto uprising as a symbol of Jewish liberation.
Now he said this belonged to the Palestinians. He addressed his letter to “commanders of the Palestinian military, paramilitary and partisan operations — to all the soldiers of the Palestinian fighting organisations”.
The old Jewish anti-Nazi Ghetto fighter had placed his immense moral authority at the disposal of the only side he deemed worthy of it.
The Ghetto Fights by Marek Edelman is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com