H o l o c a u s t S u r v i v o r s a n d R e m e m b r a n c e P r o j e c t:
"F o r g e t Y o u N o t "
I N T H E N E W S
Marek Edelman, Commander in Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Dies at 90 (Surviving the war to become a leading cardiologist.) .
Marek Edelman at the Warsaw Ghetto Heroes Memorial.
By MICHAEL T. KAUFMAN
October 3, 2009
Marek Edelman, a cardiologist who was the last surviving commander of the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising against the Germans, died Friday in Warsaw. He was 90.
A friend, Paula Sawicka, told The Associated Press that Dr. Edelman had died "among friends, among his close people," at her home, where he had lived for the past two years. For many years he lived in Lodz, Poland's second largest city.
Dr. Edelman was one of a handful of young leaders who in April 1943 led a force of 220 poorly armed young Jewish men and women in a desperate and hopeless struggle against the Germans.
He was 20 when the Germans overran Poland in 1939, and in the months that followed he watched as they turned his Warsaw neighborhood into a ghetto, cutting it off from the rest of the city with brick walls, barbed wire and armed sentries. By early 1942, as many as 500,000 Jews had been herded into the area.
In worsening conditions of hunger and brutality, the ghetto residents, wearing the obligatory Star of David armbands, were forced to sew military uniforms and produce other war materials.
Then, starting on July 22, 1942, the ghetto population began to shrink ominously. Each day, armed Germans and the Ukrainians serving with them prodded and wedged 5,000 to 6,000 Jews into long trains, which departed from the Umschlagplatz, a square at the southern end of the ghetto. At times they lured people onto the trains with loaves of brown bread. The Germans said the trains were going to factories where work conditions were better.
Marek Edelman and the young people with whom he had forged clandestine links knew that such claims were lies and that the human cargos were in fact being taken to camps near Lublin, where they were shot, put into boxcars with quicklime or forced into gas chambers. He and his colleagues talked about armed resistance but had no weapons at the time.
He spent every day at the Umschlagplatz watching as trains were loaded and sent off. He was there ostensibly in his official capacity as a messenger for the ghetto hospital, carrying documents in his pocket that enabled him to pull people off the trains by designating them too ill to travel. Since the Germans held to the fiction that the passengers were being sent to better surroundings, they made a show of holding back the sick. In fact, young Marek used the passes to save people who would be useful to the Jewish Combat Organization, then being formed.
"I was merciless," he recalled many years later. "One woman begged me to pull out her 14-year-old daughter, but I was only able to take one more person, and I took Zosia, who was our best courier."
On Sept. 8, when according to German records 310,322 Jews had been put on the trains and sent to the death camps and 5,961 more had been murdered inside the ghetto, the liquidation was suspended. There were some 60,000 Jews still in the ghetto. The leaders of the Jewish Combat Organization were certain that the Germans would try to finish the liquidation, and for the next six months the organization planned for armed resistance.
At 4 o'clock on the morning of April 19, 1943, as German soldiers and their Ukrainian, Latvian and Polish henchmen marched through the ghetto to round up people, they came, for the first time, under sustained fire. By midafternoon they were forced to withdraw without having taken a single person.
The fighting continued for three weeks. On one side were 220 ghetto fighters, hungry and relatively untrained youths deployed in 22 units. Each unit had a pistol, five grenades and five homemade bottle bombs. They also had two mines and one submachine gun.
Ranged against them, on a daily average, were 36 German officers and 2,054 others with an arsenal that included 82 machine guns, 135 submachine guns and 1,358 rifles along with armored vehicles, artillery and air power used to set the ghetto ablaze.
Dr. Edelman buried his fallen comrades and used his knowledge of the neighborhood, where he had grown up, to find escape routes for units that were pinned down. Many years later he would say that no one ever established how many Germans they had killed: "Some say 200, some say 30. Does it make a difference?"
"After three weeks," he recalled, "most of us were dead."
At the end he found a way out of an encircled position, leading 50 others with him.
Eventually, he took part in the Warsaw uprising of 1944, when for 63 days Poles fought valorously but unsuccessfully to liberate their capital from the Germans.
Once the war ended, he threw himself into his medical studies and became a doctor in Lodz. For 30 years he kept his memories and thoughts about what happened to himself, concentrating on his medical work and becoming one of Poland's leading heart specialists and the author of a much-used textbook on the treatment of heart attacks.
Even after Poland's anti-Semitic campaign of 1968, when he was demoted at the hospital and most of the remaining Jews in Poland, including his wife and two children, emigrated, Dr. Edelman stayed. He was unwilling, and perhaps unable, to tear himself away from the place where East European Jewry had once thrived and then perished as he watched.
Then, in 1976, he suddenly spoke out, telling Hanna Krall, a Polish writer of Jewish origin, what he had so carefully remembered. The recollections were stark and surprising. He challenged those who claimed that there had been many more than 220 ghetto fighters. Most provocatively, he insisted that it was not more meaningful or heroic to die with a gun in one's hands than to perish in apparent submission to an overwhelming and invincible evil.
"These people went quietly and with dignity," he told Mrs. Krall, speaking of the millions killed in the Nazi gas chambers. "It is an awesome thing, when one is going so quietly to one's death. It is definitely more difficult than to go out shooting."
After the book appeared, Dr. Edelman was often sought out by visitors from around the world, whose questions he would sometimes wave aside gruffly, saying that people who had not been there could never understand the choices made in the ghetto.
He would cite the example of a nurse in the ghetto hospital who he said was greatly admired, and deservedly so, for smothering newborn children to save their mothers the inevitable pain that would come when the babies starved to death.
He would dispute the use of the word "uprising," saying that it normally implied some slight prospect of victory. In the ghetto, he said, there was no such prospect.
"It was a defensive action," he would say, or, "We fought simply not to allow the Germans alone to pick the time and place of our deaths."
Marek Edelman was born on Sept. 19, 1919, the only son of a family that spoke Yiddish at home and Polish at work. His father died when he was very young; his mother, who worked as a secretary at a hospital, died when he was 14. While going to high school he was looked after by his mother's friends from the hospital.
Dr. Edelman was an early member of the Solidarity free labor union and was among those interned when Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law in 1981.
Two years later he was asked to serve on the organizing committee for an observance of the 40th anniversary of the ghetto uprising. He declined, saying that to do so "would be an act of cynicism and contempt" in a country "where social life is dominated throughout by humiliation and coercion."
Eight years later he served as Solidarity's consultant on health policy in the round-table talks that led to democratic rule for Poland. In the first free elections, he ran for the Polish Senate, losing narrowly. He kept working at the hospital in Lodz, dodging any suggestion that he retire. He held an honorary doctorate from Yale.
Dr. Edelman's wife, Alina Margolis-Edelman, a pediatrician, died last year in Paris. She had worked as a nurse in the Warsaw ghetto. He is survived by their two children, Aleksander, a biophysicist, and Ania, a chemist, both of Paris, as well as two grandchildren.
The Polish title of the book Mrs. Krall wrote about Dr. Edelman could be translated as "To Finish Before God," with the implicit idea being one of racing with God. But when the English translation was published by Henry Holt and Company, it was called "Shielding the Flame," a reference to a passage in which Dr. Edelman explained his philosophy both in the ghetto and later as a doctor.
"God is trying to blow out the candle, and I'm quickly trying to shield the flame, taking advantage of his brief inattention," he said. "To keep the flame flickering, even if only for a little while longer than he would wish."
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