Marek Edelman, the last surviving commander of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, was the fighter who stayed behind.
Unlike his fellow surviving uprising leaders, Edelman did not leave Poland after the war. A Bundist, he was not attracted to Palestine; a socialist, perhaps he was not quite ready to become a capitalist in the United States. Or maybe he simply could not leave the dead behind.
Edelman, whose father died when he was young, was left an orphan when his mother died during his early teens.
As a young Bundist in the Warsaw Ghetto, Edelman joined forces with the Zionists and other leftist groups to form the Jewish Fighting Organization. Their dreams for the future differed radically, but their dread for the present was identical.
When the mass deportations from the ghetto commenced on July 23, 1942, the Jewish population did not initially engage in armed resistance. Over the next 60 days, more than 265,000 Jews were deported to the newly opened Treblinka, where almost all were gassed upon arrival.
When the youths of the Warsaw Ghetto learned that Treblinka was a killing center, they vowed that they would not be taken alive. Edelman took command of one of the fighting groups.
The armed resistance began in January 1943. When the Germans entered the ghetto to deport Jews, the fighters sprang into action. But that action was short lived. The most intense period of fighting started April 19, when the Germans moved in to liquidate the ghetto. The Jews were lightly armed, with hand grenades and rifles, Molotov cocktails and a few guns; later, they had the ammunition they captured from the Germans. Their tactical power was in their knowledge of the ghetto, its alleys and underground bunkers, but their ultimate power came from the fact that they had nothing to lose. All was already lost except their courage and their will — their dignity and their honor. It was not until mid-May that the Germans were able to suppress the uprising.
In the final days of the uprising, some of the fighters, including Edelman, met up with a street kid, Simha Rotem, who had snuck into the ghetto with a Polish sewer worker. Together they made a daring escape through the Warsaw sewers, culminating in a daylight exit on Prosia Street, with stunned Poles watching.
Edelman though was not content to simply escape. He went on to fight alongside the Polish resistance in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising.
After the war, Edelman married Alina Margolis, a nurse he met at the Warsaw Ghetto hospital, and went to medical school. Eventually, he would become a cardiologist of considerable renown.
Life in communist Poland was not easy, to say the least. In the late 1960s, Poland’s communist government launched a campaign of antisemitic harassment against its Jewish citizens. In 1967, Edelman’s position at a Lodz hospital was eliminated. A year later, he was dismissed by a military hospital. As antisemitism mounted, his wife and two children left for Paris, but Edelman remained in Poland.
Edelman kept relatively quiet about his experience during the war until the mid-1970s, when he shared his story with Hannah Krall, a Polish-Jewish journalist, who published his recollections in a book.
In their discussions, however, Edelman focused not on himself and his heroism but on the Jews who went to their death.
“These people went quietly and with dignity,” he said. “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.”
He explained that it is also a form of resistance to choose to keep a child alive a day, an hour, a minute longer. People resisted with the means they had at their disposal.
One might say that Edelman’s final bullet was saved for those who labeled Jews passive, who said they went like “sheep to slaughter.” In this phrase lies the final indignity to the 6 million who were in fact slaughtered, but who were never complicit even for a second in their own genocide. Edelman was a witness to the deaths of so many, and his views were their most truthful epitaph.
In Polish national life, Edelman played a significant role as a Jew, a symbolic Jew, an emblematic Jew. He remained a freedom fighter, playing an important role in the early days of the Solidarity movement, which would eventually bring down Poland’s communist regime.
Edelman was not a religious Jew — indeed, it would be fair to say that he was an anti-religious Jew — yet he chose his final resting place in Warsaw’s Jewish cemetery with the help of Poland’s chief rabbi. Edelman was buried in an individual grave, among the mass graves of those who were murdered in the Warsaw Ghetto. Sixty-six long years after he and his comrades fought together, he has returned to them.
Jon Avnet was the producer, director and co-writer of the NBC mini-series “Uprising.” Michael Berenbaum is a professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at American Jewish University.