Marek Edelman was a physician, Bund
activist and deputy commander of the Jewish Fighting Organization. After
the death of M. Anielewicz, he was the leader of the Warsaw ghetto
uprising in 1943. He was also an opposition activist during the
communist period. In 1998, he was awarded the Order of the White Eagle,
as well as the St. George Medal and honorary doctorates from Yale
University and the Universite Libre in Brussels.
Born in 1921 in Homel (Belarus), he soon moved with his parents to
Warsaw. His father died when he was very young, followed by his mother
when he was just thirteen. She had been a Bund activist and in the
Jewish socialist worker's party-both organizations that influenced
Edelman's civic views.
"The Bundists did not wait for the Messiah, nor did they plan to
leave for Palestine. They believed that Poland was their country and
they fought for a just, socialist Poland, in which each nationality
would have its own cultural autonomy, and in which minorities' rights
would be guaranteed."
When the war broke out, the Bund continued to operate. In the Warsaw
ghetto, it organized activities for children, for example, as well as
schools and a theater. Edelman believed that the Jewish resistance
movement was born of these very efforts. In 1942, Edelman was one of the
founders of the Jewish Fighting Organization, which gathered Jewish
young people who had decided to resist the Germans. After M.
Anielewicz's death, Edelman was one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto
Uprising in 1943. He was one of the few who survived the uprising. He
and a small group of insurgents managed to escape through the sewers to
the Aryan side. He hid thanks to the underground activists of the Polish
Socialist Party (PPS), and then also fought in the Warsaw Uprising in
"Humanity had decided that dying with a gun is more beautiful than
dying without a gun. So we went along with this decision," he told Hanna
Krall in the book "Zdazyc przed Panem Bogiem" (English translation,
Shielding the Flame: An Intimate Conversation with Dr. Marek Edelman,
The Last Surviving Leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising [New York: Henry
Holt and Co., 1986]).
In 1946, Marek Edelman settled in Lodz, graduated from medical
school, and married. His children were born in that city, and it was
there that he became a cardiologist, working at the Pirogow Hospital.
After the war, he was active in the Bund once again, and protested the
Bund's decision to disband in 1948. He was fired from the S. Sterling
Hospital in 1966, and was dismissed from the military hospital as well
two years later. In 1968, his habilitation dissertation was rejected for
political reasons. He did not leave Lodz even when his wife and
children left Poland in 1968 during the wave of anti-Semitic
persecution. When asked why he decided to stay in Poland, he usually
says that this is a stupid question, avoiding an answer. He does
sometimes answer this question more fully, when often asked by young
people at literary events. He replies: "Someone had to stay here with
all those who perished here, after all."
He is a well-known and highly respected specialist, famous for his
willingness to take risks in order to save someone's life. He described
his own mission as a physician in a conversation with Hanna Krall:
"The Lord wants to put out the candle already, and I have to shield
the flame quickly, taking advantage of a moment's inattention on His
part." In 1971, he introduced Polish medicine to a new revolutionary
method for the treatment of heart conditions by making an arterio-venous
fistula, i.e., connecting a vein to an artery. As a result, many people
were saved who would otherwise not have survived heart attacks.
In the mid-1970's, he became involved with
the democratic opposition. In the years 1976-1980, he was active in the
Workers' Defense Committee (KOR), and then in the independent trade
union, Solidarity. In December 1981, he was interned. He was released
from prison after a couple of days, after intervention by Western
intellectuals. He was involved in the underground Solidarity movement
until 1989, and also took part in the Round Table talks in 1989. During
the years 1989-1993, he was a member of parliament.
Edelman speaks out on important issues facing the world today. He
was concerned about the events in Bosnia, then in Kosovo. He went with a
humanitarian convoy to Sarajevo, and made an appeal to the NATO
leadership in April 1999 that was published in leading Western
newspapers. In it, he wrote:
"I appeal to you, leaders of the free world, not to stop the air
strikes and to send soldiers to Kosovo so that what I witnessed in the
Warsaw Ghetto will not be repeated. In the current situation, only the
presence of NATO soldiers can save the Albanians from genocide. I know
how painful it is for those sending their soldiers to war to know that
they could die. But I also know-as do all those of my generation-that
freedom has a price. A price that we must be willing to pay."
On April 17, 1998, President Aleksander Kwasniewski awarded Marek
Edelman with the highest state medal, the Order of the White Eagle. At
that time, Edelman said: "This order is a reminder of the three million
Jews who died in Poland, of and of the 350,000 Varsovians who died... It
is a reminder of those people who perished needlessly. It is an order
for Poland, who was made an orphan, three million of its citizens dead.
Citizens who had brought the beauty of Jewish culture to life, culture
that had for centuries mingled with Polish literature, culture and
customs. This is all gone now, and today we must remember it."
For over fifty years, Marek Edelman has been tied with Lodz; in 1999, he was honored as Lodz's citizen of the year.
Asked about what he thought was most important in life, he said:
"Basically, it is life itself that is most important. And if there is
life, then most important is freedom. And then one gives one's life for
freedom. It is hard to say what is most important after that."
Edelman published a book titled Getto walczy (The Ghetto is
Fighting) in 1946. A lengthy interview with Hanna Krall is also
noteworthy'Zdazyc przed Panem Bogiem (English translation, Shielding the
Flame: An Intimate Conversation with Dr. Marek Edelman, The Last
Surviving Leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising [New York: Henry Holt and
Co., 1986]), which contains many existential reflections rooted in
Edelman's experience of the Holocaust. Also valuable is another lengthy
interview titled Straznik (The Guard: Marek Edelman Speaks) (1999).