Shielding the Flame: An Intimate Conversation with Dr. Marek Edelman, the Last Surviving Leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
Marek Edelman is one of several key witnesses who do not appear in Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah, though he saw much more than most. In 1942 he had stood every day by the gate of the Umschlagplatz in Warsaw and watched 400,000 people walk by to their deaths. He still works as a heart surgeon in Lodz. Lanzmann interviewed him; but chose not to use what he said. Among other things, Edelman wonders whether the fighting in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943 can really be called an uprising. He describes Zionism and the state of Israel as a “historic failure”; and he calls the Poles, among whom he has lived all his life, “a tolerant people.” Indeed, as a heart surgeon he has devoted his career to saving Polish lives. “One is supposed to speak with hatred and pathos,” he says at one point. But he cannot.
Shielding the Flame: An Intimate Conversation with Dr. Marek Edelman, the Last Surviving Leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is a belated English translation of a small publication, which first appeared in Warsaw in 1976 under the title Zdazyć przed Panem Bogiem (“Beating the Almighty to the Draw”). It is the notebook of Hanna Krall, a Warsaw journalist, also with a Jewish background, and nowadays with dissident connections. It is not a straightforward presentation of Edelman’s historical memoirs, but rather an attempt to record the workings of his memory, with all the quirks of fragmentary recall, of moralizing and rationalizing. It is episodic in character, jumping back and forward between the horrors of the war years and the life-and-death crises of modern heart surgery. A finely done introduction by Timothy Garton Ash stresses the context in which most interested parties will read the book, namely the “extraordinary divorce of Polish and Jewish memory”—the trauma that has driven two peoples to forget their common heritage and to remember their wartime agonies in a selective and mutually exclusive fashion. The translators, Joanna Stasinska and Lawrence Weschler, follow the same line of thought in a brief afterword, wondering whether it might be time for the emergence of “a common history of Poles and Jews.”
Marek Edelman was born in Warsaw in 1921, the son of Jewish parents who had moved westward to newly independent Poland from Byelorussia. Family legend held that all twelve of his maternal uncles, members of the Social Revolutionary party, had been shot by the Bolsheviks; and he was brought up to believe that communism is “a regular dictatorship which kills people.” His mother was clearly a dominant influence, and the adolescent Marek adopted her role as a socialist activist, a member of the Jewish Workers League, the Bund. During the Nazi occupation, he fought both in the ghetto rising of 1943, whence he escaped with outside help through the sewers, and the main Warsaw rising of 1944. He describes his survival as “ludicrous.” After the war, he eventually found his way into the medical profession, and has worked for the last thirty years as a cardiologist in Lodz. He lost his job briefly in 1968, but was soon reinstated. In 1980 and 1981 he emerged as a leading personality in the local Solidarity movement. His special merit as a war hero and Jewish comrade in arms of the Polish Resistance received public recognition at the one and only Solidarity Congress of September 1981.
Two years later, during the period of martial law, when the Communist authorities organized a lavish celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the ghetto rising, Edelman refused to take part. His open letter of February 2, 1983, clearly linked the ideals of dignity and freedom, which the ghetto fighters and Solidarity had shared. To celebrate the one while the other was in chains, he said, would be an act of “cynicism and contempt.”
Since then, he has been much written about in the underground press in Poland, and is in demand as a speaker at unofficial meetings and in church halls. He is the object of considerable fascination among the younger generation—a living link between the unknown world of prewar Polish Jewry and Solidarity. Edelman’s life and ideas flatly contradict the standard notion that Poles and Jews have nothing in common but recriminations. (A recent interview with the underground “Fighting Solidarity Journal,” Czas, published in Poznan in December 1985 is an essential supplement to Hanna Krall’s text.)
Edelman’s opinions are incomprehensible without reference to the Bund in whose ideals he was nurtured. The Bundists formed the mainstream of early-twentieth-century Jewish socialism. They had dedicated themselves to the task of building a more just and enlightened society in the land where the vast majority of world Jewry then lived, namely, under czarist rule in historic Poland. (After 1921, their activities were largely confined to the Polish Republic, since across the new frontier in the USSR they were forcibly suppressed.) Within the broad range of Jewish politics, they opposed both the traditionalist, religious conservatives and the rising tide of radical Zionism. Within the narrower spectrum of Jewish socialism, they held the middle ground between adherents of the Marxist and communist fringe and the various Zionist-socialist groupings who were destined to play such a prominent part in the first years of Israel. They were actively nonreligious, and in their promotion of Yiddish education and the trade unions strove to prize the Jewish masses away from the control of religious leaders and Judaic law. At the same time, they were fiercely opposed to nationalism and chauvinism in all its forms, and thus came into head-on rivalry with the Zionists.
With hindsight, one sees that the Bund’s staunch opposition to nationalism probably provides the most noble element of its makeup. Like the main Polish Socialist party (PPS) with which it closely cooperated, the Bund was striving for a future where ethnic divisions would not matter, and where Poles, Jews, Germans, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and Russians could live together in harmony. Yet they lived in a country where each of the nationalities was falling prey to its own brand of right-radical, ethnic nationalism, and where mutual antagonisms were being systematically inflamed. In the 1930s, just as the German communities of eastern Europe surrendered to Nazism, so among the Poles Dmowski’s chauvinistic National Democrats gained ground and among the Ukrainians the OUN took hold; and among the Jews, Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionists took an aggressive line.
All of these groups at once resembled one another, and hated one another, and each developed a military, terrorist wing to fight for the goal of their own exclusive, national homeland. Piasecki’s Polish Falanga (ONR), for instance, and Menachem Begin’s brown-shirted Betar squads no doubt thought of each other as mortal enemies. Yet they were mirror images of each other, idolaters at the same nationalist shrine. And they were both denounced by the Bund as fascists.
Edelman’s Bundist upbringing explains most of his later views and actions. It explains why, within the Jewish Combat Organization in the ghetto, his team of young fighters buried their dead to the whispered strains of “The Internationale.” It explains why, within the ranks of the Polish underground, he wound up with the People’s Army (AL) rather than with the main Home Army (AK). It explains why in 1945 he chose to stay in Poland. “You see,…before the war I was telling my fellow Jews that their place was here, in Poland. That we would build socialism here. So…how was I supposed to leave?” Above all, it explains his deep aversion to Soviet-style communism. Unlike the thousands of Polish Jews whose reputation was stained by association with the murderous Stalinist regime after the war, a principled Bundist would have been forewarned. Like all other democratic socialists and the Polish working class as a whole, he had to wait thirty-five years for a fleeting glimpse of his dreams during the Solidarity era of 1980 and 1981.
It is ironic that of all the nationalist extremists from prewar Poland, Begin’s group was the only one to achieve political power. The Bundists, by contrast, had no future, since their entire constituency was destroyed by the Holocaust, and their program could never have been applied outside Eastern Europe.
Edelman would not score highly in the eyes of some professors of anti-Semitic studies, whose courses proliferate on American campuses. On several occasions, he recounts his sense of dismay at numerous meetings with people who only wanted him to confirm their preconceptions. It started immediately after the ghetto rising. “Those people looked at him in total silence until finally one of them said, ‘We must try to understand him. He is not a normal man. He is a human wreck.”‘ Then in the 1960s there had been the much publicized interview about the ghetto rising for which he was blamed for “stripping everything of its magnitude.” He had told the story how Mordka Anielewicz, the commander of the ghetto rising, used to brush red paint onto the gills of fish on his mother’s stall to make them look fresh.
Then there was the meeting with American labor union leaders who had donated funds for the ghetto fighters, and in front of whom Edelman had made his terrible gaffe: “Do you really think it can be called an Uprising?” Then there was an American writer who pressed him to concede that there were five or six hundred fighters in the ghetto. “No,” Edelman said, “there were two hundred and twenty of us.” Most recently there was Lanzmann.
Edelman’s comments on heroism, especially his own, are often harsh. What he objects to is the way that certain names and actions in the ghetto have been celebrated for the purposes of those who do the celebrating. He comments: “What bad luck! The one, the only one who’d survived, was no good as a hero.” Why Korczak? he asks. Korczak was a hero because he went to his death with his orphans of his own free will. “But Pola Lifszyc, who went with her mother—who knows about Pola Lifszyc?” He talks of the heroines of the ghetto hospital—the nurse who for mercy’s sake stifled a newborn baby; the doctor who dispensed her own cyanide to her child patients. He questions the mass suicide in the bunker at 18 Mila Street—“Such honorable men. So heroic. So Polish”—and praises the courage of those who did not resist:
Those people went quietly and with dignity. It is a horrendous thing, when one is going so quietly to one’s death. It is infinitely more difficult than to go out shooting.
He openly admits to his own most unheroic moment. As he was climbing into the sewer to make his escape, one of the ghetto prostitutes who had also survived to that point tried to climb in with him. And he turned her away. “In the Ghetto there should only have been martyrs and Joans of Arc, right?”
His comments on God and religion are even harsher. God is a capricious force of evil. God was on the side of the Nazis. God is trying to snatch away his heart patients. “God is trying to blow out the candle, and I’m quickly trying to shield the flame, taking advantage of His brief inattention.” Edelman’s purpose in life, as he sees it, is “beating God to the draw.” People who place their faith in God are asking for trouble. The religious Jews in the ghetto, who accepted God’s will without question, found no consolation. The Roman Catholic Church in Poland was “a Black Hundred,” an instrument of persecution. “It is the weak who are humanitarian; strong people are at each other’s throats.” Oddly enough, Edelman does not condemn the religiosity of postwar Poland, seeing it as a political device. “Poland has never been a very religious country. Today everyone believes in God just to screw the Reds.”
Polish-Jewish relations are hardly mentioned as such. When he talks of collaboration it is of the Jewish Police Force, who, during the Nazi Special Action program in 1942, rounded up ten thousand Jews per day for extermination. The ghetto fighters later executed some of those policemen. When he talks of his fellow veterans, it is not always clear which side of the “Aryan” divide they were on. When he talks of a beating he took before the war on Nowy Swiat in Warsaw at the hands of an ONR gang, he mentions that gentiles who strayed into the Jewish quarter could also risk a beating. When he recounts his reception by the Polish underground, he mentions both the unit that wanted to shoot him as a Jewish spy and the young Pole who protected him.
On the question of popular passivity in face of the Holocaust, Edelman is careful not to pass judgment. Time and again, he defends the millions who, unlike himself, went quietly, and he gets angry only with those who point the accusing finger: like the American professor, a veteran of the Normandy landings, who told Edelman, “You were going to your deaths like sheep.” By what right can we judge people who lived in a different world? “Those were different times. A totally different morality. Of course, it was instinct. To kill the one who is killing you. That was the only morality.” Families living in one part of the ghetto tried to carry on living normally while other parts of the ghetto were being cleared. (Though nowhere in the ghetto was life “normal.”) Families living in other parts of Warsaw tried to carry on as usual while the ghetto burned. (Though nowhere in Nazi-occupied Poland was life “normal.”) Edelman recalls the children’s merry-go-round in the shadow of the ghetto wall (the subject of a conscience-stricken poem, “Campo di Fiori,” by Czeslaw Milosz). When asked directly about help from the “Aryan” side Edelman says bluntly:
Firstly, they couldn’t help, and secondly they didn’t want to. They themselves were weak. Besides, they didn’t trust us. You can’t really measure…how much reluctance there was.
Indeed, one cannot measure reluctance. And reluctance was not all on one side. Most of the Poles didn’t trust the Jews; and most Jews didn’t trust the Poles. For years before the war, the militants of both communities had been working to destroy mutual trust.
It is all too human to hand out blame. Edelman used to argue after the war with one of the young Poles, Kazik, who had pulled his group out of the sewer on Prosta Street, although eight of the group had died. Eventually, Kazik says, “Stop it. After all, it’s the Germans who were responsible.” To hear how some people speak, one might overlook the fact that both Poles and Jews were common victims of the Nazis.
Then there is the question of the suicides—notably those of Adam Czerniaków, the chairman of the Judenrat, and of Anielewicz, the commander of the ghetto rising. Edelman, the doctor, does not approve of suicide. One has always to take the chance for life. But again, he will not condemn. All he says of Czerniaków is that “he should not have made his death his private business.” (One thinks of Samuel Zygelbojm, the Bundist member of the Polish National Council in London, who committed suicide in despair at the failure of the British and Americans to respond to the reports of the destruction of the Jews.) Czerniaków’s grave bears three lines from Norwid:
So that it little matters in what urn you rest,
Because they will open your grave again someday
And assess your merits differently.
Reassessing the wider complexity of wartime Poland in which the Holocaust occurred is also an urgent task, while testimony such as Edelman’s can still be taken. In spite of the millions of words expended, the subject continues to suffer from ethnocentric blight. One can emphatically reject the crackpot views of the self-styled “revisionist” or “antiexterminationist” school and still recognize that the conventional ethnic stereo-types—of German murderers, Jewish victims, and Polish bystanders and collaborators—are simply unworthy. Nor is it any better to write rival works on “The Forgotten Holocaust” or the “Gentile Holocaust” or “The Slavic Holocaust,” even though some sort of compensatory exposure of non-Jewish genocide has been overdue. In both cases, the exclusive, martyrological approach, whether applied to Jews or gentiles, only serves to diminish the victims, and to foreshorten the immensely complex world of Eastern Europe in which they all lived. Nor, indeed, can one afford to isolate the crimes of the Nazis from the parallel crimes of the Soviets, which were committed on an even grander scale and often on the self-same territories. For instance, if one wants to understand the widespread Polish anti-Semitism in the Nazi-occupied zone between 1941 and 1944, one cannot entirely ignore the events in the Soviet-occupied zone two years earlier. Between 1939 and 1941 the complicity of many Jews with the Soviet invaders, who had promptly organized mass deportations to the gulag, was often perceived in Poland as proof of rooted Jewish hostility to the Polish cause. Home Army reports of the deteriorating mood reached London by September 1941.
Somehow, one needs to escape from narrow ethnic interests, from racist categories dictated by the Nazis, and from the coyness of our wartime alliances, and to look more evenhandedly on the experiences of all concerned. If people are to be judged for their failings, then all must be judged by the same standards. If the mechanisms of totalitarianism are to be understood, then they must be studied in their totality. This is not to say that one group or another may not lay claim to be a unique case. More than 90 percent of Polish Jews were killed.
Edelman’s recollections, of course, can hardly illuminate all the problems of wartime Poland. What is beyond price is his lack of rancor, and his fierce honesty. He never says simply what is expected of him—least of all by his fellow Jews.
An appreciation of Poland’s multinational history, therefore, is a necessary precondition for appreciating Edelman’s comments. Unfortunately, in modern Jewish mythology, and especially in America, Poland is largely remembered as the hell from which most surviving Jewish families escaped. (Only one hundred years ago historic Poland still contained 80 percent of world Jewry.) It is remembered as a land inhabited by anti-Semites and infested by everyday pogroms—and as nothing else. The myth was a necessary instrument in the hands of the Zionist movement for persuading the Jewish masses to leave Poland for Palestine. By the same token, the extreme Polish nationalists, while castigating the Zionists, have shared their outlook, for they too were working for a separation of the two peoples. Nowadays, for better or for worse, the divorce is complete. There is a purely Polish Poland; and there is a Jewish state of Israel. Neither side is particularly interested in the other—unless someone like Edelman comes along to remind them of the former aspirations of the great mass of Poles and Jews who were sick to death of the zealots of all sides, and who wanted nothing more than to live together in peace in the land of their birth.
To what extent Edelman might be regarded as representative of Polish Jewry is open to debate. He himself trivializes the Zionist element in Poland as “a marginal movement,” a mere 50,000 among the 3.5 million Jews, “a drop in the bucket.” Modern Zionists naturally tend to give it far more importance. One would tend to concur, however, in Edelman’s strong sense of a lost world. Jewry was concentrated “between the Vistula and Dnieper rivers”—in other words, historic Poland. The Jews of America or Western Europe did not create this Jewish culture. And Israel is different again. The trouble is, thanks to the Nazis, there is hardly anyone left to speak for that lost world.
Turning to the current preoccupation in Poland with Jewish problems, especially in the Catholic press, Edelman’s young interviewer from underground Solidarity put the question, “What does it mean to be a Jew today?”
Here in Poland? It means to be with the oppressed, not to be with the authorities, because they have always beaten Jews here, and today Solidarity is being beaten. Never mind who is being beaten, I believe you have always to take his side.
Edelman’s colleague Adam Michnik, another democratic socialist, recently released from jail, would undoubtedly agree. And Lanzmann’s reaction would be worth filming.
Poles and Jews: An Exchange April 9, 1987