The Survivor’s Voice

Shielding the Flame: An Intimate Conversation with Dr. Marek Edelman, the Last Surviving Leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

by Hanna Krall, translated by Joanna Stasinska and Lawrence Weschler
Holt, 124 pp., $13.95

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…

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