This week marks the anniversary of the death of Marek Edelman – a Jew who survived the Warsaw ghetto, but who the Israeli state would rather erase from historical recognition. Gerard Stewart looks back at the legacy of the holocaust resistance hero.
A youth activist of the General Jewish Labour Bund, a Jewish socialist workers’ party in Poland, Marek Edelman found himself confined in Warsaw, which had become an open-air prison for the city’s Jews after the Nazi invasion in 1939. Within 3 years, the majority of the 400,000 Jewish men, women and children sealed in the ghetto had been marched at gunpoint onto cargo trains to be massacred at Treblinka’s extermination camp. Neither interested in “waiting for the Messiah, nor [the Zionist] plan to leave for Palestine”, Edelman co-founded the Yidishe Kamf Organizatsie (Jewish Combat Organisation) and brought to it the Bundist philosophy that for the Jews of Warsaw, ‘’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.”
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
The Jewish youth of Warsaw moved to self-defence and armed struggle and by the age of 20, Edelman led them in The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising alongside the communist Armia Ludowa (People’s Army of Poland). Critically outnumbered and with limited international support, they fought from sewers and rooftops for 63 days in what was the single largest military effort taken by any European resistance movement during World War II. Eventually the city was reduced to fiery ruins when Reich Commissioner Henrich Himmler ordered total destruction of the ghetto. The Nazis set the area ablaze and demolished the Great Synagogue of Warsaw by denotation. Edelman was one of few who escaped, but unlike some other Polish Jews, he chose not to emigrate to US or Palestine. Instead he went on to become a heart surgeon in his native Poland, though he remained politically active all his life, supporting the independent Solidarity trade union movement that would remove the Stalinist regime in Poland in the 1980s. At the founding conference of the union, a veteran of the Polish Underground that led the 1944 uprising against the Nazis, one year after and inspired by the Ghetto uprising, halted a round of applause for himself and turned to a hero who was “of considerably greater stature”– Dr Marek Edelman.
An internationalist, Edelman remained steadfastly anti-Zionist. He insisted that Zionism was imperialist in both design and application and argued that it threatened a global multiculturalist aspiration, which led to bitter resentment from Israeli ideologues, some of whom were once his peers. He condemned Israel as a cause lost to anti-Arab apartheid and militarist genocide. And although highly critical of particular tactics of the Palestinian struggle, an elderly Edelman addressed the Palestinians in a spirit of solidarity from a fellow resistance fighter of a Jewish rebellion not dissimilar to the Palestinian uprising. In a letter to ‘all the leaders of Palestinian military, paramilitary and guerrilla organisations’, from ‘a former Deputy Commander of the Jewish Military Organization in Poland’, few missed the nod of solidarity the introduction intended.
IHRA & The Legacy of the Left
The recent aspersion against the international Left as being anti-semitic for refusing to adopt the working definition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) which conflates anti-semitism with anti-Zionism is a dangerous affront to historical record, of which Edelman – both a Jew and a Socialist – eternally embodies. The legacy of the Left in defending Jews against anti-semitism stretches throughout the first meetings of Petrograd and Moscow soviets, to the Battle of Cable Street, to Amsterdam’s February General Strike, to post-war opposition to the KKK’s anti-Jewish pogroms, and beyond. Times gone by have brutally demonstrated that before they came for the Jews, as Niemöller famously wrote, “First they came for the Socialists”. For Theresa May to say, “There is no contradiction between the Jew and the Zionist – and we must never let anyone try to suggest that there should be” is both a colossal insult to the historical memory of Jews the world over and abominable apologism for the systemic oppression of the Palestinian people.
A socialist for the ages
Though leaders of the Zionist establishment now claim the holocaust as part of the continuous road to an Israeli state, Zionism at the time of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising all but abandoned Jews to their fate. Edelman disputed the myth that resistance to the holocaust was a Zionist endeavour. It is unsurprising, then, that Zionist leaders were in no rush to commemorate Edelman when he died in 2009. Apart from a previous Israeli Ambassador to Poland, in his personal capacity, there was no representation from the Israeli state. Israel’s far-right ex-Defence Minister Moshe Arens, gloated in his commentary at the time that Edelman was “The last Bundist”, yet even he acknowledged the failure in the Israeli state to give Edelman the ‘recognition he so richly deserved’. But it is recognition he will seemingly never receive. A hero of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, a faithful socialist and internationalist, yet many of the other survivors of the uprising who settled in Israel could not forgive Edelman for his frequent criticism of Israel. His memory is lived on and celebrated by socialists the world over.
“To be a Jew means always being with the oppressed, and never the oppressors” ~ Marek Edelman, leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.