October 3, 2009
WARSAW (AP) — Marek Edelman, the last surviving leader of the ill-fated 1943 Warsaw ghetto revolt against the Nazis, died Friday at the age of 90.
Edelman died of old age at the family home of his friend Paula Sawicka, where he had lived for the past two years.
“He died at home, among friends, among his close people,” Sawicka told The Associated Press.
Most of Edelman’s adult life was dedicated to the defense of human life, dignity and freedom. He fought the Nazis in the doomed Warsaw ghetto revolt and later in the Warsaw city Uprising. And then for decades he fought communism in Poland.
His heroism earned him the French Legion of Honor and Poland’s highest civilian distinction, the Order of the White Eagle.
Former Israeli ambassador to Poland Shevach Weiss paid tribute to Edelman.
“He will remain in my memory as a fighting hero, a man of great courage,” Weiss said. “He never ceased in his struggle for human freedom and for Poland’s freedom.”
The uprising at the Warsaw ghetto was the first act of large-scale armed civilian resistance against the Germans in occupied Poland during World War II.
One of the few survivors of three weeks of uneven struggle in the Warsaw ghetto, Edelman felt obliged to preserve the memory of the fallen heroes of that first large-scale Jewish revolt against the Nazis. Each year, on the revolt’s anniversary, he laid flowers at Warsaw’s monument to the ghetto heroes, and called for tolerance.
“Remember them all — boys and girls — 220 altogether, not too many to remember their faces, their names,” he said of the young fighters in a 2008 interview with The Associated Press.
‘Man is evil, by nature man is a beast,” he said then. Therefore people “have to be educated from childhood, from kindergarten, that there should be no hatred.”
He also felt obliged to appeal repeatedly to the world for freedom and peace — even when it had to be won in a fight.
“When you cannot defend freedom through peaceful means, you have to use arms to fight Nazism, dictatorship, chauvinism,” Edelman said in the 2008 interview in his apartment in the central city of Lodz, which was filled with portraits of Jews and of scenes reminiscent of the Holocaust.
He worked at a city hospital Lodz, almost to his last day.
Edelman was born Jan. 1, 1919 in Homel, which was then in eastern Poland and is now in Belarus. His family soon moved to Warsaw.
When the Nazis invaded Poland on Sept.1, 1939, Edelman was member of Bund, a Jewish socialist organization that later masterminded plans for resistance against the occupying Germans.
The Germans set up the Warsaw ghetto in November 1940, cramming some 460,000 Jews from the city and from across Poland in inhuman conditions. After a year, almost half the people there had died of disease and starvation.
The resistance plans were implemented April 19, 1943, when the Nazis moved to liquidate the ghetto by killing or sending some remaining 60,000 residents to the death camps. Thousands were put on regular transports to the death camps of Treblinka, Majdanek and Sobibor.
But that April, the well-trained German troops encountered unexpectedly fierce resistance from a few hundred young, poorly armed Jewish civilians, determined to die fighting rather than in gas chambers.
At the age of 23, Edelman took command of a brush-makers unit, based at a brush factory.
“No one believed they would be saved,” Edelman said. “We knew the struggle was doomed, but it showed the world there was resistance against the Nazis, that you could fight the Nazis.”
“Every moment was difficult. It was two or three or 10 boys fighting with an army,” Edelman said in 2008. “There were no easy moments.”
They had few guns and no food but were driven by a goal.
The Nazis “wanted to destroy the people and we fought to protect the people in the ghetto, to extend their lives by a day, or two or five,” he said.
The ghetto fighters inflicted heavy losses on the Germans, but eventually succumbed. More than 55,000 people were killed or deported to Nazi concentration camps when the uprising failed.
The uprising’s leaders were rounded up in a bunker and, seeing no chance of escape, committed suicide on May 8, 1943.
The Nazis razed the ghetto street by street, as part of their so-called “final solution” in which they killed 6 million people in their efforts to wipe out European Jewry.
Edelman was not in the bunker. With a small group of survivors, he left through the sewers to the Aryan side of Warsaw, where he found places to hide and helped coordinate Jewish partisan groups in nearby forests.
The deadly struggle was “worth it … even at the price of the fighters’ lives,” he said later. “They could not be saved, anyway.”
In August and September of 1944, Edelman fought in the Warsaw Uprising, another ill-fated revolt meant to free the capital from Germans ahead of the advancing Red Army.
After the war, Edelman became a cardiologist in Lodz. He joined the democratic opposition and the Solidarity freedom movement, and was interned under the Dec.13, 1981, martial law aimed against Solidarity.
In the end, the Solidarity movement led to the ouster of communists from power in Poland in 1989.
Edelman’s wife, Alina Margolis-Edelman, worked as a nurse in the Warsaw ghetto and after the war became a pediatrician. With their son, Aleksander, and daughter, Anna, she left Poland for France following the communist-sponsored anti-Semitic purges of 1968. She died in Paris on March 23, 2008.
But Edelman never wanted to leave Poland.
“When you were responsible for the life of some 60,000 people, you don’t leave and abandon the memory of them,” he told the AP.
He held an honorary doctorate from Yale University.
He is survived by his son, Aleksander, his daughter, Anna, and grandchildren Liza and Tomek.