Anti-Zionist legacy of Warsaw Ghetto resistance fighter Marek Edelman

The Oct. 2 passing of Marek Edelman, the last surviving leader of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, has occasioned respectful but generally sanitized eulogies in the world Jewish press—with few exceptions, neatly avoiding any mention of his anti-Zionist politics. An Oct. 6 remembrance in New York’s Jewish Week is typical in dodging the issue entirely.

Among the better accounts appeared Oct. 6 in the Jerusalem Post. It relates how Edelman was a member of the youth section of the Bund, or General Jewish Labor Union, which “merged Jewish left-wing political organizations on Polish soil.” In the 1943 Uprising, he emerged as a Jewish Combat Organization commander. As the Uprising was crushed, he escaped the Ghetto (through the sewers, the JP fails to note) and joined with the Polish resistance, participating in the following year’s general Warsaw Uprising—which was also brutally put down by the German occupation.

The account notes that after the war, “when the majority of those from his generation who survived the Shoah chose to go to Palestine, Edelman decided to stay in Poland.” He married and became a cardiologist—but lost his job in one of the Communist regime’s anti-Semitic purges in 1967. His wife emigrated to France after this with their two children, but Edelman again chose to stay in Poland. When questioned why, he said: “Someone had to stay with all those who died here.”

In the 1970s, while still pursuing a career in cardiology, he helped form the dissident Workers’ Defense Committee, an early precursor of the Solidarity trade union. He was briefly interned for this activity. In 1983, with Poland under martial law following Solidarity’s strikes, he refused to participate in the 40th anniversary honorary committee for the Ghetto Uprising, set up by the Communist authorities.

The obituary in the Tel Aviv daily Haaretz briefly acknowledges that Edelman was a controversial figure in Israel:

After the war Edelman served as the right-hand man of uprising leader Mordechai Anielewicz and was a long-time activist in the Bund, the General Jewish Labor Union. The organization was known in part for being anti-Zionist, believing that Jews must assert themselves as a part of the societies of their countries of origin.

The dispute led to tension with Edelman’s former colleagues from the uprising who immigrated to Israel after surviving the war. In later years, Edelman reportedly warmed to Zionism and met with fellow ghetto fighters who had immigrated here.

A rather different picture is painted in a commentary by Tony Greenstein on the Live From Occupied Palestine blog:

Edelman became a ‘non-person’ in Israel. He challenged the Zionist fable that the holocaust was part of a continuous road that led to the Israeli state and that the Ghetto Uprising was part of that same road. Having abandoned the Jews of Europe to their fate, Zionism created the myth that resistance to the Nazis was a Zionist endeavour.

While Zionist resistance to the Nazis did eventually emerge, Greenstein emphasizes a history that contemporary Zionists would like to forget:

Today Zionism praises the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but in the 1930’s and 1940’s it treated and made deals with the Nazis. In the Ghetto the Jewish leadership did nothing as two-thirds of the Jews were deported without resistance. The Chairman of the Judenrat, Adam Czerniakow, a General Zionist and compared to most leaders of the Judenrat, an honourable man, committed suicide. ‘what could we do’ [sic] was the familiar refrain of the Jewish leadership. But the Bund, which delayed the setting up of the Ghetto through demonstrations and mass mobilisation, believed in relying on the masses, not the lying words of the Nazi enemy.

Greenstein (citing the obituary in The Independent) only briefly mentions Edelman’s most forthright statement of anti-Zionism in the post-war period. In 2002, he wrote an open letter to all Palestinian resistance organizations, appealing to them (in barely disguised terms) to refrain from suicide bombing. The text of the letter made clear that he saw the Palestinian struggle as legitimate—and even analogous to the Jewish resistance movements in World War II. Most controversially, the text was entitled “Letter to Palestinian military organizations”—an obvious reference to the Jewish Military Organization (more commonly rendered “Combat Organization” or “Fighting Organization”) that led the Warsaw Ghetto resistance.

To all the leaders of Palestinian military, paramilitary and guerilla organizations
To all the soldiers of Palestinian militant groups:

My name is Marek Edelman, I am a former Deputy Commander of the Jewish Military Organization in Poland, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Insurrection. In the memorable year of the insurrection—1943—we were fighting for the survival of the Jewish community in Warsaw. We were fighting for mere life, not for territory, nor for a national identity. We were fighting with a hopeless determination, but our weapons were never directed against the defenseless civilian populations, we never killed women and children. In a world devoid of principles and values, despite a constant danger of death, we did remain faithful to these values and moral principles.

We were isolated in our fight, and yet the powerful opposing army was not able to destroy these barely armed boys and girls.

Our fight in Warsaw lasted several weeks, later we fought in the Underground and in the Warsaw insurrection of 1944.

Yet nowhere in the world can a guerilla force bring conclusive victory, [and] nowhere can it be defeated by [powerful] armies, Neither can your war attain any resolution. Blood will be spilled in vain and lives will be lost on both sides.

We have never been careless with life. We have never sent our soldiers to certain death. Life is one for eternity. Nobody has the right to mindlessly take it away. It is high time for everybody to understand just that.

Just look around you. Look at Ireland. After 50 years of bloody war, peace has arrived. Formerly deadly enemies have set down at a common table. Look at Poland… Without a shot being fired, the criminal communist system has been defeated. Both you and the State of Israel have to radically change your attitude. You have to want peace in order to save the lives of hundreds and perhaps thousands of people, and to create a better future for your loved ones, for your children. I know from my own experience that the current unfolding of events depends on you, the Military Leaders… You are wise and intelligent enough to understand that without peace there is no future for Palestine, and that peace can be attained only at the cost of both sides agreeing to some concessions.

Ironically, one of the more forthright accounts to appear in the Jewish press was in Haaretz of Oct. 5, by Israel’s far-right ex-Defense Minister Moshe Arens, who gloats in his title that Edelman was “The last Bundist.” Arens relates traveling to Warsaw to interview Edelman about the history of the Uprising:

I was particularly interested in hearing about the part played by the Revisionist-led ZZW (Jewish Military League) in the uprising, but on that he was not forthcoming… I knew about his hostile attitude toward the ZZW. “A gang of porters, thieves and smugglers, fascists,” he had called them some years ago in an interview.

It falls to Arens, sympathizer of the extremist Revisionist Zionist tendency that was anathema to Edelman, to call out the Israeli establishment on its betrayal of the resistance hero:

One of the heroes of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, he had remained faithful to the Jewish socialist ideology of the Bund, even though the Polish socialists had disappointed him and Zionism, which the Bund had opposed, had prevailed.

Many of the survivors of the uprising who settled in Israel could not forgive Edelman for his frequent criticism of Israel. When on my return from Warsaw I tried to convince a number of Israeli universities to award Edelman an honorary doctorate in recognition of his role in the Warsaw ghetto uprising, I ran into stubborn opposition led by Holocaust historians in Israel. He had received Poland’s highest honor, and at the 65th commemoration of the Warsaw ghetto uprising he was awarded the French Legion of Honor medal. He died not having received the recognition from Israel that he so richly deserved.

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  1. Haaretz gets it wrong
    The obituary in the Tel Aviv daily Haaretz briefly acknowledges that Edelman was a controversial figure in Israel:

    After the war Edelman served as the right-hand man of uprising leader Mordechai Anielewicz

    —–a tad impossible, since Anielewicz died – famuosly – in the ghetto uprising, on may 8.

    1. Absolutely correct…
      …as stated in Anielewicz’s bio page on Jewish Virtual Library (which gives Edelman shamefully short shrift, by the way—just a photo and no bio), as well as Edelman’s own memoir of the Uprising, “The Ghetto Fights.” Edelman’s bio on Wikipedia states that “Edelman was one of the three sub-commanders [in the Jewish Combat Organization] and then became leader after the death of Anielewicz.”

      I’m embarrassed that got past me, but I’m even more embarrassed for Haaretz.

  2. Warsaw Ghetto survivor calls for “rebellion” against occupation
    The Tikun Olam blog notes April 9 of a Yom Ha-Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) ceremony at the Beit Lohamey Ha-Getaot, Israel’s museum of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, that featured a speech by one of the last sruvivors of the Ghetto, Chavka Fulman-Raban, at which she said:

    On April 19 1943, seventy years ago, the first rebellion in occupied Europe broke out—the Jewish rebellion.  I wasn’t part of it.  As a courier, I had been arrested during resistance operations in Kharkov and had been brought to Auschwitz a number of months earlier.

    All of my nearest, most beloved comrades fought from the rooftops, in the fires, from the bunkers.  Most of them perished.  I hurts me that I can no longer remember all their names.  We memorialize only a few.  But in my heart I am not parted from them, from the forgotten.

    Leave in your hearts and memories a place for them, younger generations.  For the beautiful and bold, so young, who fell in the last battle…

    Continue the rebellion.  A different rebellion of the here and now against evil, even the evil befalling our own and only beloved country.  Rebel against racism and violence and hatred of those who are different.  Against inequality, economic gaps, poverty, greed and corruption…

    Rebel against the Occupation. No—it is forbidden for us to rule over another people, to oppress another [people].  The most important thing is to achieve peace and an end to the cycle of blood[letting].  My generation dreamed of peace.  I so want to achieve it.  You have the power to help.  All my hopes are with you…

  3. Further forgotten legacy of Jewish anti-Nazi resistance
    The New York Times on May 20 ran an obituary of Baruch Spiegel, one of the last surviving veterans of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, who died in Montreal at the age of 93. The account noted the divergent political tendencies in the Jewish resistance movement—and that the leadership were not Zionist…

    As a young man, Mr. Spiegel was active in the leftist Jewish Labor Bund, and when it became clear that the Germans were not just deporting Jews but systematically killing them in death camps like Treblinka, the Bundists joined with other left-wing groups to form the Jewish Combat Organization, known by its Polish acronym ZOB.

    In January 1943, when German soldiers entered the ghetto for another deportation — 300,000 Jews had already been sent to Treblinka or otherwise murdered in the summer of 1942 — ZOB fighters fought back for three days and killed or wounded several dozen Germans, seized weapons and forced the stunned Germans to retreat.

    “We didn’t have enough weapons; we didn’t have enough bullets,” Mr. Spiegel once told an interviewer. “It was like fighting a well-equipped army with firecrackers.”

    In the early morning of April 19, the eve of Passover, a German force equipped with tanks and artillery tried again, surrounding the ghetto walls. Mr. Spiegel was on guard duty and, according to his son-in-law, Eugene Orenstein, a retired professor of Jewish history at McGill University, gave the signal to launch the uprising.

    The scattered ZOB fighters, joined by a right-wing Zionist counterpart, peppered the Germans from attics and underground bunkers, sending them into retreat once more. Changing tactics, the Germans began using flamethrowers to burn down the ghetto house by house and smoke out those in hiding. On May 8, ZOB’s headquarters, at 18 Mila Street, was destroyed. The group’s commander, Mordechai Anielewicz, is believed to have taken his own life, but scattered resistance continued for several more weeks in what was now rubble.

    By then, Mr. Spiegel and 60 or so other fighters had spirited their way out of the ghetto through sewers. One was Chaike Belchatowska, whom he would marry. They joined up with Polish partisans in a forest.

    “He was very modest, a reluctant hero,” his son said. “He was given an opportunity, and he took it. I don’t think he was braver or more resourceful than anyone else.”

    Good for the Times for not going along with the current revisionism.