Marek Edelman was a physician, Bund activist and deputy commander of the Jewish Fighting Organization. After the death of M. Anielewicz, he was the leader of the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943. He was also an opposition activist during the communist period. In 1998, he was awarded the Order of the White Eagle, as well as the St. George Medal and honorary doctorates from Yale University and the Universite Libre in Brussels.
Born in 1921 in Homel (Belarus), he soon moved with his parents to Warsaw. His father died when he was very young, followed by his mother when he was just thirteen. She had been a Bund activist and in the Jewish socialist worker's party-both organizations that influenced Edelman's civic views.
"The Bundists did not wait for the Messiah, nor did they plan to leave for Palestine. They believed that 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."
When the war broke out, the Bund continued to operate. In the Warsaw ghetto, it organized activities for children, for example, as well as schools and a theater. Edelman believed that the Jewish resistance movement was born of these very efforts. In 1942, Edelman was one of the founders of the Jewish Fighting Organization, which gathered Jewish young people who had decided to resist the Germans. After M. Anielewicz's death, Edelman was one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943. He was one of the few who survived the uprising. He and a small group of insurgents managed to escape through the sewers to the Aryan side. He hid thanks to the underground activists of the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), and then also fought in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944.
"Humanity had decided that dying with a gun is more beautiful than dying without a gun. So we went along with this decision," he told Hanna Krall in the book "Zdazyc przed Panem Bogiem" (English translation, Shielding the Flame: An Intimate Conversation with Dr. Marek Edelman, The Last Surviving Leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising [New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1986]).
In 1946, Marek Edelman settled in Lodz, graduated from medical school, and married. His children were born in that city, and it was there that he became a cardiologist, working at the Pirogow Hospital. After the war, he was active in the Bund once again, and protested the Bund's decision to disband in 1948. He was fired from the S. Sterling Hospital in 1966, and was dismissed from the military hospital as well two years later. In 1968, his habilitation dissertation was rejected for political reasons. He did not leave Lodz even when his wife and children left Poland in 1968 during the wave of anti-Semitic persecution. When asked why he decided to stay in Poland, he usually says that this is a stupid question, avoiding an answer. He does sometimes answer this question more fully, when often asked by young people at literary events. He replies: "Someone had to stay here with all those who perished here, after all."
He is a well-known and highly respected specialist, famous for his willingness to take risks in order to save someone's life. He described his own mission as a physician in a conversation with Hanna Krall:
"The Lord wants to put out the candle already, and I have to shield the flame quickly, taking advantage of a moment's inattention on His part." In 1971, he introduced Polish medicine to a new revolutionary method for the treatment of heart conditions by making an arterio-venous fistula, i.e., connecting a vein to an artery. As a result, many people were saved who would otherwise not have survived heart attacks.
In the mid-1970's, he became involved with the democratic opposition. In the years 1976-1980, he was active in the Workers' Defense Committee (KOR), and then in the independent trade union, Solidarity. In December 1981, he was interned. He was released from prison after a couple of days, after intervention by Western intellectuals. He was involved in the underground Solidarity movement until 1989, and also took part in the Round Table talks in 1989. During the years 1989-1993, he was a member of parliament.
Edelman speaks out on important issues facing the world today. He was concerned about the events in Bosnia, then in Kosovo. He went with a humanitarian convoy to Sarajevo, and made an appeal to the NATO leadership in April 1999 that was published in leading Western newspapers. In it, he wrote:
"I appeal to you, leaders of the free world, not to stop the air strikes and to send soldiers to Kosovo so that what I witnessed in the Warsaw Ghetto will not be repeated. In the current situation, only the presence of NATO soldiers can save the Albanians from genocide. I know how painful it is for those sending their soldiers to war to know that they could die. But I also know-as do all those of my generation-that freedom has a price. A price that we must be willing to pay."
On April 17, 1998, President Aleksander Kwasniewski awarded Marek Edelman with the highest state medal, the Order of the White Eagle. At that time, Edelman said: "This order is a reminder of the three million Jews who died in Poland, of and of the 350,000 Varsovians who died... It is a reminder of those people who perished needlessly. It is an order for Poland, who was made an orphan, three million of its citizens dead. Citizens who had brought the beauty of Jewish culture to life, culture that had for centuries mingled with Polish literature, culture and customs. This is all gone now, and today we must remember it."
For over fifty years, Marek Edelman has been tied with Lodz; in 1999, he was honored as Lodz's citizen of the year.
Asked about what he thought was most important in life, he said: "Basically, it is life itself that is most important. And if there is life, then most important is freedom. And then one gives one's life for freedom. It is hard to say what is most important after that."
Edelman published a book titled Getto walczy (The Ghetto is Fighting) in 1946. A lengthy interview with Hanna Krall is also noteworthyZdazyc przed Panem Bogiem (English translation, Shielding the Flame: An Intimate Conversation with Dr. Marek Edelman, The Last Surviving Leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising [New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1986]), which contains many existential reflections rooted in Edelman's experience of the Holocaust. Also valuable is another lengthy interview titled Straznik (The Guard: Marek Edelman Speaks) (1999).
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