The Curious Case of Marek Edelman
In 1983, the Polish authorities, planning an official observance of the 40th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, invited Marek Edelman to join the honorary sponsoring committee. Edelman, a member of the Jewish Socialist Bund since his youth, had been the Deputy Commandant in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The only one of his comrades, Bundists and Zionists, still remaining in Poland—for the last thirty years he has been a physician in Lodz—he had never joined the Communist party and never lent his name in support of the regime. Nor was he daunted, in 1983, by the government’s effort to coopt him for its official observance. He rejected the invitation and distributed his statement as an open letter:
Forty years ago we fought not only for our lives, but for life in dignity and freedom. To observe our anniversary here, where enslavement and humiliation are now the lot of the entire society, where words and gestures have become nothing but lies, would betray the spirit of our struggle. It would mean participating in something totally the opposite. It would be an act of cynicism and contempt.
I shall not be a party to this, nor can I condone the participation of others, regardless of where they come from and whom they speak for.
The true memory of the victims and heroes, of the eternal human striving for truth and freedom, will be preserved in the silence of graves and hearts—far from manipulated commemorations.
Thus did Edelman once again exhibit the defiant heroism that had distinguished his actions forty years earlier.
This was not the first interruption of the privacy of Edelman’s life as a doctor. In 1976 the journalist Hanna Krall published in a Polish literary journal a series of interviews with him, focusing on his two lives—first as a young man in the Warsaw Ghetto where, under the German occupation, human life had no value, and later as a cardiologist dedicated to saving human life. Miss Krall’s interviews appeared in book form in 1977, and the first edition of 10,000 copies sold out swiftly, as did a second edition of 30,000. The book catapulted Edelman into celebrity; more significantly, it reportedly sparked considerable interest among the younger generation of Polish readers and was said to have launched intense discussions, especially in dissident circles, about the need to improve understanding between Poles and Jews.
In its English translation, Hanna Krall’s book1 is unlikely to have the kind of impact it had in Poland. For one thing, its readers here, whether Jews or non-Jews, hardly need Miss Krall’s instruction on the exemplary nature of the life-and-death struggle of Warsaw Jewry during World War II. Another obstacle is Miss Krall’s style, which Timothy Garton Ash in his introduction to the English translation characterizes as a kind of “Polish New Journalism.” By shuttling back and forth between chunks of transcribed conversations with Edelman and chunks of interviews with his heart patients, Miss Krall manages to create a maximum of confusion; it is not always clear who is speaking or when the conversation has taken place. As for Edelman, he talks as though in the privacy of his home, perhaps after a drink or two. Some of his remarks are smart-alecky; others leave themselves open to misinterpretation. Matters of importance are eclipsed by trivialities.
The matters of importance center on the harrowing deportation of Warsaw Jews to Treblinka in mid-1942, which Edelman witnessed at first hand while working as a messenger for the ghetto hospital. He had been assigned by the underground the task of rescuing, from among the tens of thousands assembled at the railroad siding to board the trains to Treblinka, as many as he could remove on the pretext that they had to be hospitalized. Another subject of importance concerns his comrades in the Bund underground and the desperate courage that motivated them to build their resistance organization. Edelman recounts how they fought their unequal battle with German SS and, finally, how he and members of his combat group managed to escape from the burning ghetto through sewer passages into “Aryan” Warsaw.
These subjects comprise a story of historical magnitude, but Miss Krall has reduced it to mere chatter. The chatterers themselves play a game of tag with memory, a commodity which in Poland seems to be even more elusive than it is in the West. (Perhaps remembrance has been outlawed there.) It is extraordinary, for instance, that neither Miss Krall nor Edelman ever mentions that Edelman himself wrote a short account of his ghetto experiences when the past was, as it were, still present. The Polish text of The Ghetto Fights—just about as long as Edelman’s ghetto reminiscences here—was published by the Bund in Warsaw in 1945; an English translation appeared in New York a year later. It is precisely the same story that Edelman tells in this book, except that then he told it with greater coherence and dignity, and with a deeper appreciation of its historical import. But the pamphlet and the very remembrance of it have disappeared down Poland’s memory hole.
Since Edelman wrote that account forty years ago, he has changed his view of the past in only one respect. He no longer believes that fighting was the only way to “die with honor,” as he said in 1945 and as his comrades, Bundists and Zionists alike, used to assert in the familiar rhetoric of the Left. Edelman has come to the view that the millions of Jews who walked quietly into the trains taking them to Treblinka and Auschwitz were no less courageous, no less honorable, no less heroic than those who died wielding weapons and homemade Molotov cocktails.
Yet he cannot find appropriate words to express these thoughts. He comes across as tough, unsentimental, and crude. He speaks almost contemptuously of the resistance itself. Referring to the relatively small number of people—some 200—in the Jewish Combat Organization, Edelman asks: “Can you even call that an uprising?” Has he become a Nestbeschmutzer, befouling the nest he was raised in? Or is he just swaggering, heedless of the implications of his unthinking words? Emerson was right when he said that “every hero becomes a bore at last.”
One of the hazards of oral history is that people do not always remember things quite the way they happened. That is why reminiscences need to be checked, corroborated by documents or other witnesses. Miss Krall’s evidence of the past consists only of imperfect remembrance combined with hearsay, some of which is just plain wrong. For instance, she states that Henryk Grabowski, a Pole, was ordered by the Polish Scout movement to go from Warsaw to Vilna to “organize Jews for the struggle.” This statement is as preposterous as it is false. Grabowski was a brave and good man, but never had such a task. He served as a liaison for some Jewish youth groups, because as a Pole he could move about more freely than Jewish couriers. He brought information from Vilna back to Warsaw and later helped a member of the Jewish Combat Organization in Warsaw.
Even more egregious are the two references in the book to the Communists as arms suppliers to the ghetto. Neither the Communist Armia Ludowa, nor the People’s Army (mistranslated in the book as “Popular Army”), nor the Polish Workers party, the wartime version of the Polish Communist party, delivered any arms at all to the beleaguered Jewish ghetto fighters. Only the rightist Armia Krajowa—the Home Army, the resistance arm of the Polish government-in-exile—gave weapons to the Jewish Combat Organization. But they gave far too little and delivered much too late.
Amid the chatter of Miss Krall’s book there are also silences. Nowhere does Edelman speak of his feelings toward Poland, or explain why he alone of all his comrades chose to remain there. Nowhere does he mention Polish anti-Semitism, except for an Aesopian reference to the anti-Semitic campaign which the regime launched in 1968, driving all but the last few thousand Jews and crypto-Jews from the country.
To be sure, when Miss Krall interviewed Edelman in 1976, government repression was the order of the day and journalists exercised caution in discussing politics and touchy issues like Polish anti-Semitism. But that was also the year when the first important dissident organization, KOR (Workers’ Defense Committee), came into being. The rise of Solidarity in 1980 breathed fresh air into Poland’s polluted political atmosphere and people began to speak out more freely. Edelman himself became one of Solidarity’s ardent supporters. He was awarded an honorary membership in the organization, and in September 1981 he was elected a regional delegate to Solidarity’s first—and only—annual congress in Gdansk. Even after Jaruzelski’s military dictatorship crushed Solidarity and imposed martial law in December 1981, Polish dissidents continued to speak their minds and express their contempt for the regime. Edelman was arrested at that time, but was released after six days.
As his defiant statement of 1983 demonstrates, Edelman has not ceased to speak out—or to suffer the consequences (he was put under house arrest and police surveillance for his 1983 statement). In 1985 Czas, a Solidarity journal, published an interview with him in which he speaks with fierce honesty about his personal history as well as about Polish-Jewish relations.
In this interview Edelman describes his orphaned childhood. His father, of whom he can scarcely summon a memory, died when he was about four, his mother when he was twelve. It is his mother whom he remembers and to whose legacy he has remained faithful all his life. She gave him a secular and socialist Jewish upbringing and inducted him into the Bund. It is she to whom he owes his identity as a person and as a Jew.
As a youngster Edelman internalized the Bund’s ideology and held fast to it the rest of his life. Bundist ideology, a combination of socialism and Diaspora Jewish nationalism of a militantly secular variety, was the source of his anti-Zionism and his fixed belief in the unviability of a Jewish state, a belief which even the reality of the forty-year existence of Israel has been unable to shake. Bundist ideology gave him his doctrinaire anti-clericalism, which he now vents evenhandedly against both Hasidism and the Catholic Church, though neither possesses the social or political authority it once exercised. In the Bund, too, he learned to hate Communism and the Soviet system. Finally, through the Bund he made his covenant with the Jewish people, though after the murder of European Jewry the form of Jewishness to which the Bund committed him—secular Yiddish culture—came to an end. Edelman now believes, like Freud in his day, that being Jewish means identifying oneself with the opposition.
In the Czas interview, Edelman talks also of Polish anti-Semitism, especially before the war—the pogroms, the anti-Semitic political parties, the role of the Catholic Church in fomenting anti-Jewish prejudice. He describes his own experiences with anti-Semites before, during, and after the war. As he relates an incident involving anti-Semites in the Armia Krajowa who wanted to have him shot, he breaks off impatiently and says:
Don’t pay attention to my telling you such disgusting stories. They’re not fit to print in any newspaper. Because as you know, the Poles are a tolerant people. Nothing bad ever happened here to national minorities, to religious groups. No. The Poles are an exceptional people. Casimir the Great took the Jews in, honored them, and loves them to this day. But that’s enough. Why bother talking about it?2
Why, then, if he feels this way, did Edelman stay in Poland? He has never explained, even to the Czas interviewer. Certainly he has never displayed any Polonist passion, not for the language of Poland, its culture, its history, or (especially) its politics. On the contrary, in the Czas interview he shows his loathing for the Polish anti-Semites he has encountered in every decade of his life.
Yet at each opportunity he had to leave, Edelman chose to stay. When the war ended, his closest friends in the Bund and in the Jewish Combat Organization decided to emigrate. Poland had become the graveyard of the Polish Jews, of the European Jews. Besides, the Poles, far from welcoming back the Jewish survivors, refused to restore Jewish property to its rightful owners. They even indulged in a few pogroms to make sure the Jews got the message. Some of Edelman’s friends went to Palestine. Most went to the United States. They pleaded with him to join them. American Jews had papers for him and made him job offers. But he turned them all down.
He married a Jewish girl he had met after the Warsaw uprising of August 1944. Despite a deep depression, he began to study medicine, as did his wife. They had two children. Then his wife, convinced that Poland was no place for Jews, no place to raise her chidren, decided to leave. Once again Edelman stubbornly insisted on staying. She took their children and settled in Paris, where she still lives. The Edelmans are not divorced; whenever he is allowed to travel abroad, he visits his family in Paris.
What was it, then, that kept him in Poland, especially during those early years when he was constantly harassed by the police? Was it really the Bund’s commitment to do-ikeyt, a Yiddish coinage denoting “hereness,” the obligation of Jews to maintain their presence in the country where they were born and where they felt they belonged? This was something that Edelman’s friends in the Bund had also once believed in. But after the war they realized it was no longer a viable ideal. They left Poland without feeling that they were betraying their Bundist principles.
In the Czas interview Edelman drops a clue to his anomalous behavior. The interviewer asks what made him the person he became. Edelman hedges, then says:
Well, you must admit that every person has a particular upbringing. My mother thought, and brought me up to think, that things would be fine here, that all are equal, all are good, etc.
Here, I believe, is the morbid, perhaps even the macabre, reason Edelman has stayed behind in Poland, why he has relinquished the love and companionship of wife, children, friends. The key to the enigma resides not in a rigid adherence to ideology or political loyalty, but in the pathology of orphanhood, a disease from which he has never recovered. His tormented commitment to his mother and to her charge to him has kept him chained to Poland. She, the one person in the world he truly loved and the only person with whom he has retained an unbroken relationship, even long after her death, is the reason why Marek Edelman is the last surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in Poland.
All this, fascinating in itself, takes on an added twist of interest in the light of the current debate over Polish-Jewish relations, both historical and contemporary, that is now going on in Poland and the West. (See Ruth R. Wisse’s article “Poland’s Jewish Ghosts” in the January 1987 COMMENTARY.) Edelman, in his Czas interview, is certainly right in saying that the Poles do not like to hear about their anti-Semitism, and neither do their apologists. Norman Davies, for instance, a British professor of Polish history who is noted for his virtuosity in erasing Polish anti-Semitism from the history books he writes, asserts in a review of the Krall book (in the New York Review of Books, November 20, 1986) that Edelman “calls the Poles, among whom he has lived all his life, ‘a tolerant people.’” Just for that sentence alone Davies could be sued for historical malpractice.
But this transformation of Edelman’s bitter sarcasm on the Polish-Jewish question into benign praise for Polish tolerance is only one instance of how Davies has manipulated historical evidence over the years. His chief work, God’s Playground, a two-volume history of Poland which, faute de mieux, is used widely as a college text, contains a chapter on the Polish Jews that is replete with errors, misconceptions, misrepresentations, and prejudices.
According to Davies, anti-Semitism in interwar Poland was an invention of the Zionists, who “sought to persuade the Jews to leave their homes in Poland,” and therefore painted “Polish life in the most unfavorable colors.” That is not quite the way it was. The Polish Jews did not need to be brainwashed by Zionist propaganda. They knew from the bitter experience of their own lives, day in, day out, that they were being starved, economically strangled, pressured to leave the country. They were excluded from whole areas of business and industry, discriminated against in higher education and the professions, subjected to physical violence and even pogroms. Their schools and religious and communal institutions were shortchanged by the government, which had reneged on the minority-rights treaty it had signed after the Versailles peace conference, obligating itself to respect the political and cultural rights of its minorities. Davies does not mention such unpleasant matters in God’s Playground.
The farthest Davies is willing to go toward acknowledging the existence of Polish anti-Semitism is to suggest a kind of moral equivalence. “Polish hostility toward the Jews,” he writes, is “complemented by Jewish hostility toward the Poles.” He does not, unfortunately, offer any convincing examples of such equivalence (maybe a pogrom perpetrated by the Orthodox Agudah, or an instance of Hasidim picketing Polish stores?). Instead, on the Polish side he proceeds to assert repeatedly that there was good reason to dislike the Jews, who, being Communists, “did much to launch the popular stereotype of the Zydokomuna”—the “Jew-Communist.”
Davies’s piece in the New York Review offers a sampling of the same prejudices that abound in his book. Here, to discredit the “Zionists” who created the “myth” of Polish anti-Semitism, Davies uses Edelman and the Bund as his foils. According to him, the “most noble element” in the makeup of the Bund was “its staunch opposition to nationalism.” This he writes of a movement defined, as we have seen, by its commitment, precisely, to its own form of Jewish nationalism! Bundists believed that Jews would continue to live collectively as Jews, even in a socialist society, enjoying autonomy in their internal affairs—schools, communal services, and cultural activities, all of which would be conducted in Yiddish, which Bundists regarded as the Jewish national language. Even in its earliest days, when the Bund was an autonomous party within the Russian Social Democratic Labor party, it was recognized as a nationalist party, and was so denounced by Bolsheviks like Plekhanov, who used to quip that Bundists were “Zionists who were afraid of seasickness.”
In interwar Poland, the Bund put up the most aggressive defense among the Jewish parties against Polish anti-Semitism and in behalf of Jewish interests. At election time, it deployed its party militia to guard voting places and battle the anti-Semitic hoodlums who terrorized Jews to prevent them from exercising their right to vote.
Besides getting the Bund all wrong, Davies peppers his review with anti-Semitic tidbits which his editors at the New York Review astonishingly left undisturbed. Thus, he compares the Betar (Zionist-Revisionist) youth movement with the viciously anti-Semitic prewar Polish party ONR, which patterned itself on the Nazi party. He refers to American professors of Jewish studies as “professors of anti-Semitic studies, whose courses proliferate on American campuses”; apparently he thinks of Jewish professors as an academic franchise of the Elders of Zion.
This last notion may, incidentally, lurk behind a legal controversy between Davies and Stanford University. It seems that Davies had applied for an opening in East European history, but the Stanford department turned him down on the plentifully sufficient grounds that his scholarship did not meet their professional standards. Davies has since filed suit against individual professors in that department, and has widely bruited it about that “Zionist cells” in Stanford were responsible for his rejection.
This is the man who has attached himself to Marek Edelman on the ludicrously mistaken assumption that Edelman is something of a Polish patriot—a point about which Davies is as wrong as he has been about everything else in the history of the Polish Jews. The whole episode serves only to remind us that the proper reconstruction of that history is as treacherous—and urgent—a task as any now facing us.
1 Shielding the Flame: An Intimate Conversation with Dr. Marek Edelman, the Last Surviving Leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, translated and with an afterword by Joanna Stasinska and Lawrence Weschler, Holt, 124 pp., $13.95.
2 An English translation of the Czas interview appears in Across Frontiers, Winter 1986-87 (Berkeley, California), a quarterly devoted to East European matters.