A TRUE MENSCH
“To be a Jew means always being with the oppressed and never the oppressors”.
The author of these words was the Bundist Marek Edelman who has just died aged 90. He was one of the commanders of the ZOB – the Jewish Fighting Organisation that led the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943.
To anti-fascists and human rights activists around the world he was a hero – plain and simple. He wrote one of the earliest Holocaust memoirs, The Ghetto Fights, which was published in Poland in 1945 and subsequently translated into several languages. It is an incredible text which pains and inspires the reader in equal measure.
After escaping the burnt-out ghetto through the sewers he continued underground anti-Nazi activity and then joined other Poles in the Warsaw Rising of 1944. After the war he saved countless more lives working as a cardiologist. In recent years he used the medical arena to make contact with Dr Mustafa Barghouti, director of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees.
Edelman was never a Zionist, and he opposed Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian territory. He met with Palestinian political figures and expressed support for their struggle against occupation while at the same time urging them to firmly reject terroristic methods. He angered Israeli leaders by pointedly addressing the Palestinians he made contact with as “leaders of the Palestinian Fighting Organisations”. In Tel Aviv they were indignant that such a prominent figure in the Warsaw Ghetto resistance would choose to continue to live in Poland (his homeland!) after the war – a place they regarded simply as a Jewish graveyard. Even worse, he had the chutzpah not to take his political lead from less heroic and far more reactionary Zionist spokespersons and cheerleaders.
Not that Edelman was worried. This hero of the Jewish people and of anti-fascists had long been treated as persona non grata by the Israeli political establishment and its mainstream media. Edelman would not countenance Israel’s attempt to appropriate Holocaust resistance to justify its political actions, and he said so on several occasions.
He refused to allow the historical experience of the Ghetto fighters to be claimed by any group/nation exclusively. On the contrary, he argued that this history belonged to everyone and carried a universal imperative to fight for equality, democracy, human rights and dignity wherever these were threatened or suppressed
He continued to repudiate the Zionist narrative of Jewish history with its blinkered ultra-nationalism. Instead he remained loyal to the Bund’s socialist political tradition which, as its 1938 manifesto had declared, rejected “one’s own and foreign nationalism”.
Throughout his life Edelman worked for human rights, democracy and egalitarianism. He remained sceptical of nationalism in general and critical of state power. He was a brave and forthright opponent of the Stalinist regime in Poland and, in the 1980s, actively supported the Workers Opposition Movement – KOR.
In 1988 – on the 45th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising – he snubbed the official commemoration in Poland attended by Stalinist dignitaries from Poland and Zionist dignitaries from Israel, in favour of an alternative ceremony at the Warsaw Jewish cemetery, attended by 3,000 people, where he unveiled a monument to Henryk Erlich and Victor Alter – Bundist leaders of the 1930s who had been captured and murdered on Stalin’s orders during the War.
I treasure the fact that I had the good fortune to hear Marek Edelman speak and briefly meet him in 1997 at a conference in Warsaw marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Bund. Naturally a lot of people wanted to speak to him. He sat, relaxed, making time for everybody. He was a hero, a fighter and a true mensch. Koved zayn ondenk (honour his memory)