Leading figures from Poland to the United States have been paying tribute to Marek Edelman, the anti-Nazi resistance fighter and Solidarity movement supporter who died Friday.
Edelman was one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, “the largest, symbolically most important Jewish uprising” against the Nazis during World War II, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Polish President Lech Kaczynski and Prime Minister Donald Tusk both issued statements mourning Edelman. Tusk called him an “exceptional man,” saying “his bravery was a testament to the courage of the fighters of the Jewish Fighting Organization,” as the largest Jewish resistance movement in the ghetto was known. The prime minister also praised him for standing up against the Polish Communist government’s anti-Semitic campaign of 1968, and hailed him as an example for free, democratic Poland. The U.S. State Department saluted “his life dedicated to the defense of human dignity and freedom. The United States stands with Poland as it mourns the loss of a great man.” Edelman is thought to have been the last surviving commander of the uprising, in which Jews fought Nazi efforts to send them to concentration camps. Armed with pistols, some rifles and automatic weapons, and hand-made grenades, the resistance fighters attacked the Germans and their allies when they tried to liquidate the Warsaw Ghetto in April 1943. The Nazis had planned to round up all the ghetto’s Jews in three days, but in the end it took them more than a month — longer than some countries held out against Hitler’s armies. The Nazis reduced the ghetto to rubble in the process of flushing resistance fighters out of their bunkers. Edelman was in one of the last groups to hold out in the headquarters of the Jewish Fighting Organization at 18 Mila Street. In the final days of the uprising he was able to sneak out of the ghetto by way of the city’s sewers, he wrote after the war. He went on to fight in the Warsaw Polish Uprising, a two-month battle against the Nazis in 1944, undertaken primarily by non-Jewish Poles. After the war, Edelman became a cardiologist. In the late 1940s, he published a short history of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in Polish, Yiddish, and English, called “The Ghetto Fights.” In it, he described the creation of the ghetto by the Nazis. “In November 1940, the Germans finally established the Warsaw Ghetto. The Jewish population still living outside the ‘Seuchensperrgebiet’ (‘Quarantined Zone’) was brought inside the special area. Poles living within the designated ghetto boundaries were ordered to move out,” he wrote. “Beginning with November 15, no Jew was allowed to leave the Jewish precincts. All houses vacated by Jews were immediately locked by the Germans and then, with all their contents, gratuitously given to Polish merchants and hucksters … . The walls and barbed wire surrounding the ghetto grew higher every day until, on November 15, they completely cut off the Jews from the outside world.” Hunger and disease were rife in the ghetto, he wrote. “People began to die of hunger in the streets. Every morning, about 4-5 a.m., funeral carts collected a dozen or more corpses on the streets that had been covered with a sheet of paper and weighted down with a few rocks. Some simply fell in the streets and remained there,” Edelman remembered. Jews organized a local government and Socialist unions, but conditions became progressively worse in the ghetto, with the Nazis summarily executing people. Nazis then began deporting Jews to concentration camps — sometimes with the help of Jewish collaborators in the ghetto — Edelman wrote. By that time, many in the ghetto knew the Nazis were systematically murdering Jews in the camps, he recalled. He describes in detail the spring 1943 uprising, a street-by-street battle that ended with the ghetto in ruins. Edelman’s history finishes simply, listing the handful of survivors of the hundreds who fought back. “Those who had gone over to the ‘Aryan side’ continued the partisan fight in the woods. The majority perished eventually. The small group that was still alive at the time took an active part in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising as the ‘ZOB Group.’ At present the following of our comrades are still among the living: Chajka Betchatowska, B. Szpigel, Chana Krysztal, Masza Glejtman, and Marek Edelman.” During the early 1980s Edelman was active with Solidarity, the Polish trade union movement that opposed the Communist government. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner awarded him the Legion of Honor in 2008, on a visit to Poland marking the 65th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Edelman was born in 1921, according to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum. He was buried in Warsaw’s Jewish cemetery on Friday, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported