Friday, October 2, 2009

Death of a hero

The term 'hero' has been debased by the popular media until it seems like any nice guy (or gal) can be so addressed. Nevertheless, true heroism continues to exist, and when heroes and heroines pass from our midst, it's worthwhile to remember them with all honor.

Such a man was Marek Edelman, who died today.

Marek Edelman in 2005 (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Edelman was one of the founders of the Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa (ŻOB, Polish for the Jewish Combat Organization) in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942. In alliance with the Żydowski Związek Wojskowy (ŻZW, Polish for the Jewish Military League), these organizations led the Jewish resistance to German extermination that culminated in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April-May 1943.

Jewish residents forced from their bunkers during the eradication of the Warsaw Ghetto
(image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

After the leader of ŻOB, Mordechaj Anielewicz, was killed by German forces at the Mila 18 headquarters bunker, Edelman took over leadership of the uprising. He escaped the final slaughter, and was active in the Polish resistance that led the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. Stalin wanted to eliminate support for the Polish Government in Exile in London, in order to clear the way for his pro-Communist Lublin Committee puppet government: so he ordered the Red Army, then on the outskirts of Warsaw, to stop in its tracks. The Soviet Union deliberately refrained from attacking and occupying Warsaw until the Nazis had crushed the uprising. Again, Edelman survived, having learned the hard way that Communism was as untrustworthy as Nazism.

He became a cardiologist after the war, and continued his opposition to Communism. He worked with the Workers' Defence Committee during the 1970's in opposition to the Communist government. He joined the Solidarity trade union movement during the 1980's, and was a delegate at the Polish Round Table Talks in 1989 that led to democracy in that country. In 1998, Edelman was belatedly awarded Poland's Order of the White Eagle, its highest decoration. (He also received the French Legion of Honor, and an honorary Doctorate was conferred upon him by Yale University in the USA.)

Edelman has left us an unforgettable memoir of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, titled 'The Ghetto Fights', and available online. Here are a few brief extracts. (All images in this extract are courtesy of Wikipedia or Wikimedia Commons.)

The complete segregation of the ghetto, the regulations under which no newspaper could be brought into it and all the news from the outside world carefully kept out, had a very definite purpose. These regulations contributed to the development of a special way of thinking common to the ghetto inhabitants. Everything taking place outside the ghetto walls became more and more foggy, distant, strange. Only the present day really mattered. Only matters of the most personal nature, the closest circle of friends were by now the focal point of interest of the average ghetto inhabitant. The most important thing was simply "to be alive".

This "life" itself, however, had a different meaning to each, depending on his environment and opportunities. It was a life of plenty for the still wealthy few, it was exuberant and colourful for a variety of depraved Gestapo-men and demoralized smugglers, and, for a multitude of workers and unemployed, it was a hungry existence upheld by the meagre public kitchens' soup and rationed bread. Everyone tried hard to hang on to his particular sort of "life" as best he could. Those who had money sought the essence of their existence in comfortable living, strove to find it in the dense, chattery air of overcrowded cafes, or plunged into the dance music of the night clubs. Those who had nothing, the paupers, sought their "happiness" in a rotten potato recovered from a garbage pit, found evasive joy in a piece of begged-for bread with which the taste of hunger could, for a while, be stilled. These were the tragic contrasts of the ghetto so often exploited by the Germans, photographed for propaganda purposes and maliciously presented to the opinion of the world. "In the Warsaw Ghetto beggars, swollen from hunger, die in front of luscious window displays of food smuggled from the 'Aryan' sections..."

The hunger increased daily. From dark, overcrowded living quarters it got out into the streets, came into sight in the shape of ridiculously swollen, log-shaped bodies with diseased feet, covered with open wounds, wrapped in dirty rags. It spoke through the mouths of the beggars, the aged, the young, and the children, in the streets and courtyards.

Children begged everywhere, in the ghetto as well as on the "Aryan" side. Six-year-old boys crawled through the barbed wire under the very eyes of the gendarmes in order to obtain food "on the other side". They supported entire families in this manner. Often a lone shot in the vicinity of the barbed wire told the casual passers-by that another little smuggler had died in this fight with omnipotent hunger. A new "profession" appeared, the so-called "catchers". Boys, or rather shadows of former boys, would snatch packages from pedestrians and immediately, while still running, devour the contents. In their haste, they sometimes stuffed themselves full of soap or uncooked peas....

Such was the misery by now that 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, others died in their homes but their families, after having stripped them completely (in order to sell the clothes), dumped the bodies in front of the houses so that burial would be made at the cost of the Jewish Community Council. Cart after cart filled with nude corpses would move through the streets. One on top of the other the bony carcasses lay, the heads bobbing up and down and beating against one another or against the wood of the cart on the uneven pavement.

. . .

In January 1942, an inter-party conference was called. By now all parties agreed that armed resistance was the only appropriate answer to the persecutions. The Hashomer and Hechalutz organizations for the first time suggested a plan for a joint battle organization. Maurycy Orzech and Abrasha Blum addressed the conference on behalf of our movement, maintaining that an armed uprising could be successful only if carried out in agreement with the Polish Underground and with their cooperation. However, the common battle organization was not established at that time.

It was our group that called the first battle organization into being with the knowledge of the Polish Socialists (Left-wing group of the PPS--the Polish Socialist Party). Bernard Goldsztejn, Abrasha Blum, and Berek Sznajdmil constituted the Command. The first "five" of instructors was organized and comprised Liebeskind (from Lodz), Zygmunt Frydrych, Lejb Szpichler, Abram Fajner and Marek Edelman. We started our work with theoretical instruction, but the complete lack of weapons made it impossible to broaden our activities. Thus we were practically limited in our activities to intelligence work among the Germans and, in close relation to the foregoing, the warning of particular people against possible "slip-ups". The following people were active in our intelligence service: Pola Lipszyc, Cywia Waks, Zodka Goldblat, Lajcia Blank, Stefa Moryc, Mania Elenbogen, and comrades from the PS: Marian Meremholc, Mietek Dab, etc. Despite our very limited possibilities, the mere fact of establishing such an organization was of obvious importance. Our initiative met with the full approval of all those in the know.

. . .

It is difficult to relate today life in the ghetto during those days preceding the "official" exterminating procedure applied to its inhabitants. Now the sadistic and beastly methods of the Germans are well known to the world. A few examples of everyday happenings will suffice.

Three children sit, one behind the other, in front of the Bersons and Baumans Hospital. A gendarme, passing by, shoots all three with a single round.

A pregnant woman trips and falls while crossing the street. A German, present during the accident, does not allow her to rise and shoots her right there and then.

Dozens of those smuggling across the ghetto wall are killed by a new German technique: Germans clad in civilian clothes, with Jewish arm-bands and weapons hidden in burlap bags, wait for the instant when the smugglers scale the wall. At that very moment machine-guns appear from the bags and the fate of the group is settled.

Every morning a small Opel stops at Orla Street. Every morning a shackled man is thrown out of the car and shot in the first house entrance. It is a Jew who had been caught on the "Aryan side" without identification papers.

In mid-May 1942, 110 prisoners of the so-called Central Jail ("Gesiowka"), arrested for illegal crossing to the "Aryan side", were executed. One of our comrades (Grylak) saw the prisoners being led out of the jail and into special trucks. Almost all of them walked meekly into the cars, when suddenly one woman found courage to show her protest. From the steps of the truck she shouted: "I shall die, but your death will be much worse!" Special proclamations signed by Dr. Auerswald informed the ghetto of the "just" punishment received by the 110 "criminals".

. . .

So that we might learn conclusively and in detail about the fate of the human transports leaving the ghetto, Zalmen Frydrych (Zygmunt) was ordered to follow one of the transports to the "Aryan side". His journey "to the East", however, was a short one, for it took only three days. Immediately after leaving the ghetto walls he established contact with an employee of the Warsaw Danzig [Gdanski] Terminal working on the Warsaw--Malkinia line. They travelled together in the transport's wake to Sokolow where, Zygmunt was told by local railroad men, the tracks forked out, one branch leading to Treblinka. It proved that every day a freight train carrying people from Warsaw travelled in that direction and invariably returned empty. No transports of food were ever seen on this line. Civilians were forbidden to approach the Treblinka railroad station.

This in itself was conclusive proof that the people brought to Treblinka were being exterminated somewhere in the vicinity. In addition, Zygmunt met two fugitives from the death camp the following morning. They were two Jews, completely stripped of their clothes, and Zygmunt met them on the Sokolow market place and obtained the full details of the horrible procedure. Thus it was not any longer a question of rumours, but of facts established by eyewitness accounts (one of the fugitives was our comrade Wallach).

After Zygmunt's return we published the second issue of On Guard with a detailed description of Treblinka. But even now the population stubbornly refused to believe the truth. They simply closed their eyes to the unpleasant facts and fought against them with all the means at their disposal.

. . .

The most important and most difficult thing in the "Umschlag" was to live through the time when the cars were being loaded. The transports left in the mornings and evenings. The loading took place twice daily. An endless chain of Ukrainians would encircle the square and the thousandfold crowd. Shots would be fired and every shot hit its target. It was not difficult to hit when one had within a few paces a thick, moving crowd, every particle of which was a living person, a target. The shots drew the crowd nearer and nearer to the waiting cattle cars. Not enough! Like mad beasts the Ukrainians ran through the empty square toward the buildings. Here a wild chase would begin. The frightened crowd hurried to the upper floors, gathered in front of the hospital doors, hid in dark holes in the attic. Just to get away, higher up, farther from the chase. One might be lucky enough to miss one more transport, save another day of life. Comrade Mendelson (Mendele) remained in an attic for three days. A few girls, Skif members, hid there for five days and were later led out with a group of nurses.

The Ukrainians did not exert themselves unnecessarily. The number of those who could not escape fast enough was always sufficient to fill the cars. The last moment before the departure, a mother is pushed into a car, but there is no more room for her child, which is pulled away from her and loaded farther down the line, in the next incomplete car. Resistance? An instant shot. Slowly, with difficulty, the doors close. The crowd is so thick that it has to be mashed in with the rifle butts. And then, the train starts. Fresh fodder for the Treblinka gas chambers is under way.

. . .

... on January 18th, 1943, the ghetto was surrounded once again and the "second liquidation" began. This time, however, the Germans were not able to carry out their plans unchallenged. Four barricaded battle groups offered the first armed resistance in the ghetto.

The ZOB was baptized in battle in the first large-scale street fighting at the corner of Mila and Zamenhofa Streets. The best part of the Organization was lost there. Miraculously, because of his heroic attitude, the ZOB Commander, Mordechaj Anielewicz, survived. After that battle we realized that street fighting would be too costly for us, since we were not sufficiently prepared for it and lacked the proper weapons. We, therefore, switched to partisan fighting. Four major encounters were fought in the apartment houses at 40 Zamenhofa Street, 44 Muranowska Street, 34 Mila Street and 22 Franciszkanska Street. In the Schultz shop area the SS men taking part in the deportation were attacked by the partisans. Comrade A. Fajner took an active part in this action and was killed in its course.

One of our battle groups, still unarmed, was caught by the Germans and was taken to the "Umschlag". Shortly before they were to enter the railroad cars, B. Pelc addressed the group with a few words. It was only a short address, but it was so effective, that not a single one of the sixty people moved to enter the car. Van Oeppen (the chief of Treblinka) shot all sixty himself on the spot. This group's behaviour, however, served as an inspiration that always, under all circumstances, one should oppose the Germans.

Of all the prepared 50 battle groups only five took part in the January activities. The remainder, not having been assembled at the time of the Germans' entry into the ghetto, was caught by surprise and was unable to reach the place where their weapons were stored.

Once again, as was the case in the first stage of the ZOB's activities, four-fifths of the Battle Organization's members perished.

The latest developments, however, reverberated strongly both within the ghetto and outside of it. Public opinion, Jewish as well as Polish, reacted immediately to the ghetto battles. For now, for the first time, German plans were frustrated. For the first time the halo of omnipotence and invincibility was torn from the Germans' heads. For the first time the Jew in the street realized that it was possible to do something against the Germans' will and power. The number of Germans killed by ZOB bullets was not the only important thing. What was more important was the appearance of a psychological turning point. The mere fact that because of the unexpected resistance, weak as it was, the Germans were forced to interrupt their "deportation" schedule was of great value.

. . .

The ZOB broadened its activities and was supported by the entire ghetto. Bakers and merchants delivered quantities of food for its members. The wealthy inhabitants were taxed by it, and the funds thus secured were used for the purchase of arms and ammunition. The ZOB determined the amount of contributions to be paid by the Jewish Community agencies. The discipline was such that everybody had to pay either voluntarily or forcibly. The Jewish Council contributed 250,000 zloty. The Office for Economic Requirements paid 710,000 zloty. Revenues over the period of the first three months amounted to about ten million zloty. These sums were smuggled over to the "Aryan side" where our representatives organized the purchase of weapons and explosives.

Arms were smuggled into the ghetto in precisely the same manner as other contraband. Bribed Polish policemen closed their eyes to heavy parcels thrown over the ghetto walls at designated spots. ZOB liaison men immediately disposed of the packages. The Jewish policemen guarding the ghetto walls had no voice in the matter. Our most active liaison men with the "Aryan side" were Zygmunt Frydrych (who arranged the first transport of weapons), Michal Klepfisz, Celemenski, Fajgele Peltel (Wladka), and many others. Michal Klepfisz in cooperation with the PS and WRN groups made the necessary arrangements for a large-scale purchase of explosives and incendiaries (e.g. 2,000 litres of gasoline) and later, after transporting the shipment to the ghetto, set up a factory for the production of Molotov cocktails and hand grenades. The production process was primitive and simple, but the large output of the shop greatly increased the firing-power of our detachments. By now every partisan was equipped. on the average, with one pistol (and 10-15 rounds for it), 4-5 hand grenades, 4-5 Molotov cocktails. 2-3 rifles were assigned to each "area". There was just one machine-gun in the entire ghetto.

The ZOB now carried out a programme designed to rid the Jewish population of hostile elements and of those individuals who collaborated with the Germans. It carried out death sentences pronounced by its Command on almost all Jewish Gestapo agents. Those whom our justice did not reach were forced to steal away to the "Aryan side" and did not dare return to the ghetto. Once, when four Gestapo members appeared unexpectedly in the ghetto for half an hour, three were killed and the fourth was heavily wounded. The notorious Gestapo agent, Dr. Alfred Nossig, was also killed, and a Gestapo identification card issued as far back as 1933 was found on his person.

. . .

Finally, the Germans decided to liquidate the Warsaw ghetto completely, regardless of cost. On April 19th, 1943, at 2 a.m. the first messages concerning the Germans' approach arrived from our outermost observation posts. These reports made it clear that German gendarmes, aided by Polish "navy blue" policemen, were encircling the outer ghetto walls at 30-yard intervals. An emergency alarm to all our battle groups was immediately ordered, and at 2:15, i.e. 15 minutes later, all the groups were already at their battle stations. We also informed the entire population of the imminent danger, and most of the ghetto inhabitants moved instantly to previously prepared shelters and hide-outs in the cellars and attics of buildings. A deathly silence enveloped the ghetto. The ZOB was on the alert.

At 4 a.m. the Germans in groups of threes, fours, or fives so as not to arouse the ZOB's or the population's suspicion, began penetrating into the "inter-ghetto" areas. Here they formed into platoons and companies. At 7 o'clock motorized detachments, including a number of tanks and armoured vehicles, entered the ghetto. Artillery pieces were placed outside the walls. Now the SS-men were ready to attack. In closed formations stepping haughtily and loudly, they marched into the seemingly dead streets of the central ghetto. Their triumph appeared to be complete. It looked as if this superbly equipped modern army had scared off the handful of bravado- drunk men, as if those few immature boys had at last realized that there was no point in attempting the unfeasible, that they understood that the Germans had more rifles than there were rounds for all their pistols.

But no, they did not scare us and we were not taken by surprise. We were only awaiting an opportune moment. Such a moment presently arrived. The Germans chose the intersection at Mila and Zamenhofa Streets for their bivouac area, and battle groups barricaded at the four corners of the street opened concentric fire on them. Strange projectiles began exploding everywhere (the hand grenades of our own make), the lone machine-gun sent shots through the air now and then (ammunition had to be conserved carefully), rifles started firing a bit farther away. Such was the beginning.

The Germans attempted a retreat, but their path was cut. German dead soon littered the street. The remainder tried to find cover in the neighbouring stores and house entrances, but this shelter proved insufficient. The "glorious" SS, therefore, called tanks into action under the cover of which the remaining men of two companies were to commence a "victorious" retreat. But even the tanks seemed to be affected by the Germans' bad luck. The first was burned out by one of our incendiary bottles, the rest did not approach our positions. The fate of the Germans caught in the Mita Street-Zamenhofa Street trap was settled. Not a single German left this area alive. The following battle groups took part in the fighting here: Gruzalc's (Bund); Merdek's (Hashomer); Hochberg's (Bund); Berek's (Dror); Pawel's (PPR).

Simultaneously, fights were going on at the intersection of Nalewki and Gesia Streets. Two battle groups kept the Germans from entering the ghetto area at this point. The fighting lasted more than seven hours. The Germans found some mattresses and used them as cover, but the partisans' well-aimed fire forced them to several successive withdrawals. German blood flooded the street. German ambulances continuously transported their wounded to the small square near the Community buildings. Here the wounded lay in rows on the sidewalk awaiting their turn to be admitted to the hospital. At the corner of Gesia Street a German air liaison observation post signalled the partisans' positions and the required bombing targets to the planes. But from the air as well as on the ground the partisans appeared to be invincible. The Gesia Street-Nalewki Street battle ended in the complete withdrawal of the Germans.

At the same time heavy fighting raged at Muranowski Square. Here the Germans attacked from all directions. The cornered partisans defended themselves bitterly and succeeded, by truly superhuman efforts, in repulsing the attacks. Two German machine-guns and a quantity of other weapons were captured. A German tank was burned, the second tank of the day.

At 2 p.m., not a single live German remained in the ghetto area. It was the ZOB's first complete victory over the Germans. The remaining hours of the day passed in "complete quiet", i.e. with the exception of artillery fire (the guns were in positions at Krasinski Square) and several bombings from the air.

. . .

We continued the fight in the central ghetto in cooperation with the battle groups existing in that area. As in the brush-makers' area before, it was almost impossible to move freely through the area. Entire streets were sometimes blocked by tremendous fires. The sea of flames flooded houses and courtyards, wooden beams burned noisily, walls collapsed. There was no air, only black, choking smoke and heavy, burning heat radiating from the red-hot walls,from the glowing stone stairs.

The omnipotent flames were now able to accomplish what the Germans could not do. Thousands of people perished in the conflagration. The stench of burning bodies was everywhere. Charred corpses lay around on balconies, in window recesses, on unburned steps.

The flames chased the people out from their shelters, made them leave the previously prepared safe hide-outs in attics and cellars. Thousands staggered about in the courtyards where they were easy prey for the Germans who imprisoned them or killed them outright. Tired beyond all endurance, they would fall asleep in driveways, entrances, standing, sitting, lying and were caught asleep by a passing German's bullet. Nobody would even notice that an old man sleeping in a corner would never again wake up, that a mother feeding her baby had been cold and dead for three days, that a baby's crying and sucking was futile since its mothers arms were cold and her breast dead. Hundreds committed suicide jumping from the fourth or fifth storeys of apartment houses. Mothers would thus save their children from terrible death in flames. The Polish population saw these scenes from Swietojerska Street and from Krasinski Square.

. . .

The burning of the ghetto came to an end. There simply were not any more living quarters and, still worse, there was no water.

The partisans themselves now descended to the underground shelters occupied by the civilian population to defend whatever could still be defended.

Battles and armed encounters were now fought mostly at night, while in the daytime the ghetto was completely lifeless. The Germans and the ZOB patrols met only when the streets were completely dark, and whoever had time to fire first, won. Our patrols were spread over the entire ghetto area. A great many died on both sides every night. The Germans and Ukrainians made it a practice to patrol the streets in larger groups, and lay in ambush for the partisans only.

. . .

The partisans' situation was becoming more grave every hour. Not only were there shortages of food and water, but ammunition was also becoming scarce. We no longer had any communications with the "Aryan side" and we were, therefore, unable to arrange for the transportation of additional weapons that we had received (on the "Aryan side") from the People's Army while the fighting in the ghetto was going on (20 rifles and ammunition).

The Germans now tried to locate all inhabited shelters by means of sensitive sound-detecting devices and police dogs. On May 3rd they discovered the shelter on 30 Franciszkanska Street, where the operation base of those of our groups who had formerly forced their way from the brush-makers' area was at the time located. Here one of the most brilliant battles was fought. The fighting lasted for two days and half of all our men were killed in its course. A hand grenade killed Berek Sznajdmil. But even in the most difficult moments, when there was almost nothing left, Abrasha Blum kept our spirits up. His presence among us meant more to us and gave us more strength than the possession of the best possible weapon. One can hardly speak of victories when Life itself is the reason for the fight and so many people are lost, but one thing can surely be stated about this particular battle: we did not let the Germans carry out their plans. They did not evacuate a single living person.

On May 8th detachments of Germans and Ukrainians surrounded the Headquarters of the ZOB Command. The fighting lasted two hours, and when the Germans convinced themselves that they would be unable to take the bunker by storm, they tossed in a gas-bomb. Whoever survived the German bullets, whoever was not gassed, committed suicide, for it was quite clear that from here there was no way out, and nobody even considered being taken alive by the Germans. Jurek Wilner called upon all partisans to commit suicide together. Lutek Rotblat shot his mother, his sister, then himself. Ruth fired at herself seven times.

Thus 80% of the remaining partisans perished, among them the ZOB Commander, Mordechaj Anielewicz.

. . .

On May 10th, 1943, the first period of our bloody history, the history of the Warsaw Jews, came to an end. The site where the buildings of the ghetto had once stood became a ragged heap of rubble reaching three storeys high.

Click the panoramic image above for a larger version, and click the
enlarged version for an even bigger picture (3,300 pixels wide).

Those who were killed in action had done their duty to the end, to the last drop of blood that soaked into the pavements of the Warsaw ghetto.

We, who did not perish, leave it up to you to keep the memory of them alive - forever.

There's much more at the link. Highly recommended reading.

The Nazis recorded their invasion of Poland, and the establishment and destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, with typical Teutonic thoroughness. The video below is a BBC production, some 37 minutes long, incorporating Nazi footage and photographs, and shows conditions in the Ghetto.

I haven't been able to find any English-language or subtitled video clips of Dr. Edelman, but YouTube has this interview with a Polish television station, recorded in March this year. I've included it here, despite the language barrier, so that those who understand Polish can hear Dr. Edelman in person, and the rest of us can see this remarkable man on screen.

Let us remember the heroes and heroines of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising with all honor. They showed the way to what would become the Israeli Defense Forces of today. For the first time, Jews refused to submit to persecution like lambs to the slaughter, choosing death before dishonor. Marek Edelman was among their number, and was their leader at the end. He continued their struggle through many more decades, resisting oppression, no matter what its name or ideology, and fighting for what was right.

I don't know who first said: "Don't be sorry for his death. Rather, be glad that such a man lived!" Whoever it was, and of whomever it was first said, those words surely apply to Marek Edelman. May he rest in peace.



raven said...

Thank you for posting this.

Conant said...

Good post. George Patton said "It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived." I imagine this is the source of the aphorism you use at the end.

Anonymous said...

Excellent reporting. It's a pity that some folks will still deny this all happened.