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Marek Edelman and the Struggle for Democracy in Poland

Marek Edelman was a leader of the heroic Warsaw Ghetto uprising against Nazi genocide. After 1945, Edelman stayed on in Poland as a champion of democratic socialism who played a courageous role in the country’s dissident movement.

NYC activists hold a banner that reads "We Will Outlive Them!", lyrics from a Yiddish resistance song. (Photo: Jake Ratner)

On April 19, 1948, five years after the first shots were fired in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, a stunning monument depicting the fighters was unveiled in front of thousands of people amid the ruins of the former ghetto area. Designed by Nathan Rapoport, a Warsaw-born Jew who fled to Russia during the war, it utilized granite that the Nazis had commissioned for constructing their own victory monument.

Ghetto commemorations were soon locked into Warsaw’s calendar. They had a particularly high profile in the 1980s, as survivor numbers dwindled and General Wojciech Jaruzelski’s regime struggled to maintain legitimacy against the challenge from Solidarność, the independent trade union movement.

Israeli dignitaries were welcome guests. Polish-Israeli relations had reached an all-time low in 1968, when a power struggle within the ruling Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR) descended into a vicious campaign of denunciation of opponents as “Zionists,” “foreign agents,” a “fifth column.” This spilled over into open antisemitism, with Jewish members labelled as “conspiratorial,” “cosmopolitan,” and “anti-Polish.”

Yiddish cultural institutions with no connection to Zionism at all were suddenly shut down. Many Jewish party officials, academics, and professionals were hounded from their jobs. Thousands of Jews left Poland, including twenty Spanish Civil War veterans. Yet Israeli and Polish diplomats gradually mended their fences and attended later commemorations together.

The Last Bundist

Despite the trauma of 1968, Marek Edelman, the last surviving member in Poland of the Ghetto Fighters’ command group, stayed on, even as his wife, Alina Margolis — a pediatrician and later cofounder of the NGO Médecins du Monde (“Doctors of the World”) — resettled in France along with their children. He was the living embodiment of an incredible three-week guerrilla struggle, waged in 1943 by a few hundred poorly armed, starving, and brutalized young people.

The youngest fighter was just thirteen, the oldest forty. Most, like Edelman, were in their twenties. Armored Nazi forces entered the ghetto on April 19, 1943 to burn it to the ground, deport its remaining inhabitants, and provide Hitler with a Jew-free Warsaw for his birthday. Instead, they were met with a hail of bullets.

Edelman was an anti-Zionist, Jewish socialist, and a proud member of Tsukunft, the Jewish Workers’ Bund youth organization. The Bund had a troubled relationship with Bolshevism that began well before Edelman was born in 1919, in Homyel’, Belarus. At the second congress of the Russian Social Democrats in 1903, Lenin clashed fiercely with the Bund.

The future Soviet leader rejected their demand for autonomy to agitate in Yiddish among Jewish workers as “separatist.” At that same congress, delegates split into Bolshevik (majority) and Menshevik (minority) factions. The Bundists generally sided with the Mensheviks.

Edelman’s father, a member of the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), died in 1924. His mother’s SR brothers had been killed by Bolsheviks during the early years of the Soviet Union. She worked as a hospital secretary after the family moved to Warsaw and was very active there in the Bund’s women’s movement until her death in 1934.

In the late 1930s, Edelman guided a fifty-strong section of the Socialist Children’s Union (SKIF), the Bund’s children’s organization, in Warsaw’s impoverished Praga district. Among these children were some of the future ghetto fighters.

Resisting Fascism

In those years, the Bund massively increased its political reach, not least because its militia, aided by Polish Socialist Party (PPS) friends, defended Jews against street-based antisemitic forces. Only one Zionist faction, Left Po’aley Tsiyon, assisted them. Most Zionists focused instead on a future Jewish state in Palestine. As Edelman stated later, the Bund

. . . 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 . . . minorities’ rights would be guaranteed.

The Bund’s 1937 manifesto called for a socialist workers’ and peasants’ government. It declared itself to be:

Against capitalism. Against fascism in all its forms. Against antisemitism, against all manner of human hatred, against one’s own and foreign nationalism. For a free and democratic Poland.

The Bund’s main rivals in recruiting Jewish workers were not the Zionists, who were concentrated more among middle-class Jews, but the Communists, who mounted both ideological and physical attacks on Bundists.

In the Warsaw Ghetto, constructed fourteen months after the Nazi invasion of 1939, Bundists, Communists, and left-Zionists had to overcome deep mutual distrust to create a unified Jewish Combat Organization. In July 1942, the Nazis began deporting thousands of Jews daily. A clandestine collaboration between a Bundist hidden outside the ghetto and a Polish railway worker confirmed the destination: a death camp at Treblinka. When the Bund revealed this in underground newspapers, older readers were disbelieving, but young activists understood and prepared resistance.

In 1945, Edelman recorded the resisters’ experience in Polish. It was translated a year later into Yiddish, and then into English as The Ghetto Fights. There was no Hebrew edition until 2001. A particularly moving passage describes the roll call on May 1, 1943:

The entire world, we knew, was celebrating May Day . . . but never yet had the Internationale been sung in conditions so different, so tragic, in a place where an entire nation had been and was still perishing. The words and the song echoed from the charred ruins . . . an indication that socialist youth was still fighting in the ghetto . . . even in the face of death they were not abandoning their ideals.

“We did not fight merely to survive”

Edelman should have been a treasured guest at commemorations of the Ghetto Uprising. But he boycotted them — especially the high-profile fortieth and forty-fifth anniversaries in 1983 and in 1988 — and encouraged others to follow suit. When the Polish government asked him to join a commemoration committee in 1983, he retorted:

Don’t use me to cover your shame. Forty years ago we did not fight merely to survive — we fought for life in dignity and freedom . . . words and gestures have become nothing but lies.

To participate, he concluded, “would betray the spirit of our struggle.”

He was no less forgiving of Israeli politicians who frequently invoked the Holocaust to dismiss Palestinian demands for justice. Israel’s leading Holocaust historians quashed attempts by Israeli universities to award Edelman honorary degrees.

Israeli schoolchildren were fed false narratives of the uprising, elevating the role of Zionist youth, concealing the Bund’s role, and placing Israel’s War of Independence on a continuum with the Ghetto Uprising. Edelman regarded both Poland and Israel’s rulers as usurpers and abusers of an uprising fought for human dignity, “not for a territory, nor for a national identity.”

He rattled the authorities by encouraging and co-organizing alternative ceremonies. His closest collaborators were Solidarność dissidents, with whom he first worked in the KOR (Komitet Obrony Robotników, Workers’ Defense Committee) in 1976.

Two days before 1983’s official ceremony, around a thousand Solidarność supporters gathered in Warsaw. They intended to lay a wreath at the Umschlagplatz (deportation point) and march to Mila 18, where many ghetto fighters, including their commander, Mordecai Anielewicz, had committed mass suicide in a bunker rather than surrender.

Hundreds of police, with a water cannon ready, blocked the marchers. The police instructed them to disperse but they regrouped by the Rapoport memorial and read a message from Marek Edelman: “It was my burning desire and duty to be with you today, but unfortunately the security forces made that impossible.” Edelman had been confined to Łódź, his home city. Police again dispersed the crowd.

Stay and Fight

Edelman’s experiences before and during the uprising, his later engagement with dissident campaigns, and his activities and statements in his twilight years, form a prism through which we can examine Poland’s seismic changes and evaluate what was gained and lost, and what remains.

In May 1943, when the Nazis thought they had crushed the resistance, Edelman was leading forty fighters through the city’s sewers. They emerged beyond the ghetto, forty-eight hours later, rifles in hand, and were taken to hiding places. The Nazis used the Polish Blue Police to hunt down hidden Jews, but Edelman evaded them and fought in the failed Warsaw rising of August 1944. He survived, but by the war’s end, 90 percent of Poland’s 3.3 million Jews were dead.

After liberation, under a provisional pro-Soviet government, hope briefly flickered that a multiparty socialist regime might take shape. When 130,000 Polish Jews who had survived the war in the Soviet Union returned during 1946, Bundist survivors hoped that they might rebuild their independent political space.

They fought a losing battle. Nationalist hostility towards the Provisional Government was shot through with ferocious antisemitism. In July 1946, pogromists in Kielce killed forty-six Jews and provoked a further mass exodus. Zionist organizations feverishly encouraged evacuation to Palestine. Bundist refugees outside Poland no longer sought to return.

Edelman married Alina, a nurse in the ghetto. In October 1946, they travelled around Europe and met leftists in Belgium, France, Italy, and Sweden. In France, Edelman met the veteran socialist leader, Léon Blum, who said of the genocide: “The Germans did not do it, the people did it.” This remark left a deep impression on Edelman. As he reflected later: “I realized that any man [was] . . . capable of committing such terrible things.”

It reinforced his determination to stay and fight for social justice within Poland. As ties between the Bund’s remnant in Poland and an emerging World Bund Committee centered on America and Western Europe became strained, Edelman rejected overtures by American Bundists encouraging him to emigrate.

Poland’s New Left

The Bund’s prewar PPS allies largely fell in line behind the Communist forces of the Polish Workers’ Party (PPR). The PPR-dominated Democratic Bloc took 80.1 percent of the vote in the febrile atmosphere of the 1947 elections, and consolidated a one-party state led by the newly constituted PZPR, the product of a shotgun marriage between the PPR and the PPS. The party’s Stalinist leaders would also betray the idealism of many of its own members.

More Jews emigrated. Under pressure, the Bund dissolved itself in 1949. Some members joined the ruling party as individuals. Edelman and his closest Tsukunft comrades did not. Nor did they help to dissolve the Bund.

They maintained their internationalist, democratic socialist ideals and perspectives, but lacked the means to pursue them. They organized cooperatives, assisted Jewish cultural initiatives, and got on with their lives. Alina encouraged Edelman to study medicine. He became a highly respected cardiologist, who suffered demotion and redundancy during the 1968 antisemitic outbreak, but was later redeployed, going on to develop life-saving treatments in 1970s Poland.

In 1956, an outbreak of working-class protests against the regime was suppressed, but a period of temporary liberalization followed under the leadership of Władysław Gomułka. Some of Edelman’s Bund comrades took advantage of renewed possibilities for emigration. In 1963, Edelman was permitted to travel to America. His visit included talks with trade-union activists, a reunion with Bundists from the ghetto, and a meeting with Martin Luther King Jr.

The 1960s New Left that emerged in the West had echoes in Poland. Adam Michnik, a son of Jewish communists, founded Komandosi, a student group supporting unofficial strikers detained by the authorities, and made links with left-wing Catholics. Michnik’s former scout leader, Jacek Kuron, a dissident party member whose family had strong prewar ties to the PPS, and Karol Modzelewski, the son of a former government minister, wrote an “Open Letter to the Party.”

The letter advocated the transformation of the Polish system into a “workers’ democracy,” and greater press and cultural freedom. In response, the regime imprisoned Kuron and Modzelewski for three years in 1965.

Solidarity

In 1976, Edelman returned publicly to political life, working alongside Kuron, Michnik, and Modzelewski in KOR, the forerunner of Solidarność. Other KOR figures included Aniela Steinsbergowa, former PPS member and one of the first female lawyers in Poland; the historian Jan Lipski; the actress Halina Mikolajska; and Bronisław Geremek, who had resigned from the PZPR in 1968 in protest at antisemitism and the invasion of Czechoslovakia.

KOR organized legal and financial aid for workers and their families who had been persecuted after labor unrest. They researched workers’ living standards, and published pamphlets and books outside official networks, along with an underground newspaper, Robotnik (Worker). Through a Flying University (a tactic pioneered by Polish student radicals in Tsarist times), KOR organized lectures on topics that could not be publicly debated.

Its members faced constant police surveillance and random arrests. As a doctor, Edelman supported twenty KOR members who went on a seven-day hunger strike in October 1979 in solidarity with Czech dissidents on trial.

Solidarność itself was formed in September 1980 on the back of a strike at the Lenin Shipyard at Gdańsk. In an echo of 1968, the PZPR newspaper Trybuna Ludu attacked two named Solidarity advisors, Geremek and Michnik, soon afterwards, accusing them of harboring “Zionist” sympathies.

At Solidarność’s first National Congress in 1981, the chair praised a Polish Home Army veteran. That veteran himself interrupted to declare that someone of much greater stature was present: the Lodz regional delegate, Marek Edelman. The congress spontaneously rose in ovation.

State and Society

Jaruzelski introduced martial law in December 1981 to suppress Solidarność, and imprisoned thousands of activists. Four decades after the Nazis had confined Edelman within the ghetto walls, Poland’s Communist government imprisoned him. After an international outcry, Edelman was released within days, but he refused to sign a declaration that he would refrain from political activity. He remained under house arrest, obliged to report regularly to the police.

Edelman’s most profound political challenge to that government again centered on ghetto commemoration. In 1988, the government offered him Poland’s highest medal, the Cross of Valour, to lure him to attend the forty-fifth anniversary ceremony. Edelman said no.

Visitors from Israel, France, and America attended the official ceremony. Two days earlier, however, thousands of people carrying Solidarność banners had gathered illegally at Rapoport’s memorial and marched to the Umschlagplatz. The police felt powerless to intervene. Edelman stated defiantly that commemoration “must not only take place under the banner of the state. Society has a right to express its honour for the ghetto uprising.”

The deeper political wound, though, had already been inflicted at noon that day, in Warsaw’s Jewish cemetery on Okopowa Street. Three thousand gathered there as Edelman unveiled a red granite stone commemorating the 1930s Bund leaders Henryk Erlich and Victor Alter, whom Edelman had revered from the days of his youth. Champions of libertarian, democratic socialism, they were murdered in 1942 on Stalin’s orders.

“A Free and Independent Poland”

Erlich and Alter had condemned the Moscow show trials and protested against the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. After the Nazi invasion of Poland, the Bund evacuated leaders from Warsaw who would have been individually targeted. They headed towards the Soviet zone. However, Erlich and Alter were arrested by Soviet forces and imprisoned in Kuybyshev for two years.

They were interrogated and tortured by the NKVD secret police, then suddenly released in September 1941, having been assured that their arrest was a “mistake.” They were accommodated in a local hotel and instructed to work on establishing a Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. After submitting their strategy and work plans, they were summoned to a meeting in early December and never seen again.

Fifteen months later, it emerged that they had been ludicrously accused of espionage for the Nazis and sentenced to death. Alter was shot; Erlich committed suicide. The unveiling in Okopowa confronted Poland’s leaders with the crimes of Stalin against Poland’s most beloved Jewish socialists.

A Citizens Committee of forty-six well-known figures, including Michnik, Kuron, Lipski, and Edelman, issued the callout to both events. At Okopowa, the Solidarność factory worker Zbigniew Bujak stated: “We need to find our connection to history . . . Erlich and Alter are my past.” Edelman declared that the ideals of Alter and Erlich ideals lived on through KOR and Solidarność, “fighting for a free and independent Poland in which all working people will be equal.”

The event closed with the Bund’s hymn sung in Yiddish. Solidarność distributed an unofficial 170 zł stamp with portraits of Alter and Erlich, named in Yiddish, and a Polish inscription: “Bund leaders, members of the 2nd Socialist International, shot in December 1941 in the Soviet Union.”

Pandora’s Box

In 1989, Edelman participated in the Round Table Talks that would fully legalize independent trade unions, introduce the political office of president, and enable the formation of a senate. Solidarność won a landslide victory in elections later that year.

The reopening of political space revealed competing tendencies within Solidarność from those who promoted social enterprises and cooperatives to those advocating completely free markets. Edelman was concerned about the growing influence of the Catholic church, recalling its role in prewar Poland. For him it remained “a hierarchical institution that hates freedom.” When he witnessed Gdańsk churchgoers enthusiastically embracing free trade unions, he argued that this owed more to the spirit of KOR in Gdańsk than the church.

In 1990, Adam Michnik acknowledged that “the fall of Communism opened a Pandora’s box, from which all demons escaped, among them antisemitism.” The far-right agitators who plague Poland today, such as Narodowe Odrodzenie Polski (National Rebirth of Poland or NOP), were born in that freer political atmosphere of the late 1980s and 90s. In March 2000, supporters of NOP in Łódź daubed swastikas and “Jews Out” on a synagogue, and on Edelman’s home.

In the 1990s, however, Edelman relished opportunities to renew his practical work for human rights in accordance with his oft-stated philosophy: “Always with the oppressed, never with oppressors.” He and Kuron protested against the treatment of Czech Roma to their country’s new president, the former dissident Václav Havel. During the Yugoslav wars, Edelman accompanied an aid convoy to Bosnians in besieged Sarajevo.

A Just Peace

The fiftieth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising fell in 1993. Edelman had no reason to boycott an official commemoration led by his Solidarność colleague, Lech Wałęsa, now president of Poland. The Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was also invited. But Rabin refused to share a platform with “the anti-Zionist Jew, Marek Edelman.”

Wałęsa, taken aback, reached for a diplomatic solution. Before the platform speeches, Wałęsa, Edelman, and Edelman’s grandchild approached the memorial, arms linked, and laid a wreath. Rabin and Edelman did not “share a platform.”

During the visit, the Israeli left-wing parliamentarian Shulamit Aloni persuaded Rabin to meet Edelman privately. Edelman broke the ice, saying that he knew Rabin’s uncle had been a Bundist. As the meeting concluded, Edelman instructed Rabin to make a just peace with the Palestinians.

Edelman had met Palestinian students in Poland and corresponded with Dr Mustafa Barghouti, director of the Palestinian Medical Relief Society, about forming a joint Palestinian-Israeli civil society grouping, committed to non-violence, that could pressure political leaders towards such a just peace.

“We Will Outlive Them!”

Edelman died peacefully in 2009. His public funeral began where so many powerful political episodes had been played out, by the Rapoport memorial. His coffin was draped in a red banner with Yiddish writing, “Bund Jewish Socialist Union,” according to his instructions.

He was buried in Okopowa, close to the graves of prewar Bundists, the symbolic graves of ghetto fighters, and Erlich’s and Alter’s memorial. Michnik said that Edelman was “respected, admired and loved. He had the courage of a Polish mounted soldier and the sarcasm and melancholy of a Jew.”

In today’s Poland, where the ultranationalist Law and Justice Party (PiS) is creating “LGBT-free zones,” stamping on women’s rights, outlawing recognition of Polish complicity in the Holocaust, and allowing far-right groups to spread hate, local anti-racist and anti-fascist groups, and an NGO, Open Republic, have come together to establish a new cycle of alternative ghetto commemorations.

I attended the 2019 ceremony with other Jewish socialists from London. As we walked from the Rapoport memorial to the Umschlagplatz, the symbolic presence of Edelman, the Bund and Yiddish language was startling. Students from a humanist school named after Jacek Kuron, who died in 2004, performed Yiddish Bundist songs.

Young anti-fascists held Spanish Civil War banners with Yiddish and Polish text. Bundist slogans in Yiddish, Polish, and English were emblazoned on T-shirts, placards, and banners, including “Mir veln zey iberlebn!” (“We will outlive them!”). And so we must. In 2020, the inheritors of the ghetto resisters’ spirit are still fighting.