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A Towering Example

Remembering Marek Edelman, a leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising

Seth Lipsky
October 28, 2009
Marek Edelman in 2003(Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images)
Marek Edelman in 2003(Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images)

A wonderful novel could be written about the year 1897. That’s the year of the first issue of the newspaper known as the Jewish Daily Forward, which became a tribune of the idea that Jews could become Americans. It’s also the year in which Theodor Herzl convened at Basel the First Zionist Congress, which stood for the idea that the Jews could find redemption in the Land of Israel. It was also the year in which, at a secret meeting at Vilna, there was founded the General Association of Jewish Workers, known as the Bund, which reckoned Jews needn’t go anywhere but could find their future in Socialism.

I’ve been thinking about that historical moment again in the wake of the death earlier this month of Marek Edelman. It was Edelman who, after the death of Mordechai Anielewicz, acceded as leader of the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto. He led the fight that some have said saved Jewish honor, though he would repudiate the sentiment. He understood that nearly all Jews dealt with certain death in myriad honorable ways that none can second-guess. Edelman survived and lived out his life in Poland, where he made his career as a physician. He hewed throughout his life to the Bund.

It happens that the first time I thought much about the Bund, I was living in Europe on assignment to cover the climactic years of the Cold War for the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. I was having dinner with my wife at our home in Brussels, when the phone rang and an operator came on the line and asked me to hold for the deputy foreign minister of Israel. I didn’t know Benjamin Netanyahu well, but I’d been defending his policies. He was calling to ask whether he could mention my name to the new proprietors of the Jerusalem Post as a possible editor of the paper. I was touched, but had to tell him that I was planning to return to America to become editor of the Forward.

There was an awkward silence, and he finally said—in amazement—“the Bundist newspaper?”

I told him that it was a bit more complicated, that there’d been no more anti-communist paper in all of American history. Netanyahu was exceptionally gracious, under the circumstances, and we rang off. In fact, the Forward was never a Bundist paper, and, I learned in due course, the relationship between its editor, Abraham Cahan, and the Bund was decidedly rocky. But history has a way of playing tricks on all of us, and in my years at the Forward, I personally caused to be hung in its editorial rooms a portrait of the Bundist martyr Henryk Erhlich, who, with the outbreak of the war, had moved, with Victor Alter, east into the Soviet zone only to be murdered by Stalin.

Edelman was nearly 40 years younger than Erlich. He joined the Bund youth movement in the late 1930s, and ended up confined in the ghetto in Warsaw, where he helped organize the Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa, or Jewish Combat Organization, which stunned the Nazis when the attack on the ghetto began. When Anielewicz was trapped, and committed suicide, Edelman became commander. After he and his comrades put up the fight that astonished the world, Edelman managed to escape through the sewers and, in 1944, to participate in the uprising against the Nazis by the Free Polish forces.

That was the battle that saw the betrayal of the Free Poles by the Red Army, which sat on its guns on the East side of the Vistula and exposed the communist camarilla in its full cynicism. After the war, Edelman stayed in Poland and in the Bund, though he opposed the Bund’s absorption into the Polish communist party. He emerged in harness with the Free Labor Movement when it began to organize in Poland, creating, in Solidarity, the institution that would crack Soviet rule and begin the end of the communist tyranny in the East bloc.

In the 1970s, the writer Hanna Krall had a long conversation with Edelman that was brought out as a book called Shielding the Flame. It included, at the end, a letter Krall wrote to the translators. In the season of the 40th anniversary of the uprising Edelman led, she had been with him in his home, where he was held under house arrest by General Jaruzelski’s communist regime. It had wanted him to participate in the official commemoration, but he’d refused. Solidarity promptly mounted its own commemoration and wanted—even needed—him in its ranks. So, Krall wrote, the Jewish path and the Polish path had merged again.

Not that Edelman was immune from mistakes. He’d issued earlier this decade a statement likening the Palestinian Arab “resistance” to the fight that he and his comrades had waged more than half a century ago, a statement that galled the Israelis. All the greater the irony of the bond that was established between Edelman and Moshe Arens, who, after Edelman’s death, wrote one of the loveliest tributes to him in Haaretz. Arens, a follower of Jabotinsky, had once gone to meet with Edelman and, apparently, formed an admiration for him, and he wrote that it was not only Edelman who was buried that day.

“The Bund, which commanded his loyalty to his dying days, was also laid to rest,” he wrote. He noted that Edelman’s coffin had been draped with the red banner of the Bund, with the words “Bund—Yidisher Sozialistisher Farband.” He called it “a farewell to a great movement, which had a massive following among Polish Jewry before the war, and had led all other Jewish parties in the last Polish municipal elections held before the war.” He noted that the Bund believed that “a Socialist Poland would be built” and “there the Jews of Poland, maintaining the Yiddish culture and the Yiddish language, would find their rightful place.”

Arens acknowledged that Zionism and emigration to Palestine were “anathema” to the Bund and that the Bund “reserved a special hatred” for Jabotinsky, who had called on the Jews to flee Poland. “The Bund’s lofty ideals took precedence over reality,” Arens wrote. “And cruel reality put an end to the Bund.” In the end, he wrote, “Zionism prevailed over the Bund.” But that, he added, “was not because most Polish Jews deemed its ideology superior, but because the human base of the Bund was exterminated, along with the rest of Polish Jewry, by the Germans during World War II.” Then Arens wrote: “Those very few who survived, like Edelman, remained fiercely loyal to the Bund, an organization that had ceased to exist, a loyalty that sustained them during the war years, and gave them the courage to heroically fight the Germans along with other Jewish fighters, outnumbered and outgunned, in the Warsaw ghetto uprising.”

* * *

What a concluding chapter that would make to the novel 1897—an aging Revisionist defense minister of Israel, weeping, if figuratively and from a distance, over the Bundist-bier of Marek Edelman. Let us ask what would prompt a hero like Arens to make this kind of bow to a hero at the other end of the ideological spectrum. We have come through a period marked by a vanishing Bund and an American Jewry in a crisis of intermarriage and assimilation. So it is a haunting question. No doubt Arens knows that we are in a time as dangerous for the Zionist enterprise—and so for all Jews—as any in history. We are in a period in which, if we are not careful, the dream of Herzl and the millions whose lives Zionism saved and inspired could be dealt a fate as cruel as that which was dealt to the socialists and to the Bund. It’s a moment when the example of a man like Marek Edelman towers over the generations.

Seth Lipsky, formerly editor of the English-language edition of the Forward, is founding editor of The New York Sun.

Seth Lipsky, formerly editor of the English-language edition of the Forward, is founding editor of The New York Sun.

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