Remembering the Warsaw Ghetto uprising: a tribute to Marek Edelman

By Linda Waldron

On October 2, Marek Edelman died in Warsaw at the age of 90. He had been the last surviving commander of the resistance forces during the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazi occupation. Born in Poland, Edelman became a member of the youth organisation of the socialist General Jewish Labour Union, commonly known as the “Bund”, in the late 1930s.

After the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, Edelman found himself confined — along with the other 400,000 Jews of Warsaw — to the Warsaw Ghetto. In 1942, as a Bund youth leader, Edelman co-founded the underground Jewish Combat Organization (ZOB) to organise armed resistance to the Nazis and their Jewish collaborators. Edelman later said: “The Bundists 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 each nationality would have its own cultural autonomy, and in which minorities’ rights would be guaranteed.”

In the early hours of April 19, 1943, 2000 German SS troops invaded the Warsaw Ghetto with tanks and cannons to begin the final extermination of its population. They were met by 220 fighters of the ZOB, armed with pistols, home-made incendiary bombs and one machine gun. By 5pm that evening, the Nazi troops had suffered over 250 casualties and the ZOB had lost only one fighter. Not a single German remained in the ghetto.

The battle lasted a further seven weeks before the ghetto uprising was finally suppressed. According to one of the leaders of the Polish underground, General Jerzy Kirchmayer, “the largest resistance centre during the Nazi occupation, was of a special nature insofar as it was staged by the Jewish population … The Warsaw Ghetto fell after a heroic fight but the idea of armed struggle … reached beyond the walls, survived and endured … It was carried abroad by the few Jews who reached the forests and fought there … It was spread by Poles who in Warsaw saw Nazis unsuccessfully attempting to break the resistance of the few almost weaponless ZOB groups …”

Zionists’ role

The ZOB was a left-wing armed alliance comprising Bundists, Communists and members of anti-capitalist Zionist youth organisations. The standard Zionist representation of the ghetto uprising is that, led by Zionists, it symbolises Jewish liberation on the road to a homeland in Palestine. Edelman’s eyewitness account and life story reveals that it was actually the radical left (both Zionist and anti-Zionist) who led the uprising as part of the broader struggle to liberate Poland from the Nazi occupation. In contrast to the prevailing Zionist discourse, among the Zionists it was only the young, anti-capitalists who played a heroic role in the struggle. The conservative and far-right Zionist forces (many of whom later made up the political leadership of the Israeli state) either did not participate, actively opposed the resistance or, in some cases, actively colluded with the Nazis.

The right-wing Revisionist Zionist Alliance’s youth wing Betar refused to join the ZOB during the ghetto fights, instead forming a separate militia, the Jewish Fighting Union (ZZW). In a later interview, Edelman described the ZZW as “a gang of porters, thieves, smugglers, fascists”. When, in 1936, the Revisionist Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky toured Poland urging the “evacuation” of European Jewry to Palestine, the Bundists accused him of abetting anti-Semitism.

Former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin was the leader of the Polish Betar. At the 1938 Betar congress, Begin had shouted the loudest for the immediate conquest of Palestine. He did not participate in the ghetto uprising as he had fled Poland upon the Nazi invasion. By 1942, he had reached Palestine, becoming a leader of Betar’s paramilitary terrorist Irgun group.

Fellow Betar leaders Nathan Yalin-Mor and Israel Scheib (Eldad) later rose to become two of the three commanders of the Stern Gang, a group which had split from the Irgun. Both organisations were responsible for numerous terrorist atrocities against the Arab population in Palestine, including the 1948 Deir Yassin massacre. Of the Zionist leaders who fled Warsaw when the Nazis arrived, only leaders of the left-wing youth groups Hashomer Hatzair and Hechalutz returned to fight the Nazis. The right-wing Zionists instead sought, and some obtained, exit visas from the Nazis to reach Palestine.

Many Jewish establishment figures in Warsaw, who served on the Nazi-organised Judenrat (Jewish Council), were Zionists, such as the council’s president Adam Czerniakow. On being forced, in July 1942, to sign the “resettlement” orders — under which the ghetto’s residents were to be rounded up by the Judenrat’s police and deported at the rate of 6000 people per day to the Nazi extermination camps — he committed suicide. Edelman and his comrades criticised Czerniakow for this act as it proved he knew what the “resettlement” really meant. They believed that he should have informed the residents of the Nazis’ extermination plans and ordered the dissolution of the Judenrat police force, which carried out the round-up of those targeted for deportation.

There were also Zionists who voluntarily collaborated with the Nazi agenda. Dr Alfred Nossig, a Zionist theoretician, and Avraham Gancwajch, a right-wing Labour Zionist, were both Gestapo agents and personally responsible for arbitrary arrests and murders of ghetto inhabitants. The ZOB successfully assassinated Nossig and targeted Gancwajch for execution.

The Bund

By contrast, the anti-Zionist Bundists consistently struggled for a Poland free from persecution of all Poles, both Jewish and non-Jewish. At the time of the Nazi invasion, the Polish Bund had 20,000 dues-paying members and won the majority of the Jewish vote in the 1938 and 1939 Warsaw municipal elections. In line with its socialist agenda, the Bund worked with other left forces. From the beginning of the German invasion of Poland, the Bund argued that the Jewish people needed armed resistance to the Nazis and that their struggle was linked to the broader Polish resistance movement.

The Bund’s links with the Polish underground provided critical intelligence as well as access to weapons for the Jewish resistance movement. Bund member Zalmen Frydrych met up with a railway worker from the Polish underground to ascertain exactly where the “resettlement” trains were headed and what was to be the fate of the deportees. They discovered the trains went to Treblinka and met two naked fugitives, who gave grisly reports of the Treblinka death camp. Their account was immediately published in the Bund press.

Despite the difficulties of clandestine organisation, the Bund was untiring in its attempts to mobilise the Jewish masses. By early 1941, reports of the gassing of Jews in Chelmno, Pomerania reached the Ghetto, but were widely disbelieved. However, the Bund thought the reports were plausible and commenced a propaganda offensive warning against the imminent danger. As the Nazi terror against the ghetto’s residents escalated, the Bund increased its agitational efforts, publishing six periodicals and distributing thousands of leaflets from a single mimeograph machine. Simultaneously, the Bund enlarged its battle units, comprised mostly of Bundist youth, and redoubled efforts to obtain weapons from the Polish underground.

On the night of April 17, 1942, 50 social workers were dragged from their homes and executed in the streets by German soldiers. The April 19 edition of the Bund’s weekly newspaper explained that the executions were part of a systematic policy of extermination, but the Bund’s view remained in a minority. Only Hashomer and Hechalutz, shared its perspective.

During the nightmare days of the July-September 1942 deportations, the Bund called on the ghetto’s residents to resist with any means possible. These deportations reduced the ghetto’s population from 400,000 to around 60,000. In mid-October, talks between Hechalutz and the Bund enabled the formation of the ZOB, with Mordchaj Anilewicz from Hashomer Hatzair as the commander and Marek Edelman as one of five deputy commanders. The Bundists, Communists and anti-capitalist Zionists who comprised the ZOB were able to unite against the common oppressor.

Edelman later said: “In the period preceding the last German extermination drive the Bund’s activities were closely intertwined with the history of the ZOB. I think that never before had there existed a similar degree of unanimity and coordination of people of different political parties as during the various groups’ collaboration in that period. We were all fighters for the same just cause, equal in the face of history and death. Every drop of blood was of precisely the same value.”

The second deportation drive began on January 18, 1943. Four ZOB battle groups offered the first armed resistance in the ghetto. Although the January battle wiped out 80% of the ZOB membership, it inspired a change in public opinion among both the Jewish and non-Jewish population of Warsaw. As Edelman recalled: “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 realised it was possible to do something against the Germans’ will and power.” Legends began circulating throughout Warsaw of “hundreds” of dead Germans and the “tremendous” power of the ZOB.

The final battle of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising lasted seven weeks until the handful of partisans were systematically bombed, gassed and burned out by SS troops. On May Day 1943, the ZOB command ordered a “holiday” offensive. According to Edelman, “In the evening, a May Day roll-call was held. The partisans were briefly addressed by a few people, the Internationale was sung … The words and the song echoed from the charred ruins and were, at that particular time, an indication that socialist youth was still fighting in the Ghetto, and that even in the face of death they were not abandoning their ideals.”

On May 8, Ukrainian and German detachments surrounded the ZOB high command. Eighty of the remaining partisans perished that day, including ZOB commander Anilewicz. A handful of survivors from the ZOB headquarters met up with Edelman’s detachments. They escaped through the sewers, standing in filth up to their lips, avoiding mines and enduring periodic gassing by the Germans.

On May 10, at 10 am, in central Warsaw, a stunned street crowd saw a sewer access open and a handful of armed Jews emerge, escaping in two trucks organised by the Polish underground. Two battle groups remained behind in the Warsaw Ghetto. Edelman’s group remained in contact with them until mid-June, when all trace of them disappeared. The handful of ZOB survivors joined the Polish partisans and played a heroic role in the August 1944 Warsaw uprising.

In the months following the April-May Warsaw Ghetto uprising, a number of armed Jewish insurrections flared in other Nazi-occupied Polish cities such as Bialystok, Tarnow, Bendin, Czenstochow and Borislaw. In early August 1943, 200 inmates at the Treblinka death camp slaughtered the 30-man Nazi guard unit, seized ammunition, set fire to the buildings, cut the communication lines and fled to the woods.

After the war, Edelman moved to Lodz, studied medicine and became one of Poland’s leading cardiologists. He always considered himself both Polish and Jewish and, unlike many Holocaust survivors, refused to emigrate, despite experiencing waves of Stalinist-instigated anti-Semitism in the 1960s and ‘70s. In 1968, 20,000 Jews left Poland, including Edelman’s wife and daughter. Edelman was sacked but found work elsewhere. Asked why he stayed in Poland he once replied, “Someone had to stay with all those who died here”.

In 2002, Edelman earned the ire of the Israeli state and the Zionist press by intervening in the trial of Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, with a letter addressed, “To all the leaders of Palestinian military, paramilitary and guerrilla organizations. To all the soldiers of Palestinian militant groups.” Writing as one resistance freedom fighter to another, he bestowed his moral authority and the legacy of his struggle against racist oppression to the Palestinian resistance movement.