Marek Edelman was a political and social activist and a cardiologist. He was among the leaders of the uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943. He was born on January 1, 1919 in Homl (present-day Belarus). His father was a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, and his mother an activist in the General Jewish Labour Bund, a Jewish socialist worker’s party. He was still a child when his family moved to Warsaw, and later recalled that it was there that he was for the first time “slapped in the face just because I was a Jew.”
Edelman was only 20 years old when World War 2 broke out, and found himself captive alongside half a million Jews in the Warsaw ghetto. In the first years of the war, Edelman worked on clandestinely publishing Bund newspapers and pamphlets. In the summer of 1941, famine and disease began to kill thousands of Jews. A year later, the Germans began transporting Ghetto residents to Treblinka extermination camp night and day. By the end of their campaign, only sixty thousand remained. Edelman and his comrades had little doubt that they would encounter a similar fate, and decided to fight back. With Mordechaj Anielewciz, Edelman then co-founded the underground Jewish Combat Organization.
In April 1943, as the Germans resumed their attack on the Ghetto, Edelman and his comrades took up arms. “We knew very well that we could not win,” Edelman later recalled. “We were two-hundred and twenty boys up against a powerful army.” Yet, outnumbered and outgunned fighter’s resistance soon forced the German troops to temporarily withdraw, and three weeks of intense fighting followed. When Mordechaj Anielewicz, surrounded by German forces, committed suicide, Edelman was put in charge of the insurrection. Soon after, the Germans began to burn down the Ghetto.
Edelman and his few remaining comrades then managed to escape through the sewers. “We were beaten by the flames, not by the Germans,” Edelman later insisted.
Edelman joined the Polish resistance to continue the fight. In 1944, he took part in the Warsaw uprising, which ended with the death of two-hundred-thousand civilians and the destruction of the city by the German army.
After the war, Edelman studied medicine in Lodz and became a noted cardiologist. He temporarily left Poland in the immediate aftermath of the Allied victory, but came back to the Polish capital in 1946, despite ongoing pogroms. Edelman was married to Alina Margolis, and had two children, Aleksander (1953) and Anna (1958). After the 1968 student movements, the local Communist government embarked on an anti-Semitic campaign. Edelman lost his job. Seeking to protect her children, his wife then emigrated to France – but Marek Edelman chose to stay in Poland.
In 1976, Edelman joined the Workers’ Defense Committee, and later became an activist with the Solidarity movement, steadfastly opposing the Polish communist government.
When the regime fell in 1989, Edelman was elected a Senator of the Republic, first as a member of the Solidarity Movement, then as a member of the Democratic Union. He never ceased to publicly denounce racism and anti-Semitism in Poland and in the entire world.
A lifelong anti-Zionist, Edelman repeatedly declared that there was for him neither a chosen people, nor a promised land. To this day, Israel still refuses to give him official recognition for his heroism and his leadership role in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
Marek Edelman died on October 3, 2009, aged 90. A year earlier, he’d been made a Commander of the French Legion of Honor.
Marek Edelman embodied the spirit of armed Jewish resistance against Nazism, and the values of freedom, courage, and brotherhood. He was a true hero and a true Polish, who fought all of his life on behalf of the cause of human freedom. His memory lives on today as a symbol of intelligence, morality, and rebelliousness.