“I am the Guardian of the Jewish Graves”
by Itzhak Luden
Translated from the Yiddish by Barnett Zumoff; published in the Yiddish Forverts, 10/5/2009
In principle, the most important thing is — life. And when there is life, the most important thing is freedom. And after that, one gives his life for freedom. Then one doesn’t know which is more important.
WITH THESE WORDS, the Polish daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, the organ of the organization Solidarność (Solidarity), began its editorial-page eulogy, together with the news of the death of Marek Edelman, the last commander in the Warsaw ghetto uprising. He had died in Warsaw a day earlier, on October 2, 2009, at the age of 90, three months before his birthday, which his friends, near and far, were preparing to celebrate on December 31, 2009.
“He was one of the only survivors of the Jewish Fighters’ Organization and the fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and the only one who remained in Poland. And when people asked him why, he answered: ‘Here is where my people is buried. I have remained because I am the guardian of the Jewish graves,’” wrote the Polish newspaper.
That, I would say, was the motto, the essence of his life, a phrase that is repeated in all his post-war interviews and in almost all the articles with which the press is filled these days in Poland and also in other European countries, where he is universally recognized and considered a heroic fighter and courageous humanist. His biography (Cracow, 1999), written by Rudy Assuntino and Włodek Goldkorn (a well-known columnist in Italy and the son of the late journalist for the Letste Nayes, Joseph Goldkorn), also appeared under the title The Guardian (Strażnik).
Edelman was famous in Poland and Europe not only as the heroic fighter of the Warsaw ghetto and “the guardian of the Jewish graves,” but also as a leading cardiologist and a courageous humanist, an active fighter against anti-Semitism and for human rights. It was for that “sin” that he was arrested by the Communist authorities during the “exceptional situation” (martial law) during the time of General Jaruzelski. After several days, however, he was released, thanks to the intervention of Social Democratic leaders in Europe, headed by Willy Brandt and a number of Polish figures. But he refused to sign a declaration that he would refrain from political activity and would not oppose the Communist regime. On the contrary, despite the fact that he remained under house arrest, under strict observation by the secret police, he succeeded, from 1976 on, in maintaining contact with the leaders of the illegal “Committee to Protect the Rights of Workers,” headed by his comrade Jacek Kuroń. He became active in the illegal Solidarność, headed by Lech Wałęsa, later to be president of Poland.
In April 1988, on the 45th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, shortly before the official ceremony by the government, Edelman, together with Solidarność, organized an independent demonstration of about 10,000 people, attended by delegations from around the world. The morning before that demonstration, a symbolic headstone was unveiled in the Warsaw Jewish cemetery, a memorial that Marek Edelman had erected there in memory of the two leaders of the Polish Bund, Henryk Erlich and Wiktor Alter, who were murdered on Stalin’s orders during the war against the Germans. He had conceived that project a year earlier, after he had received a copy from Moscow of the documents about the murder of the two Bundist leaders, to whom he remained faithful all his life. (The documents came from a distant relative of Erlich’s father-in-law, the historian Shimon Dubnow, who was murdered by the Germans in the Riga ghetto.) Through Edelman’s efforts, the illegal Solidarność also issued postage stamps at that time in memory of Erlich and Alter.
EDELMAN WAS THE REPRESENTATIVE of the Bund and the Bund’s youth organization Tsukunft in the Jewish Fighter’s Organization of the Warsaw Ghetto. As the JFO’s vice-commander, and after the death of Mordecai Anielewicz, its actual commander, members of other participating organizations fought under Edelman’s command, and a deep solidarity developed among them. Evidence of that solidarity was presented in the film, The Last Fighters, which was released a few years ago and was shown in Israeli theaters. A year after the Jewish uprising, which the German hordes suppressed with the help of gas and fire, Marek and a group of Jewish fighters joined the Polish revolt in Warsaw in August 1944.
Marek Edelman never liked overblown rhetoric and talk of heroism — he was the embodiment of the anti-hero. He considered even the heroic battles of the Jewish Fighter’s Organization to be a natural human obligation: “It is easier to fall with weapons in your hand than to die in the ovens and gas chambers,” the anti-hero used to say, but despite all his modesty he revealed himself by all his actions to be a hero in the history of Polish Jewry. And he was adopted as a hero of Poland by enlightened Polish society and by the Polish state.
He was also bound by strong bonds in opposition to the Polish dictatorship. “The fact that the Bund, as a Socialist party, rejected attempts in 1948 to have it join the supposedly ‘united,’ Communist-dominated, Worker’s Party (which collapsed without it) should be credited to him,” wrote the organ of Solidarność, the Gazeta Wyborcza, in its eulogy article.
In his post-war activity, and especially after the fall of the Communist regime, he was elected to various governmental commissions and met with the most important international figures, starting with Martin Luther King, Jr. during Edelman’s visit to New York in 1963, during which Edelman made an appearance before the local Bundists. He also met with Leon Blum in Paris and with other world leaders as a member of the European peace-mission in Kosovo and in the course of other missions. His name became legendary in Europe.
IN THE SUMMER OF 1945, right after the war, at the behest of the Bund Committee in New York, Marek Edelman wrote the first authentic and detailed report about the uprising in which he had played such an important and heroic role. It was written in a restrained tone, without overblown rhetoric, without bombast, and without exaggerations. He brought the Polish manuscript of the report to the well-known Polish writer Zofia Nałkowska, who called it not only a shocking historical document but a dramatic work of great literary value. The book, with an introduction by Nałkowska, appeared in Polish under the name Getto Walczy (The Ghetto Fights), and was translated into various languages over the years.
But it couldn’t appear in Hebrew or in the State of Israel for 55 years, because of the stubborn opposition of the Zionist leadership and their virtual kherem (excommunication) under which the name of the Bundist Marek Edelman was treyf — unkosher — in Israel, and because of the falsified narrative of the “official” historiography, which concealed the participation of the Bundist fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and pretended that it had been an uprising exclusively or almost exclusively by the “Pioneer Youth,” the organization of young Zionists. The name Marek Edelman was hated by those who were in authority, the Israeli “Establishment,” and by the Hebrew press. Only in the year 2001 did the report appear, 195 pages long, under the title The Ghetto Fights — Bundist Youth in the Warsaw Ghetto. (The book was published under the imprint of Hakibuts Hameukhad, under the sponsorship of the Gotteiner Insitute of Haifa University, which researches the Bund and the Jewish labor movements in Eastern Europe. The translation from Yiddish was by Sholem Luria and that from Polish was by Ruth Schoenfeld. It was edited by the historian Daniel Blatman, author of the 1996 Hebrew book. For Our and Your Freedom — the Bund in Poland, 1939-1949.)
This attitude came to its most grotesque expression on April 19, 1993, when an official governmental delegation, headed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, went to Warsaw to solemnly mark the 50th anniversary of the ghetto uprising. In planning the order of appearances in the official ceremony at the Memorial, the Polish government’s representatives had taken it for granted that Marek Edelman, the highest-ranking survivor of the ghetto fighters, would speak in their name. But most members of the Israeli delegation stubbornly opposed that, and threatened to leave the ceremony if the “anti-Zionist” Marek Edelman appeared.
Not wanting to interfere in this Jewish quarrel, the President of Poland, Lech Wałęsa, made an extremely original gesture: previously, before the ceremony, he had taken Edelman’s hands in one of his hands and those of Edelman’s grandson in his other hand, and together with the two men had carried a wreath of flowers and had laid it at the foot of the memorial. That gesture made a powerful impression on those who were present.
The former chairman of the Knesset and ambassador to Poland, Professor Shevach Weiss, recently mentioned that episode in an interview with the Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita, and it was confirmed to us by the former minister and leader of Meretz Shulamit Aloni, who was a member of that delegation. In a conversation with the writer of these lines, she told us that during that visit to Warsaw she had advised Rabin to meet with Edelman. Despite the other representatives’ strong opposition — the leaders of the Zionist associations and organizations as well as two Knesset Members — Rabin did meet with Edelman in a “private” meeting. As Shulamit Aloni tells it, Rabin emerged greatly impressed by Edelman’s personality and by the conversation between them.
Furthermore, Rabin and Edelman met at a breakfast reception at President Wałęsa’s home. As Edelman told the author of the book, The Guardian, he reminded Rabin then that he (Rabin) came from a Bundist family (Rabin’s uncle, his mother’s brother Virgili Kahan, was one of the leaders of the Bund in Vilna), and said that he therefore hoped that he, Rabin would forge a peace with the Palestinians. Rabin, said Edelman, gave a little smile…
MAREK EDELMAN was born at the end of 1919, in Gomel, Belarus, from which his family moved to Warsaw shortly after he was born. His father died in 1924, when Marek was barely 5. His mother, who was active in the Bundist women’s organization Yaf, died in 1934, and at the age of 15 he became an orphan under the warm supervision of his teacher and principal of the Yiddish secular elementary school, Sonia Nowogrudski. (Under the Nazi occupation, she was active in the Bundist underground in the Warsaw ghetto, was a member of the executive committee of the Bund, and organized educational groups for children in the ghetto. She was murdered in Treblinka, together with the Jews of Warsaw and of Poland.)
I used to encounter Marek as a child on the steps of the Bundist Grosser School in Warsaw, during the intervals between one school-bell and another. The two of us paid no attention to each other, for there was a “big difference” of three or four grades and a number of years between us. We were like dozens of kids who a few years later rose to heroism, that heroism for which Marek didn’t allow himself to be lionized. Even in Skif (the Socialist Children’s Federation), he was one of the older Skifists, the “helpers.” Who could then have imagined each one’s fate and later experiences when we met in Lodz shortly after the War, and later during his occasional visits to Israel, where the Zionist establishment boycotted him because of his Bundism? But he came anyway, chiefly to visit his few surviving Bundist battle-comrades, who received him with affection and honor.
It was from his environment as a Skif and the Bundist youth organization Tsukunft that Edelman drew his moral and ideological nourishment. But after the war he didn’t see any future for the Bund as a movement, for it had lost the broad Jewish masses. He didn’t, however, reject its ideas. Several times during recent years, Marek Edelman sang the Bundist anthem Di Shvue (The Oath), by S. An-Sky, with his comrades during his visits to New York, Paris, and Tel Aviv — and the chorus of the Warsaw Jewish community sang Di Shvue and Gebirtig’s Es Brent (It’s Burning) at his funeral, in the presence of high-ranking representatives of Polish society.
And in addition to the wreath of flowers from Bundists in Tel Aviv, his grave was covered with the Bundist flag, which was sent from the Arbeter Ring in Paris, at the request of his children, according to his will. A chorus of Edelman’s young Poles have learned Di Shvue and sang it at his grave during the funeral of the Jewish hero, the guardian of the graves.
Itzhak Luden was educated in Warsaw’s secular Yiddish schools and at the Medem Sanitarium. A lifelong Bundist, he published his first newspaper article in the youth supplement of a Bundist newspaper in 1937. After surviving a Soviet gulag and settling in Israel, he began a forty-year as a political analyst and art critic for the daily Israeli Yiddish newspaper, Letste Nayes, while also writing for the Yiddish press in the USA, France, Mexico, Australia, Poland, and Canada. After retiring from Letste Nayes, he served as a correspondent for the Yiddish Forverts from 1997 to 2011. He also served as editor-in-chief of the Bund’s bimonthly Lebns-Fragn from 1971-2014 and continues to edit its online incarnation. During his more than 70 years as a journalist, Itzhak Luden has published over 6,000 articles. His first-hand account of the Israeli-Egyptian Peace Accords, Fun Kholem Tsu Sholem (From Dream to Peace) was published in 1979, and his collection of art criticism, Perl fun Gan-Eden (Pearls of the Garden of Eden) in 1987. A two-volume collection of some 500 of his articles, In Geyeg Nokh Momentn (In Pursuit of Moments), was published in 2009; an English translation of the book, from which this article was adapted, is being prepared for publication. Jewish Currents thanks Jordan Kutzik for his help in preparing this article.