It’s a warm early morning in September 1942. A slight, dark-haired man with a wispy mustache, twenty-three-year‑old Marek Edelman—a member of the Jewish Combat Organization, the underground resistance organization in the Warsaw Ghetto, and formally a messenger at the Berson and Bauman Children’s Hospital—dashes into the building.
Adina Blady-Szwajgier, known to everyone as ‘Inka’, likes to say that Edelman, like her, was once full of youthful frivolity. That frivolity disappeared on July 22. Since then, beginning at eight o’ clock each morning, there have been house-by‑house searches of the Ghetto and the capturing of Jews. It is the Grossaktion—the great deportation operation: fear, powerlessness, tears that are already running dry.
Umschlagplatz—the collection point: more than 15,000 people a day end up here, as many as the train cars waiting at the railroad platform can hold. They are deported to Treblinka where they die immediately in the gas chambers.
Adjacent to the Umschlag is the building to which the hospital was moved from Śliska Street. You can see everything from the windows—for instance, the way Dr. Janusz Korczak walked at the head of a column of little children from his Ghetto orphanage two days earlier, after deciding to stay with his charges until the end.
Edelman sprints up the stairs because the boss of the children’s department, Dr. Anna Braude-Heller, has never quit trying to make the hospital run as if there were no war on. Since the start of the occupation, every working day has begun with rounds, consideration of the worst cases, and a discussion of whether everything has been done to save lives. It is getting harder and harder because people are now dying not only from sickness, but also from hunger. The only thing standing between the medical staff and starvation is the twisted logic according to which the Nazis have never stopped supplying the hospital with pure grain alcohol for disinfection. In the director’s office, at the end of rounds, everybody receives 25 grams of pure spirit—in crystal shot glasses, because even here Dr. Braude-Heller maintains her standards—and drinks it in a single gulp. Sometimes there is also ‘breakfast’ waiting on china dishes: 100 grams of ration-card bread that seems to be made with sawdust, cut into thin slices and served with fifty grams of ‘monkey lard’—a greasy slurry obtained from coconut oil.
Along with the 200 calories from the shot of alcohol, this dose of energy allows the staff to avoid death, at least by starvation.
Today, a different kind of death comes visiting. At the close of the Grossaktion, the hospital is being liquidated and everyoneis going to Treblinka, especially the children. Only a handful of people (33,405 in the whole Ghetto) can obtain the ‘numbers of life’, metal tags to be sewn onto their clothing as an indicator that the owner is needed by the Nazis, or rather is still needed. (In April, eight months hence, they too will be murdered.)
The worst thing is that Braude-Heller must choose these people herself (as head physician, she receives her tag automatically). She doesn’t want to do it. Obviously, no decent person would want to decide who is to live and who is to die. Yet the staff insist. So she gives in; these people know that, otherwise, the numbers will be distributed elsewhere in the hospital. She tries to choose the young, the ones with a chance of surviving, and being able to do something more in the Ghetto. Edelman and Blady-Szwajgier are among them.
At the end of the rounds, Edelman rushes out of the hospital. As messenger, he has the daily task of delivering a precise report to the Germans on the condition of the patients and the number eligible for discharge. Thanks to this insane bureaucracy, he can keep in touch with the clandestine Jewish Combat Organization (ŻOB — Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa) network and organize resistance.
In the meantime, the uniformed liquidators enter the hospital. The annihilation begins on the ground floor, where the ‘normal’ adult patients are.
The Germans and the Lithuanian auxiliary police barge into rooms crowded with patients already half-oblivious due to their suffering and dread.
They drag those who are able to walk to Umschlagplatz. They strike the bedridden and then shoot them on the spot, leaving their bodies in the hospital berths.
Blady-Szwajgier slowly climbs to the top floor. The odors of putrid discharges, excrement, and human fear hang in the air. She goes on and on up the stairs, trying not to step on anyone. Corpses lie everywhere, mingled with living people in their death throes. She finally reaches the fourth floor, where the infants’ ward is located. Children come out of the corners, out of hiding, the older of her tiny patients moving in her direction. The children are a couple of years old, and they gather around her like puppies.
Finally, they sit down with their beloved doctor in the farthest room. Little Marysia, dying of lymph-node tuberculosis, says, ‘We already know everything, Doctor. We don’t have a mommy anymore, or a daddy, and we won’t live either. But will you be with us until the end, Doctor?’ ‘Yes, Marysia, I’ll stay with you for sure’, says Blady-Szwajgier.
So she sits with them and talks about the good times. But she can’t speak coherently and so they sit there in silence, these fifteen children and the one Dr. ‘Inka.’ Finally, crestfallen, she gets up and goes downstairs, desperately grasping the tin ‘number of life.’ She knows that even if she gives the tag away—which she seriously considers doing—she will still be separated from the children, if they aren’t done away with immediately. At a certain moment she sees someone carrying the corpse of the young nurse Zosia Frakter, who swallowed poison upon learning that her mother had been taken to the train. Another nurse approaches her. It is Mira, whose mother is lying in a hospital bed because she can’t walk. ‘Doctor, give my mother the injection. I can’t do it. I’m begging you. I don’t want them to shoot her in her bed.’ She presses a hypodermic full of morphine into ‘Inka’s’ hand. This is the moment when ‘Inka’ realizes how she can keep her word to the children. She asks the nurse if there is much morphine left. Mira nods. ‘I’ll give it to you. No one will ask why.’
‘Inka’ first administers morphine injections to Mira’s mother and the adults who are incapable of walking unaided. It’s all she can do for them. Then ‘Inka’ goes back upstairs to her children. Doctor Margolis is waiting there for her.
Blady-Szwajgier describes the moment in her memoirs:
We took a teaspoon and went into the infants’ ward. Just as I had bent down over the little beds during those two years of real work in the hospital, so now I poured this last medicine into those tiny mouths. Screams reached us from downstairs, where the Lithuanian auxiliaries and the Germans were taking people out of the wards and to the train.
Then we went to the older children and I told them that it’s medicine so that nothing would hurt. They believed me and drank as much from the cup as they were supposed to. Then I told them to undress, lie down, and go to sleep. They obeyed and got into bed. After ten or more minutes, I don’t remember how long, I went back into the room and they were asleep. After that, I don’t know anything about what happened later.
Blady-Szwajgier, who became a renowned pediatrician after the war, will not admit for forty-five years to what she did in September 1942. Only when she enters the hospital and becomes a patient of Marek Edelman does she decide, at his urging, to write her memoirs.
Years afterward, Edelman comments on that day:
– When the Germans came, she gave the poison to the children instead of saving it for herself and her loved ones. She shared in the life of her little patients and witnessed their death. As opposed to many others, she accompanied the death of each child personally, and died many times, with each of them. To the end she worried over each child, whether any of them would wake up before a gentle death came and instead be doomed to a brutal death in the gas chamber.
She was a hero.
It is the evening of April 24, 1999 in Washington. It is warm. Black limousines have been delivering the heads of national NATO delegations to a pavilion on the south lawn of the White House since late morning. The biggest banquet in the history of the office of the President is commencing.
The occasion? Almost exactly fifty years earlier, on April 4, 1949, ten Western European countries, the United States, and Canada signed a treaty here in Washington, guaranteeing their mutual defense against any attack— in fact, against attack by the Soviet Union. The crucial part of the treaty is Article Five, which states that any attack on a NATO member state should be regarded by the other members as an attack on themselves.
Four more states later joined the original dozen, and the global situation remained frozen for many long years. On one side was the Warsaw Pact directed by Moscow, and on the other the North Atlantic military alliance, which would not have amounted to much without American participation.
Then the Berlin Wall fell and, although nobody said so, NATO won the Cold War. The most visible sign of that victory came in March 1999, when three states annexed by the Soviets after 1945—the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland—were accepted as NATO members. Now the Western world was traveling to Washington to celebrate these successes. Among the guests were the heads of state and government of the countries just accepted into NATO. From Poland, there were President Kwaśniewski, Prime Minister Buzek, and a multitude of officials. The menu for the celebratory supper included chicken breasts baked with onion rings, pepper chili, scented with cumin and featuring yams and corn, orange-and‑mango salad, grilled buffalo steak, new potatoes with mushrooms and Cabernet sauce, sun-dried tomatoes with mozzarella, peas with sprouts, special ‘NATO chocolate cake’, and several kinds of wine.
President William Jefferson Clinton, who told everyone to call him Bill, had two problems on his mind. Barely two months earlier, the impeachment motion had been passed over his affair with Monica Lewinsky. There was no hiding the fact that his transgression had a disastrous impact on the presidential image, let alone the Clintons’ domestic situation.
Furthermore, NATO—including the three new members from the former Warsaw Pact—had made the decision a month earlier to begin air raids on Yugoslavia. The goal was to end the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and force democratization on the state under the dictatorial rule of Slobodan Milošević.
Clinton himself was among the initiators of the operation, although many accused him of seeking media camouflage for his sex scandal. The President however, had consistently and sincerely come out in favor of human rights. A shadow was cast over his time in office by the savagery of the recent civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and especially the massacre in Srebrenica where, practically under the noses of UN units, the Serbs murdered about 8,000 Muslims. The impotence of the international community was inexplicable, and Clinton feared a new tragedy in Kosovo. As he
would later write in his memoirs:
“An offensive against the mutinous Kosovar Albanians began a year earlier, killing innocent people; many women and children were burned in their own homes. The Serbian aggression resulted in a new wave of refugees and further inflamed the desire of Kosovar Albanians for independence. The slaughter was all too reminiscent of the events in Bosnia which, like Kosovo, had been a bridge linking European Muslims and the Serbian Orthodox Church”.
He was therefore looking for strong arguments for NATO’s first war in defense of human rights. And then, several days previously, his advisers directed his attention to a letter to the editor, published in the April 21 New York Times, from a Polish Jew, Marek Edelman. It is titled ‘A Divided Kosovo Would Please No One.’ Edelman wrote it when it was not yet obvious that air raids would help restrain the Serbs:
For the first time, we have a war not about territory, not about influence, not about raw materials. For the first time, the world has declared war in defense of man.
During the Second World War, I was witness to the genocide in the Warsaw Ghetto. The leaders of the free world were unable to prevent this. They said that when the war ended, when democracy won, everyone, no matter what race, religion or nationality, would again be equal, everyone would again feel like people, and not hunted animals. But when the war ended, the millions of people about whom the fight was conducted were no longer there.
The united world will surely win the war in defense of the rights of the Albanians in Kosovo. But will the Kosovar Albanians live to see this come true? The leaders of the free world should not stop at air strikes, but send ground troops to Kosovo. I know that to those who are sending soldiers to the war, the knowledge that they may perish is painful. But I know—like all of my generation—that freedom has and must have its price.
Łódź, Poland, April 20, 1999
These are strong arguments, and they coincide with the emotions and views of the 42nd president of the United States.
Bill Clinton therefore has no doubts.
To a vigorous rendition of Hail to the Chief, he and the First Lady stride into the pavilion on the South Lawn. The first couple and the co-host of the event, NATO Secretary General Javier Solana with his wife, stand facing the vast audience.
The President speaks first: ‘Just a few days ago a voice from the age we honor at this fiftieth anniversary summit spoke to us from his home in Poland. Marek Edelman, a hero of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, published a letter here, in an American newspaper urging all of us to persevere in Kosovo.’ Clinton continues, ‘Tonight we remember that the burden of defending freedom and peace is lighter when it is shouldered by so many.’
To a storm of bravos, the president’s joyous gaze sweeps across almost a thousand faces.