Marek Edelman (born in 1919 in Homel, died: October 2, 2009 in Warsaw, Poland) was a Jewish-Polish political and social activist and cardiologist. Before his death in 2009, Edelman was the last surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
He warned that “it’s easy to awaken hatred in people, but with goodness, with love, it’s harder.” He knew what he was talking about. He was an eyewitness to the Holocaust.
But then he would repeat: “always, regardless of who’s being assaulted—you have to take their side. You have to find apartments for the ones being beaten, hide them in the cellars. You can’t be afraid to do so, and you have to oppose the ones doing the beating.”
Again, he knew what he was talking about. His life bore witness to that.
Barely 20 years old, Marek Edelman joined the resistance movement in the Warsaw ghetto. When the uprising broke out there in 1943, he became one of its leaders. After the war, faithful to the leftist ideals of the Bund, he opposed any alliance with the communist authorities. At the same time, in contrast to his Zionist friends from the ghetto, he decided to stay in Poland.
He worked as a doctor. In time, his colleagues in medicine and his patients came to refer to him as the “doctor for hopeless cases” because he wasn’t afraid to apply treatments that were risky and innovative, but effective. He liked to say that “aside from talent, medicine takes courage.” It was in the ghetto that he learned that you have to fight for human life until the end. His patients loved him, but the authorities fired him during the anti-Semitic purges.
He also joined the anti-communist opposition movement. The secret police bugged him, tailed him, and then, under martial law in December 1981, jailed him. He only got out thanks to international protests.
At the same time, he continually cultivated the memory of his comrades from the uprising—and of all the victims of the ghetto. He explained that each one of them was a hero—not only the ones who dared to fight, but also the ones who went to the death camps.
When communism fell, he continued to work for human rights—in the war-ravaged Balkans (that was when President Clinton referred to him in justifying NATO intervention), in Iran, in Cuba, in Tibet (he met with the Dalai Lama), and also in Europe, in Poland among other places.
He liked to say that democracy and freedom cannot be taken for granted, and until his last days he warned about the resurgence of nationalism.
“Just a few days ago a voice from the age we honor at this 50th anniversary summit spoke to us from his home in Poland. Marek Edelman, a hero of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, published a letter here, in a American newspaper urging all of us to persevere in Kosovo”. (…) “Tonight we remember that the burden of defending freedom and peace is lighter when it is shouldered by so many.”
PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON, NATO 50th anniversary dinner, 1999
For me, Marek Edelman is the embodiment of everything that is best about Poland. (VACLAV HAVEL)
Edelman is out of place in this world of complacency, fine gestures, and flattering words. (LECH WAŁĘSA)
– The Presidents of the Czech Republic and Poland, for the first edition of the book, 2008
Marek Edelman was no great lover of Israel. He thought it is not a Jewish state, but a religious one. What would the Jewish people be like today if Marek Edelman’s beloved political organization, the Bund, had won and the Jews had autonomy [among the nations]? Would they be safer? No. Yet Edelman is still a hero. I am a child of the Holocaust, and he was an example of heroism, morality, and the struggle for victory.
SZEWACH WEISS, journalist and politician, former Speaker of the Knesset and Chairman of the Yad Vashem Memorial Institute board.
“Faith is a matter of indifference to me, but I don’t like it when people make a big deal of it,” Edelman once told me. I regard it as important to believe in God. But the most important thing is for God to be able to believe in you. That you won’t chicken out, run away, or betray what’s good. In the Ghetto Uprising and the Warsaw Uprising, in March 1968 and under martial law, in a convoy to Sarajevo and at a patient’s bedside, God could believe in Dr. Marek Edelman. He knew Edelman wouldn’t let him down.
KONSTANTY GEBERT – reporter, author of more than a dozen books from the reportage Defense of the Sarajevo Post Office to the historical Israel’s Wars and 54 Commentaries on the Torah
From the Jewish point of view, faith is not the most important thing. What people do is more important. Faith can be feeble, and rebelling against God is part of the relationship with God. Professing atheism does not rule a person out. The most important thing is to remain a decent person. The criterion is how you act.
During the war, Edelman experienced situations so radically divergent from the norm that, rightly, he could not see the sense of applying the usual principles to those situations. Edelman teaches me, and all of us, that the commandment to respect one’s parents can mean going to Treblinka with them—so as not to leave them without care. And that even more heroic than shooting is giving someone else your portion of cyanide, the best guarantee of evading suffering.
For Marek Edelman, these are all truths about human beings, and not about the fate of the Jews. He was too much of a Jew to teach “what it means to be a Jew.”
Another great religious thinker, Abraham Joshua Heschel, who also came from Warsaw, stressed that not only is man in search of God but, more importantly, God is in search of man. I do not know of anyone who would doubt that, if someone were to be picked as an object of this search, Edelman would be in the first rank of the candidates.
STANISŁAW KRAJEWSKI – philosopher, Warsaw Jewish community activist, co-chairman of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews, author of many studies of interfaith dialogue including Jews, Judaism, and Poland
I dread a world without Marek Edelman, because he had a gift—probably unmatched by anyone else—of unmasking Satan’s wiles. He sounded the alarm when the beast slumbering in man awoke from a momentary nap, broke the chains, and sowed devastation and conflagration. Who can warn us today that we are sacrificing and prostrating ourselves to false gods? That’s what scares me.
JAROSŁAW MAKOWSKI, journalist and philosopher
There are few people about whom it can be said, “he was true to himself.” He didn’t play act, he didn’t try to be liked, to adapt, to behave and talk in the proper way. He could be horribly malicious and peevish. There are few people about whom it can be said that they were authentic in the way that only people who do not have to prove to the world or to themselves that they are somebody, that they have to be somebody, can be authentic. Because they are somebody.
Life confronts us with such varied moral problems that the Ten Commandments are not enough, and those problems are sometimes so tragic that the only way to solve them is to reject the Ten Commandments.
Prof. MAGDALENA ŚRODA – philosopher, ethicist, feminist, author of Women and Power
Marek Edelman rejected the Ten Commandments. He simply didn’t believe in God, either the “Jewish” one or the “Christian” one. Yet a basic precept guided his whole life: Love thy neighbor. As for myself, a believer—my being a priest isn’t so important—I hold that God is found in other people. Edelman indeed truly loved others, regardless of what he thought of them. But he would surely never have admitted to that “love,” because he couldn’t stand bombast, and big words made him lose his temper. Yet throughout his life he fought for people and helped them, despite his having no illusions as to the evil inclinations of human nature.
Fr. ANDRZEJ LUTER – Catholic priest, lecturer on ecumenism
We all have our shared Ten Commandments, but we each have our own commandments. Edelman had his. Perhaps they went like this:
Thou shalt not have false gods before me. Your divinity is incarnate in the Human Rights Charter, in the belief in freedom, values, dignity, and the autonomy of each individual.
Thou shalt not take up the name of the Lord except when proclaiming that all men are brothers, that they are born free and equal in terms of their dignity and their rights, and in order to defend the right of each individual to the largest degree of freedom so long as it accords with the rights of others.
Remember to keep holy each day by thinking of more than your own gain and remembering that each person possesses all rights and freedoms without regard to any differences of race, color, gender, language, faith, political and other views, ethnicity, social class, wealth, birth, or any other condition.
Act exclusively for the purpose of ensuring the proper regard for and acknowledgment of the rights and freedoms of others. Therefore pay attention to the consequences of your actions for those around you. To the degree that this is possible, be objective but never be neutral.
Honor thy father and thy mother, and other people’s too.
Thou shalt not kill except in self-defense and in the struggle against tyranny and persecution, and only when an act of violence is the only way out and when there is no alternative solution. Human life is sacred.
Thou shalt not steal except in the face of death from hunger.
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. Each person has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, to the dissemination of information and viewpoints by all available means, but do not snitch, do not lie, do not gossip and do not denigrate.
Thou shalt not covet anything belonging to thy neighbor. On the contrary, stand in solidarity and be loyal when your neighbor and his possessions are in peril.
All people have the right to leave any country including their own, and to return to their own country. Even to Israel.
LEOPOLD UNGER (1922-2011), journalist for Le Soir (Belgium), contributor to Radio Free Europe and the International Herald Tribune