Choosing a Way to Die - A conversation with Marek Edelman, the only surviving leader of the Warsaw ghetto uprising.
by Lennart Lindskog
On April 19 every year Marek Edelman receives a bunch of flowers from an unknown person. An errand boy from a florist's delivers them to him without saying a single word. The flowers are always yellow: marsh marigolds, roses, and daffodils. Always yellow. Only one year did the flowers fail to appear. That was in 1968, when the Polish communist party's anti-Semitic campaign was at its height. With that exception they have always come.
- Certainly I do not expect any flowers, he says. They just keep coming. But that year when I did not get any flowers, I felt melancholic. It made me sad.
He receives the flowers on the anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, the day when the Germans stormed the Warsaw ghetto. Together with his comrades in the Jewish Battle Organization Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa (ZOB) he led the resistance against the Germans. He is the only surviving leader of the uprising. All the others are dead.
It was on April 19 1943 that the Germans stormed the Warsaw ghetto. At 4 a.m. the Germans began penetrating into the enclosed ghetto area in groups of four or five. Three hours later, at seven o'clock, tanks and armored vehicles had entered the ghetto. Heavy artillery were placed outside the walls of the ghetto and formations of SS soldiers haughtily and loudly started to march into the central parts of the ghetto.
- The firing woke me up, Marek Edelman explains. But because of the chilly morning and the fact that the firing seemed to come from far off, I found no reason to get up. It was not until the next day, April 20, that the Germans penetrated our area. They advanced towards the gate of the brush-making factory, where we had placed a mine. At the very moment when the Germans reached the gate we sprang the mine. Over one hundred SS soldiers were blown up and the Germans who survived were fired at by the partisans. It was a great triumph for us. Later that evening three SS soldiers with lowered tommy guns and white armlets appeared in the ghetto. They wanted to negotiate with us, and proposed a 15-minute truce to remove the dead and the wounded and promised all inhabitants an orderly evacuation to labor camps if we surrendered. Our answer was firing. We fired with our sole machine-gun. Certainly we missed. But that was less important. The important thing was that we showed the world that we shot.
To understand the resistance of the Jewish population in the Warsaw ghetto in the spring of 1943, one has to understand what had happened before.
The Warsaw ghetto was established on October 2 1940 in order to create a totally enclosed internment area for the Jews in Warsaw. From that date it was forbidden for all Jews to leave the Jewish precincts without special permission. Those who did not obey the prohibition ran the risk of being sentenced to death. A ten-mile long and ten-foot high wall surrounded the ghetto and behind it dwelled over half a million people. The conditions in the ghetto were getting worse for every day: people were dying of starvation, diseases such as spotted fever and tuberculosis raged in an uncontrolled way, and many people had nowhere to live.
Such was life in the ghetto when the first report of the gassing of Jews reached the inhabitants in the beginning of 1941. The news was brought by three people who were to be put to death in the gas chambers in Chelmno in the north-west of Poland, but who had miraculously managed to escape. They reported that during November and December 1940, 80,000 Jews from Lodz and Pomerania had been gassed to death by the Germans. The people had been killed in a way which would later appear to be standard procedure: before the deportation the Germans had told the victims that they were being taken to a labor camp and ordered them to bring a hand luggage. Upon their arrival in Chelmno they were stripped of all their clothes and everyone was given a towel and a bar of soap, supposedly for the washing that was to follow. The real intention was withheld up to the very last minute. The victims were led into hermetically closed trucks where carbon monoxide was conveyed via the engines. Afterwards Jewish gravediggers unloaded the corpses from the trucks and buried them in the woods in the vicinity of Chelmno.
Marek Edelman says that the people in the ghetto did not believe in the reports. No one could simply imagine that such a horrible thing could be carried out by a human being, not even by the Germans.
- It took a whole year before the inhabitants in the ghetto could accept and understand that what was said to be deportations to labor camps in reality was deportation to extermination camps. We were only a few who took the reports seriously. When, in the beginning of 1941, it became clear what was in store for everybody in the ghetto, we decided to offer resistance against the Germans. Because mankind has agreed that it is more honorable to die with a weapon in one's hand than without, we decided to revolt. We did not want to die like the victims in Chelmno, resigned and humiliated. We wanted to defend ourselves to the bitter end.
By April 19 1943 the Germans had deported 400,000 Jews from the ghetto to the extermination camp in Treblinka, 50 miles east of Warsaw. Most people were deported voluntarily because they were promised work and better living conditions. Marek Edelman, who worked at the hospital in the ghetto, was a witness of that deportation.
- My task was to stand at the gateway to the Umschlagplatz, the place outside the ghetto where the Jews were forced on board the freight cars. But to witness 400,000 Jews being sent away to the gas chambers, that could break anyone down.
- Marek Edelman has described the atmosphere at the Umschlagplatz in an article about the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto:
Everybody's eyes have a wild, crazy, fearful look. People look pale, helpless, desperate. This is a moment of revelation that soon the worst, the unthinkable, the thing one would not believe to the very last moment is about to happen. Here, in this crowded square, all the continually nursed illusions collapse, all the brittle hopes that "maybe I may save myself and my dearest ones from total destruction"... collapse. A nightmare settles in one's chest, grips one's throat, shoves one's eyes out of their sockets, opens one's mouth to a soundless cry. An old man imploringly and feverishly hangs on to strangers around him. A helplessly suffering mother presses three children to her heart. One wants to yell, but there is nobody to yell to; to implore, to argue--there is nobody to argue with; one is alone, completely alone in this multitude of people.
- Marek Edelman says that the only possibility to take someone away from the Umschlagplatz was to prove to the Germans that the person was sick.
- At the Umschlagplatz there was a field hospital where probationers from the nursery school worked. There, young girls in white coats and starched caps were breaking the legs of people in order to rescue them. They blocked up the person's leg with one piece of wood and hit with another, entirely without anesthesia. People also crowded in the hospital, waiting to be loaded onto the freight cars. The Germans came and fetched them floor by floor. So people escaped from the ground floor to the first floor, from the first floor to the second and from the second to the third. But then they could not get any higher. Up there was a large gymnasium where hundreds of people lay on the floor waiting for the Germans to come. They just lay there, paralyzed with fear, waiting for their own death.
- So firing was the only worthy thing to do, he exclaims.
- Wearing white armbands makes no difference if you have sent 400,000 people to the gas chambers in Treblinka. It was Zygmunt who fired at the SS soldiers. He was the only one who had done military service before the war. When I saw the officers with the white armbands approach, I shouted at Zygmunt: "Fire!" And he fired.
And what happened next?
- The officers withdrew. Our resistance took them by such surprise that the Germans were forced to abandon their ordinary fighting methods. Later in the evening a boy came running, screaming that the entire brush-maker's block was burning. All over the block the fire was raging. Backyards were flooded by the sea of flames, walls collapsed and black choking smoke filled the air. Out of that inferno people tried to escape to the parts of the ghetto which were not yet on fire.
The flames were now able to accomplish what the Germans could not do: thousands of people perished in the conflagration. The flames chased the people out of their shelters and made them an easy prey for the Germans who imprisoned them or killed them outright. Exhausted and emaciated, people would collapse in driveways and entrances and become easy targets for a passing German's bullet. Nobody would even notice that an old man sleeping in a corner would never again wake up, that a mother feeding her baby had been cold and dead for days and that her baby's crying and sucking for her breast was futile. Hundreds of mothers committed suicide together with their children, thus saving their children from dying a terrible death in the flames.
After this the Germans thought that we would no longer oppose a "voluntary" evacuation from the ghetto. They announced a deadline for appearing at the Umschlagplatz. But no one obeyed the exhortation and five days after the deadline had passed the Germans stormed the ghetto once again. Violent fights broke out and the Germans set fire to even more blocks. Our strategy was to attempt to protect as many people as possible in bunkers and shelters.
At last the fire came to an end in the ghetto. However, every single house in the ghetto was now deserted. People had entrenched themselves in cellar-vaults and bunkers.
On May Day the inhabitants of the ghetto gathered in a common appeal. Some short speeches were delivered and the Internationale was sung. Marek Edelman says that never had the Internationale been sung in such tragic circumstances, at a moment when the last remains of Warsaw's Jewish population was about to perish.
- The words and the tune echoed from the charred ruins and was a testimony that the young socialists were still fighting, even in the face of death.
On May 8 the Germans found the headquarters of the Jewish Battle Organization. The fighting lasted two hours, and when the Germans eventually realized that they would be unable to storm the bunker, they tossed in gas bombs. For the members of the resistance that had made it this far, it was now clear that there was no way out. At that point all in the bunker committed suicide, and 80 % of the Jewish Battle Organization perished.
On May 10 a group of men from the Home Army miraculously managed to penetrate the ghetto and rescue thirty-four people. One of those was Marek Edelman. Only two small armed forces now remained in the ghetto. On May 16 the German commanding officer, general Stroop, announced that the ghetto had ceased to exist. Still, sporadic contact was maintained with them until the middle of June. From then on every trace of them disappeared.
Three days after Marek Edelman was rescued, he was approached by representatives from the political parties. They wanted to hear his account of the uprising. He declared that they would have been able to kill more Germans and save more of their own if they had been better fighters, but pointed out that the Germans had been good fighters too.
Not everyone appreciated Marek Edelman's account. Often people did not understand him, or they did not want to hear what had happened. Some also claimed that he spoke without passion, that he did not express all that he had experienced more vociferously. Because of that he became silent for thirty years. When he started to talk again the world had changed. The truth about what had happened during World War II had been revealed and the world had lost its innocence. Thirty years after the extermination of the Warsaw ghetto the world was ready to listen to Marek Edelman.
Today Marek Edelman is eighty-two years old and a living testimony of one of mankind's greatest tragedies. He says that it is important to recount the struggle that took place in the ghetto, that it is important to keep up the courage for people who fight for freedom. But he also points out:
- What happened in Warsaw can hardly be called an uprising. We were no more than two hundred and twenty fighters. For us it was a question of not letting ourselves be slaughtered. It was a question of choosing a way to die.
Born in 1921 in Warsaw. The only surviving leader of the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943. After World War II he settled down in Lodz, where he worked as a respected cardiologist for many years. In the eighties he took an active part in the trade union movement Solidarity.
This article's author, Lennart Lindskog, is a freelance journalist living in Stockholm, Sweden.