ARNOLD ZABLE: Remembering the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in an age of growing hate

The 80th commemoration comes with a greater sense of urgency, as authoritarian regimes are on the rise and Holocaust denial and falsehoods are spreading like a contagion.

Last week, April 19, 2023, marked the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, an extraordinary act of resistance, courage, and defiance. It is a day when we reaffirm the need to stand up to and call out racism, antisemitism, and acts of genocide in all its forms.

This year we commemorate the uprising with a greater sense of urgency, at a time when authoritarian regimes are on the rise, and Holocaust denial and falsehoods are spreading like a contagion on social media sites. As one whose grandparents, cousins, uncles, aunts, and extended family were murdered during the Holocaust, these hate-filled posts fill me with horror.

In Warsaw, members, and friends of Open Republic, the Polish Association Against Anti-Semitism and Xenophobia, gathered to commemorate the uprising, and they marched through the streets of the city as they do on this day every year. Open Republic documents and calls out acts of racism throughout Europe.

Many marchers carried yellow flowers in honour of Marek Edelman, the last surviving leader of the uprising, who died in 2010; in his final years, Edelman would lay a bunch of yellow daffodils in honour of his fallen comrades, at the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Heroes, located in the area where the first armed clash of the uprising took place.

I was privileged to meet Marek Edelman in Warsaw in 2006, in the home of Paula Sawicka, the founder of Open Republic. Like Edelman, my parents were members of the Jewish Labour Bund. I grew up in Melbourne, among survivors, hearing tales of the uprising and the heroic deeds of the fighters, many of whom were teenagers and young adults; and children who smuggled in dynamite and pistols through the sewers.

Edelman was 21 years old at the time. As a commander in the Jewish Fighting Organization, he led three battalions in the brush-makers district. He was known as a daring fighter, and a calm and calculating strategist who valued human life. His credo was simple and understated. He was wary of romanticising the deeds of the fighters. “We fought to protect the people in the ghetto,” he said, and “extend their life by a day, or two, or five.”

In later years, Edelman recalled: “Anyone can learn how to shoot. Far more important than the number of fighters was their spirit … the Bund activists who organised underground schools and theatres, social welfare groups, public kitchens … who taught the children songs … In all the filth … the hunger, the humiliation and waste of every kind of human feeling, despite everything, we managed to give these children a little joy … For a few hours daily they lived a normal life, as if the war, the ghetto, didn’t exist.”

Edelman preferred to single out parents and activists who tried to buoy their children’s spirits, and those who chose to accompany their loved ones to Treblinka, Auschwitz, and other death camps. “These people went quietly and with dignity. It is an awesome thing when one is going so quietly to one’s death. It is … more difficult than going out shooting.”

The Edelman I met in Warsaw was a straight-talking crusty old warrior, a wry sceptic, and an acute observer of character. His entire life was lived with one consistent purpose, he told me, to fight against totalitarian regimes, whether of the extreme Right or extreme Left, and for an open, free, democratic society.

Edelman would have been deeply disturbed by the rise of hatred and authoritarianism. During our conversation, he observed that the ghetto fighters had taken up arms because there was no other way.

After escaping through the sewers on May 10, Edelman fought in the Warsaw uprising of July 1944. After liberation he fell into a deep depression. His wife. Alina Margolis, and his friends urged him to study medicine. They drew diagrams of anatomy on the walls of his bedroom to encourage him. He regained his sense of purpose and became an innovative cardiologist.

Again, he applied this credo of prolonging lives, or helping people die with dignity. Shielding the flame, he called these efforts. In later years he became a legendary member of the Solidarity movement that overthrew the Soviet-backed Communist dictatorship in 1989. Edelman was imprisoned for his activism in 1981.

Edelman would have been deeply disturbed by the rise of hatred and authoritarianism we have witnessed in recent years. During our conversation, he observed that the young ghetto fighters had taken up arms because there was no other way. He was wary of nationalism and retained a dim view of humanity. “People have to be educated from kindergarten on against hatred,” he emphasised.

He spent his final two years being looked after in the same apartment where I met him in 2006. In those final years, he recounted tales of a different kind. Documented by Paula Sawicka, these tales were posthumously published as his final book: And there was love in the Ghetto.

“These tales,” Sawicka said, “stood alongside tales of terror, threat of deportation, death, fear and hunger. They were not more important, but love allowed you to live and preserve your humanity … For Edelman, love was every good feeling directed from one person to another, love of a man and a woman, love between mother and child, friendship, loyalty, faithfulness, and tenderness. If you can love, you remain human.”

Take, for instance, the tale of Mrs Tenenbaum, a nurse in the ghetto hospital. She was given a “life ticket”, a chit of paper with a stamp, allowing her to be spared deportation. She handed it to Dede, her 17-year-old daughter, and said, “Hold this for a second. I’ll be right back”. She went upstairs and swallowed a flask of poison.

As for Dede, she fell in love. The lovers were smuggled out of the ghetto, and for three months they lived in a flat on the Aryan side. “In his presence she was always serene, smiling,” Edelman says. “She bloomed in that love. She had some really good months.” Dede was finally caught and transported to Treblinka, but her flame had been shielded for a while longer, and in that time, it burnt brightly. Such are the deeds we recount and commemorate and tell today.

Photo: Marek Edelman (Teresa Bogucka/Paula Sawicka’s private archive)