Warsaw ghetto uprising leader dies

Marek Edelman, the last surviving leader of the doomed 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising against the Nazis, has died in Poland at the age of 90.


AFP - The last commander of the doomed and heroic 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising against the Nazis, Marek Edelman, died Friday at the presumed age of 90 in Poland where he lived on after the Holocaust.

His exact date of birth is unknown, but the date of January 1, 1919 on an official document is considered most likely.

"I don't know my exact age," Edelman told AFP in a 2007 interview. "My father died when I was very little, I almost don't remember him at all. My mother died a few years later, so there was no one who could tell me when I was born."

Edelman was born in Homl, in what is now Belarus into a Jewish family supporting the Bund, a Jewish workers' party native to Eastern Europe. The young Edelman espoused its socialist, anti-Zionist ideology.

His family moved to Warsaw when he was still a small child.

"Warsaw is my city. It is here that I learned Polish, Yiddish and German. It is here that at school, I learned one must always take care of others. It is also here that I was slapped in the face just because I was a Jew," Edelman said at ceremonies in 2001 when he was decorated by the city of Warsaw for his war-time valour.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Edelman found himself trapped by the Nazis in the infamous Warsaw Ghetto. As a hospital courier he secretly published underground newsletters of the Bund, which he had joined, following in the footsteps of his parents.

In April 1943, the Nazis began liquidating the Warsaw Ghetto where just 60,000 people remained after the vast majority of Jews imprisoned there were sent to their deaths at the Treblinka death camp.

It was then that Jewish organisations in the Ghetto launched a valiant but doomed attack on the Nazis.

"We knew perfectly well that we would never win. We were 220 poorly armed boys against a powerful army," Edelman said in 2007.

"We had just one machine gun between us, hand pistols, grenades, bottles filled with petrol and just two mines, one which didn't even explode," he recalled.

Against all odds, the insurrection lasted three weeks. When uprising commander Mordechaj Anielewicz died, Edelman took over command during the last days of fighting.

To put an end to the uprising, the Germans decided to burn the entire Ghetto, house by house. "The flames defeated us, not the Germans," Edelman remarked.

With a handful of surviving fighters he managed to escape from the ghetto through the sewers on May 10. He then joined the Polish home army anti-Nazi resistance.

A little over a year later he took part in the 1944 Warsaw uprising staged by the Polish home army against the Nazis. More than 200,000 citizens of Warsaw, both insurgents and civilians, died in the doomed battle which saw the Nazis bombard the city until barely a building was left standing.   

After the war, Edelman studied medicine and became a respected cardiologist.

While a majority of Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust chose to immigrate to Israel, Edelman stayed in Poland.

"Someone had to stay to watch over all those who died here," he said.

Edelman joined the anti-Communist opposition in the 1970s as well as the freedom-fighting Solidarity trade union.

He was interned along with other activists when Poland's then Communist leader, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, imposed martial law on December 13, 1981.

He was elected to the Senate in Poland's first partially free elections in 1989 which ushered in the peaceful demise of Communism in the country.

Until his death, Edelman was an outspoken critic of racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism.

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