Marek Edelman, the diasporist

by tobybee

Marek Edelman, a Bund member who was one of the commanders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, has died in Warsaw.

The New York Times has an obituary about him, which tells us that…

Marek Edelman was born on Sept. 19, 1919, the only son of a family that spoke Yiddish at home and Polish at work. His father died when he was very young; his mother, who worked as a secretary at a hospital, died when he was 14. While going to high school he was looked after by his mother’s friends from the hospital.

Dr. Edelman was an early member of the Solidarity free labor union and was among those interned when Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law in 1981.

Two years later he was asked to serve on the organizing committee for an observance of the 40th anniversary of the ghetto uprising. He declined, saying that to do so “would be an act of cynicism and contempt” in a country “where social life is dominated throughout by humiliation and coercion.”

Eight years later he served as Solidarity’s consultant on health policy in the round-table talks that led to democratic rule for Poland. In the first free elections, he ran for the Polish Senate, losing narrowly. He kept working at the hospital in Lodz, dodging any suggestion that he retire.

Edelman was twenty in 1939, and worked at the Ghetto hospital, as well as organising resistance with other young Jews in the ghetto. The NYTimes explains that “He spent every day at the Umschlagplatz watching as trains were loaded and sent off. He was there ostensibly in his official capacity as a messenger for the ghetto hospital, carrying documents in his pocket that enabled him to pull people off the trains by designating them too ill to travel. Since the Germans held to the fiction that the passengers were being sent to better surroundings, they made a show of holding back the sick. In fact, young Marek used the passes to save people who would be useful to the Jewish Combat Organization, then being formed.
‘I was merciless,’ he recalled many years later. ‘One woman begged me to pull out her 14-year-old daughter, but I was only able to take one more person, and I took Zosia, who was our best courier.'”

He made it out of the ghetto at the end of the Uprising, living until today in Poland. Interestingly, the NYTimes obituary makes very little explicit mention of Edelman’s diasporist Jewishness.

Edelman is also the author of, for me at least, one of the most profound commentaries on Jewish violence. As Daniel Boyarin noted in his essay “The Colonial Drag”,

“it is also true that the seemingly most forceful resistance can turn into the most efficient complicity with the cultural project of the colonizer, by becoming just like him, sometimes even more than he is himself, and that this is what we need to understand about Zionism. The socialist cocommander of the Warsaw revolt, the anti-Zionist Marek Edelman, who remains in Poland as a Diasporic Jewish (Yiddish) nationalist and member of Solidarity, saw this very clearly: ‘This was a revolt!? The whole point was not to let them slaughter you when your turn came. The whole point was to choose your method of dying. All of humanity had already agreed that dying with a weapon in the hand is more beautiful than without a weapon. So we surrendered to that consensus.’”

In the NYTimes obituary he is quoting as saying that “‘These people went quietly and with dignity,’… speaking of the millions killed in the Nazi gas chambers. ‘It is an awesome thing, when one is going so quietly to one’s death. It is definitely more difficult than to go out shooting.'”

I start to write that it’s sad that such a man should die, but, of course, it’s inevitable. And he was ninety. That’s quite amazing. I suppose what’s sad is that this man, who seems to be so skillful at drawing out the complexities of life and of death, of not accepting simple answers, who is so capable of seeing the problematics of the events he has participated in, of rebelling against accepted narratives and discourses, and who thereby has provided space for us all to think a bit differently – actually, demanded of us that we think differently – has died. It’s a demand worth following.