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Marek Edelman; Wartime Jewish hero of Warsaw ghetto uprising

Marek Edelman; Wartime Jewish hero of Warsaw ghetto uprising
AP Worldstream

Article date:
April 16, 2003
ANDRZEJ STYLINSKI, Associated Press Writer

Dateline: LODZ, Poland Marek Edelman, the lone surviving commander of the Warsaw ghetto uprising against the Nazis 60 years ago, keeps its lesson fresh simply by looking at today's world. The fight for freedom and against tyranny is never over, he says.

With a strong French cigarette in his hand and strong opinions in his mind, Edelman, 82, grows agitated when talking about war in Iraq.

"The war is not about oil, it's about defending man's freedom," Edelman said in an interview at his home. "As you can see, the world has not learned the lessons of the Holocaust."

Dictatorship is "a disease that can spread" if unchecked, whether in Iraq or in Europe, he said.

Warsaw's Jewish community is commemorating the April 19, 1943, start of the uprising Saturday night with prayers for the dead and a march to the rail platform where Jews were rounded up for transport to Nazi death camps. An official ceremony with the Polish and Israeli presidents is set for April 30.

Edelman and a few hundred other young Jews faced impossible odds when they took up arms in the spring of 1943 against the Nazis, who had set about destroying Warsaw's ghetto and deporting the remaining 60, 000 to 90,000 Jews to the gas chambers.

Before the Nazi invasion of Poland that touched off World War II, Warsaw's Jewish community of more than 400,000 was Europe's largest. By 1943, at least 350,000 Jews _ some brought to the ghetto from other areas _ had died there of starvation and disease or were deported to death camps where they perished.

After the Nazis deported some 250,000 people to Treblinka death camp in the summer of 1942, "the Jews began to understand that resettlement meant death, that we have no other solution than to die with honor, " Edelman wrote in his 1945 book, "The Ghetto Fights."

The Jewish insurgents armed themselves with pistols, grenades and a few machine guns they bought from Germans or received from non-Jewish resistance fighters. Smuggling the weapons past Nazi guards and the 3-meter (10-foot) high ghetto wall was to risk death.

The struggle lasted three weeks and most of the fighters were killed, along with thousands of others as the Nazis systematically burned down the ghetto block by block. Edelman and a few others escaped through sewers to the other side of the wall and went into hiding.

Edelman dislikes dwelling on his role in the resistance, but takes pride in the uprising's powerful message to the victims of Nazi oppression and brutality.

"It was the first time in occupied Europe that civilians put up armed resistance against Nazi occupiers," he says.

Polish resistance fighters stepped up pinprick attacks against the Nazis and in August 1944 launched an ill-fated revolt in Warsaw that took the Germans 63 days to put down. There were also uprisings in several death camps the Nazis had set up on Polish soil, including Treblinka and Sobibor.

"In this dark Nazi night blanketing Europe, the ghetto constituted the first brick that was removed from the wall of hatred," Edelman said. "Those 200 boys who were shooting there had no chance to win with the German army, but the fact that the struggle happened shook the dictatorship."

After fleeing the ghetto, Edelman returned to fight in the 1944 Warsaw uprising. When the war was over he stayed in his homeland and became a cardiologist in Lodz, a city about 130 kilometers (80 miles) west of the capital in central Poland.

Edelman joined Poland's anti-communist opposition and was active in the Solidarity movement that toppled communism in 1989. During the Balkan wars of the 1990s, he urged NATO to send ground troops to Kosovo against the threat of a new European genocide, this time against ethnic Albanians.

Nowadays, he questions the sentiments of the large numbers of Europeans who oppose the U.S.-led invasion in Iraq that broke Saddam Hussein' s rule.

"I did not see those protests when he was gassing 5,000 or more Kurds or Shiites to death," Edelman said. "No war is a good thing, but sometimes wars are necessary."