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Ghetto blasters: when Warsaw fought back

When the Nazis arrived to clear the Warsaw Ghetto, they did not reckon on the likes of Marek Edelman

18 June, 2020 — By Dan Carrier

A mural in memory of Marek Edelman, right, at 9b Nowolipki Street in Warsaw

BY July 1942, escapees from the Nazi death camp Treblinka had managed to pass word back to the Warsaw Ghetto: when the occupying German forces said “resettling”, they were sending thousands to certain death.

For many in the Polish capital during the Second World War, it meant there could be no more hoping that somehow things were going to improve, that the evil insanity of the Nazis was so unbelievable that it couldn’t be as the some said it was. It was clearly genocide, plain and simple – and to hope for some kind of salvation without taking up arms was fantasy.

Marek Edelman was one such inhabitant who rallied others to take up arms in impossible circumstances. As the Nazis began deporting people at a rate of 6,000 a day, the Polish Jewish activist was a key figure in establishing the Jewish Combat Organisation, known as the ZOB, who led the ghetto’s fight back.

On Passover Eve, 1943, the Nazis began what they thought would be a straightforward, three-day action to clear the ghetto of its last remaining residents. But as troops marched in to commit murder, they faced a massive counter-attack from the people they had come to round up or kill. It would take three weeks and many deaths to finally quell the revolt.

Marek Edelman

The uprising saw around 220 fighters take on more than 2,000 heavily equipped German soldiers, described by Edelman as a defence where “we fought simply to stop the Germans alone picking the time and place of our deaths”.

Edelman’s story is told in his memoir, The Ghetto Fights. Written and published at the end of the war, a new edition from Bloomsbury-based Bookmarks is out this week.

Author and historian John Rose has written a new introduction, and will be talking about the new edition on an online talk hosted by Bookmarks on Friday.

As John explains, Marek had been a leader of the Bund, a Jewish Socialist party in Poland. It was this group who united with Socialists and Communists to establish an armed resistance that tellingly held the might of the German Army at bay using improvised weapons. The Nazis only succeeded in putting down the revolt by burning the ghetto to the ground, and Edelman and his comrades’ brave stand sent messages across Occupied Europe that resistance was not futile, but a vital and honourable course to take.

John writes: “When we enter the really frightening memory-world of the sealed Warsaw Ghetto, a world frankly unimaginable to us, we have to think very hard about the kind of political judgements we might make, especially with the benefit of hindsight and from the comfort afforded by liberal democracies.”

Members of the Bund championed Jewish culture while opposing religious orthodoxy and Zionism – but through ZOB, people of starkly different political beliefs found common ground as they fought the same enemy.

John Rose

When the Nazis set the ghetto alight, Edelman escaped through a network of drains. He would join the Polish resistance, and play another active role in the August uprising of 1944 – an event that was crushed as troops from the USSR watched on from the outskirts of the city.

John, who met Edelman in 1989 to discuss the first UK publication of his memoir, says the heroism of those who stood together to counter Nazis provided important lessons. He points out that different groups within the ghetto at first had not been able to confront “the unprecedented extremity of the Nazi exterminationist terror”.

He cites a “sectarian narrow mindedness” lingering from before the war that became an obstacle. This ranged from the Bund and Zionists harbouring distrust towards each other and unable to find a common front, to Communists working independently.

As John points out, when they did come together “there was now a mood for resistance but it needed not just organisation, but united organisation… the formation of ZOB was the absolute pre-condition for serious resistance”.

He adds that Edelman’s memoir describes the atmosphere in the ghetto before the uprising – the sense of disbelief, paralysis and fear.

Edelman describes how young children, driven by hunger, led by example – disappearing under barbed wire fences to beg and steal food for their families, while others would meet secretly each Sabbath evening to exchange news.

Then came the ZOB: “Despite their horrific isolation, the Ghetto Jewish Fighting Organisation never lost faith in the principle of solidarity,” writes John. This included uniting with non-Jewish Polish resisters, too.

“The basic conviction of the ghetto fighters, that the struggle of fellow Poles also suffering at the hands of the Nazis was the same struggle as their own, led to the publication, as the ghetto was on the brink of collapse, of a Manifesto to the Poles, which must rank as one of the greatest appeals to solidarity in the last century,” he adds.

The manifesto called on complete resistance, adding “It is a fight for our freedom as well as yours; for our human dignity as well as yours! We shall avenge the gory deeds at Oswiecim, Treblinka, Belzec and Majdanek. Long live freedom!”

And as today we face the rise of far right politics, obscured beneath a media-friendly term of so-called “populism”, the call for solidarity against evil political doctrines echoes down generations.

As John asks: “What lessons can we learn to make a reality of the anti-Nazi slogan, ‘Never Again’? The answer: organisation, unity and solidarity.”

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