I first grieved when friends in Poland informed me of the passing of Marek Eldelman on Friday, October 3rd. Marek was one of the last known leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto resistance. From 1939 well into 1943, Marek and others fought against the eventual successful attempt by Nazis to liquidate the Jewish community that resided in Warsaw, including those who had been forcibly relocated.
Struggling as the population of the Warsaw Ghetto was reduced from half a million to less than 60,000, Marek and over two hundred others did what many European nations could not—for three weeks in April 1943; they physically defied the Nazi movement and its goal of genocide against the Jewish population. After surviving the battle, Marek took part in the Warsaw City Uprising. He explained his participation in the armed actions by telling the Associated Press in 2008 that “When you cannot defend freedom through peaceful means, you have to use arms to fight Nazism, dictatorship, chauvinism.”
While Marek would have shunned the word “hero,” as he felt the term should be reserved exclusively for those who were victims and survivors of the Nazi extermination camps, I can find no other fitting term for a man who continued to place himself in the trenches alongside those who suffered the abuses of anti-Semitism, racism and others forms of injustice. After the war, as a doctor and a member of the Polish democracy movement Solidarity, Marek continued to try to save lives until his last days.
While I grieve today I take immense comfort that Marek Eldelman outlived by several decades both the European Nazi movement that tried to murder him, on the streets of Warsaw, and the Stalinist government that imprisoned him afterward (indeed I celebrate this fact). Throughout his life Marek refused to refer to the battle of the Warsaw Ghetto as an uprising. For him the three week battle against Nazi forces was nothing more than culmination of years of resistance.
While reading newspapers and blogs this weekend, I read journalists referring to the “Warsaw Ghetto Uprising” as “hopeless,” “a failed attempt,” or a fight that was simply “in vain.” These writers miss the point and do an injustice to Marek and the Warsaw Ghetto resistance.
Those in the streets of the ghetto did not resist fascism because they believed they would be victorious. Nor did they fight because they would face ultimate defeat.
The Resistance fought because it was simply the right thing to do. No more, no less. It is this truth that made Marek a real hero. Let us also hope that he was not the last of his kind.