Courage? I don’t know what it means. There is no such a thing. In my mind, you do whatever you feel imperative to be done
In September 1939, Poland was occupied by the two neighbouring countries – Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. In the territory incorporated into the Third Reich and within the borders of the General Government created by the German occupying power, the German Nazis pursued the policy aiming at the total genocide of the Jewish people.
Initially, the German policy was to isolate the Jews from the Poles. The Jewish population was publically humiliated, forced to wear armbands or patches with the Star of David, drove to force labour and – since 1940 – resettled to the ghettos. Since autumn 1941, leaving the ghetto, hiding on the “Aryan side” or providing aid to Jews – be it arranging a hideout or an ad hoc support – was punishable by death.
On 20 January 1942, during the conference in Wannsee near Berlin, the “final solution” to the Jewish question was sealed and the total genocide of the Jewish people in death camps was formally approved. On 16 March 1942, the liquidation of the ghettos, i.e. mass deportations of Jews to extermination camps, began.
Some Jews resisted the order to move into ghettos. There were some who – having moved into a ghetto – took the risk of escaping to the “Aryan side.” It is estimated that in the Polish territory, 30,000-40,000 Jews survived in hiding or under a false identity. Some survived thanks to selfless help extended by Poles. It also happened that Jews managed to rescue themselves owing to their own resourcefulness, or – much more often – received support in exchange for an ample financial gratification.
“No matter who is the beaten one – one must side with him. One must give the beaten one a shelter, hide him in a cellar. One must not be afraid of doing so, one must always be against those who do the beating.”
Throughout the ninety years of his life, Marek Edelman remained faithful to the values instilled in him by his family and by the Bund.
Opposing the Zionist programme, this Jewish workers’ party aimed to solve the Jewish question in Poland by way of socialist transformation and granting the Jews cultural and national autonomy.
“Courage? I don’t know what it means. There is no such a thing. In my mind, you do whatever you feel imperative to be done – not in order to shield the hatch with your own body but rather to extend a helping hand to your friends. It is not a matter of courage; it stems from friendship, solidarity, trust and love.”
Edelman co-founded the Jewish Combat Organisation and – following the death of Mordechaj Anielewicz – became the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. After the war, he consistently refused to support the new administration. He became an outstanding cardiologist who introduced a revolutionary method of treating certain heart conditions. He was active in the opposition, collaborated with the Workers’ Defence Committee and the “Solidarity” movement, and participated in the Round Table Talks. He spoke in defence of Sarajevo and Kosovo; he protested against ethnic purges in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Kongo as well as against the atrocities in the Republic of South Africa and Israel, and against violence towards the Romani population in Poland and Czech Republic.
“One must never remain passive in the face of evil. A passive bystander who averts his gaze is just as responsible; he will be forever tainted with the evil he pretended not to see.”