TOPICS > Nation

Leader of Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Kept Fighting Against Injustice

BY Larisa Epatko  October 6, 2009 at 1:45 PM EDT

Marek Edelman. Photo Credit: Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images

Though best remembered as the last surviving leader of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, Edelman was a lifelong fighter: first in the Jewish socialist youth movement before the war, and in his later years as a fierce democratic activist in Soviet-dominated Poland.

During World War II, Edelman was one of more than 500,000 Jews detained in the Warsaw ghetto. And when the Nazis prepared to “liquidate” those who remained in 1943, he joined an armed resistance movement.Alongside a few hundred volunteers, they staged a brave if ill-fated fight, and while most of the leaders of the resistance were killed, Edelman escaped.

While his friends, relatives, and even his wife left the country as anti-Semitic purges drained Poland of much of its postwar Jewish population, Edelman stayed behind. He trained as a cardiologist, but his work saving lives was complemented by his work building Polish democracy alongside the cross-cutting labor movement Solidarity in the 1980s.

He spent time in prison during Poland’s period of martial law in 1981, and two years later, he famously boycotted the official celebration of the 40th anniversary of the ghetto uprising.He later took part in the Round Table Talks, which negotiated the end of communist rule in Poland, and spent the remainder of his life struggling for other causes, including Tibetan freedom and peace in southeast Europe.

“He had a message — he had a message that said when something’s wrong, not only do you have an obligation to stand up, you can stand up and you can make a difference,” said Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland.”So much of what he did during his life was about making a difference.”

Political activist, journalist, and friend Konstanty Gebert spoke of Edelman’s long life and their personal relationship by phone from his home in Warsaw: