The best advice I ever received about a forthcoming interview concerned a septuagenarian cardiologist in Warsaw. I was about to interview Dr. Marek Edelman, the last-surviving commander of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in 1993 for a series of stories commemorating the event’s 50th anniversary. A Polish Jew who knew him told me what to expect: Dr. Edelman would give me some time, but if he felt bored he’d probably walk away without warning.
Forewarned, I top-loaded all my important questions into the beginning of our interview. We met one night in a small side room of a Warsaw apartment where a noisy party was taking place. Wearing a baggy sweater, using perfect English and puffing on a cigarette, he politely answered everything I threw at him, questions he undoubtedly had heard countless times before.
About 25 minutes into our conversation he abruptly declared, “That’s enough,” and walked away, rejoining the party.
I had what I wanted; I had a measure of the man.
Dr. Edelman, who died Oct. 2 at about 90 (the exact year and location of his birth were never clear), was a lionized figure in Polish society — a recipient of Poland’s Order of the White Eagle and the French Legion of Honor; a controversial member of the Jewish community; a medical student during the war who was among a handful of Jews to escape the Nazi destruction of the Ghetto; a fighter who spent his post-war years saving lives; a stern figure who was rarely pictured smiling; an unbending man who risked his life in defense of others’ and uncompromisingly kept his own counsel.
In an Eastern Europe largely cleansed of prominent Jews after the Holocaust, he was arguably the region’s most influential and prestigious Jewish figure through decades of Communism and post-Communism rule. He was to Poland, and to the neighboring Iron Curtain countries, what Elie Wiesel is to civic life in the United States: a voice of unchallenged strength and probity, a spokesman for the Shoah generation, a man who paid his dues during the Nazi era. He was also a man who refused to leave leave his homeland afterwards. In Poland he helped build Socialism and served as the country’s conscience.
“Dr. Edelman was a symbol — a symbol of someone who knew when to fight and knew when to heal. He was a symbol of someone who was proud of his Jewish identity in his own way and on his own terms,” said Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the Long Island-born Chief Rabbi of Poland. “He knew when to object and knew when to build. Dr. Edelman … never stopped speaking out against moral injustice. He was absolutely authentic. We will miss him.”
Dr. Edelman, who worked in Lodz as an honored heart surgeon after World War II, led the rescue of Jews in Warsaw during the war, spied on German troops, helped smuggle weapons to the partisans, escaped to the Aryan side of the capital via a sewer during the end of the doomed 1943 battle and joined the citywide uprising in 1944. After the war he aided returning death camp survivors once the Red Army captured the city that year, and eventually became an active member in the Solidarity labor movement.
He was ready to die as a martyr; was he willing to live as a hero?
I asked Dr. Edelman that question during our abbreviated interview.
“That’s a silly question,” he growled, shrugging in disgust and rolling his eyes heavenward — “I wasn’t then a hero. I don’t live now as a hero.” He was, he said, just one among several young leaders of the armed-but-outgunned battle against the Nazis. “The majority of us favored an uprising,” he said. “After all, humanity has agreed that dying with arms was more beautiful than without arms.”
He was willing to die?
“Yes. So what?”
“These were different times,” he continued, taking a drag from his cigarette and sipping on a small cup of coffee. I wondered, but didn’t dare ask him, what sort of advice this cardiologist gave his patients.
“To kill” in defense of Jewish lives “was an honorable thing,” Dr. Edelman said. “If you wanted to be a person, you had to kill.”
Was there a bounty on his head?
He shrugged. “All Jews had an equal price on their head — transport to Auschwitz.”
Available to the press but not a self-aggrandizer, Dr. Edelman spoke as a witness but not as a maudlin one. In a 1995 Polish documentary about the 1943 Uprising, he recounted the days of death and self-sacrifice without emotion, describing logistics and personalities.
As a constant presence in post-Holocaust Polish life, a central figure at annual commemorations, he remained testy, often at odds with the country’s government and the organized Jewish community.
Even his many admirers in Poland agreed that he was an unlikely choice for a national icon, his youthful brashness never mellowing.
“He spoke his mind even when it would have been easier to be quiet,” Rabbi Schudrich says. “He had no patience for fools or foolishness.”
Dr. Edelman, in character, would probably disagree.
“I’m very easy” with most people, he said in his interview with me. “For politicians I am difficult and stubborn.”