Marek Edelman is remembered as one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, a highly esteemed cardiologist, and an opposition activist. His commitment to social issues, meanwhile, seems to be falling into oblivion: his humanitarian interventions during the wars in the Balkans and Chechnya; his defence of Cuban oppositionists sentenced by kangaroo courts and of Romani people in Poland and the Czech Republic; his response to anti-Semitism, to the persecution of HIV positive people. Until the end of his life, he took a stand on socially important issues, appearing at conferences, tackling difficult subjects in public speeches and interviews, signing appeals and writing letters expressing his support for the disenfranchised.

Edelman was particularly consumed by the media reports on the wars in former Yugoslavia and Chechnya. The news of bombings, displacements, abductions, concentration camps, murders, and rapes of civilians prompted him to spread awareness of the atrocities and to call for an armed NATO intervention. He would say again and again:

"I have witnessed genocide and have been persecuted by genocidal murderers. I know what it means."

As early as January 1993, even before the mass murders of Bosnian Muslims, he signed an appeal to the leaders of Western countries and international organisations to end the conflict and rescue the persecuted. Soon afterwards, on 31 July of the same year, Edelman (at the time over 70 years old) joined the "Pokój teraz" (“Peace Now”) campaign and set off for Sarajevo with a group of volunteers. All people who wished to join the convoy were obliged to take their own provisions and a sleeping bag (they slept on bare floor), a supply of water for five days, and 15 kg of dry food for the needy. Although Edelman was ultimately unable to reach Sarajevo due to heavy fights around the city, he funnelled all of his commitment to subsequent initiatives aimed at combatting the persecution of Bosnian Muslims.

Marek Edelman's message cut like a knife. On 14 December 1994, as the third anniversary of the siege of the Bosnian capital was approaching, he addressed the European Parliament at a session titled "1,000 Days of Sarajevo.” His speech was called “From Auschwitz to Sarajevo, or the Wickedness of the West.” He reproached Western countries for their passivity and indifference to the suffering of thousands of people; he compared the decisions of NATO leaders to the attitude of the Allies towards the extermination of Jews several decades earlier. He said of Western Europe that it had "erected a new wall to divide people, and closed itself in a ghetto for the rich." He gave a blunt response to German deputies when they expressed reluctance to engage in a military intervention due to past events: "This is nonsense. For the very reason that the German SS were bastards during the war, the Germans have a duty to intervene today."

He did not hesitate to directly address influential people in the world of international politics: presidents, prime ministers, chancellors, ministers. On 21 April 1999, The New York Times published Edelman’s open letter on the continuation of air strikes and the introduction of troops into Kosovo. The appeal, addressed to heads of states and the Secretary-General of NATO, was quoted a few days later by the erstwhile President of the United States, Bill Clinton, to justify the need for military intervention in the Balkans. By the time the media covered the incident, Edelman was already writing another letter, with an equally blunt appeal:

“I speak on behalf of three million displaced Polish Jews, half of whom died of poverty, hunger, and disease and the rest were murdered in gas chambers. I have a right to do so because I was one of them. Displacement means death. Kosovo today sees the same displacements that we saw on Polish soil in the 1940s. […] There is no need to be afraid. More conscience and more courage are needed. I therefore ask you, Mr. President, to immediately deploy ground troops to Kosovo.”

He warned decision-makers against refraining from strong reactions to ongoing conflicts in the world, defining such a strategy as "short-sighted and suicidal." He argued that prolonged wars inevitably lead to destabilisation in the region and only spark subsequent conflicts. An economic and humanitarian crisis in one place, he argued, would sooner or later affect the rest of the world: "the wall protecting the rich will not last long, for hunger knows and respects no boundaries and no obstacles: millions of hungry people will penetrate the smallest gap."

He would say without any reservations:

“A beaten person does not care who helps them,” “If the law allows people to die, then the law is inhuman, evil, and must be changed,” "Since everyone has the right to expect help, we have the right to judge those who did not help.” 

He urged people to be alert to the needs of others and to respond when harm is done to them. He reasoned: "The easiest thing to do is to turn your head away from evil. But it doesn't help, you are a witness anyway. You become accustomed to the crime and although you don’t participate, if you don't protest, you change, you become a different person who pretends that nothing happened." "If you look at evil and turn your head away or don't help when you can help, you become complicit. Because turning your head helps those who do evil.”

He valued directness. In 1998, Edelman was visited in his small flat by Vaclav Havel, the erstwhile Czech president and legend of the Czechoslovak democratic opposition (“Havel? He wanted to come here himself. At first they proposed that I go with him to some official ceremony, but I said – let him come to my house if he wants to”). A few years later, he met with the Dalai Lama in Jacek Kuroń's flat. He argued with the Tibetan leader about the viability of non-violent resistance. He did not convince him to change his mind, although he tried very hard.

Whatever the circumstances, to the end of his life Edelman talked not only about what he himself had experienced, but also about the experiences of those in need here and now. In an interview given in the 1990s, concerning primarily his memories of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, he ended the conversation on a very telling note: “You can edit out everything, but leave the part about Bronisław Kajszczak from Łomianki, who used to bring us food to the grove […]. And about Yugoslavia. Because I am telling you all this only to have an opportunity to mention Yugoslavia.”

Anna Styczyńska-Marciniak 

 

Bibliography:

  • Bereś W., Burnetko K., Marek Edelman. Życie. Do końca, Warszawa 2013.
  • Edelman M., Bereś W., Burnetko K. (eds.), Marek Edelman: Bóg śpi, Warszawa 2020.
  • Edelman M., Sawicka P., Burnetko K. (eds.), Prosto się mówi, jak się wie, Warszawa 2013.
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