Marek Edelman, the last surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, passed away on Friday in Warsaw, Poland, aged 90.
Edelman entered Poland's political life as a member of the youth section of Bund, General Jewish Trade Union, which back then merged Jewish left-wing political organizations on Polish soil. Since the death of his mother when he was 15, he had largely had to fend for himself.
During World War II, he was a Jewish Combat Organization commander and in 1943 he took part in the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto against the Germans, but after its breakdown he managed to flee to the Aryan side of the city. Once he was there, he immediately joined the ranks of the Polish underground resistance. In 1944, he participated in the Warsaw Uprising, another failed attempt at liberating Poland's capital from German occupation.
According to those who loved and respected him, Marek Edelman was a man of tough character, unafraid of expressing unpopular judgments. Without doubt, the life that he had lived imposed many difficult choices on him; still, Edelman had always despised following guided paths, even if that led to exposing himself to difficulties or danger.
After WWII, when the majority of those from his generation who survived the Shoah chose to go to Palestine, Edelman decided to stay in Poland. In 1946 he moved to the city of LÃ³dz, where he married Alina Margolis, a nurse he met at the Warsaw ghetto hospital, and later graduated from medicine, specializing in cardiology.
In 1967, after having worked for years in the Sterling hospital in LÃ³dz, he was made redundant without explanation. The same thing happened a year later, when Edelman was sacked from the military hospital where he worked. It was back then that the dark remnants of the past haunted Poland, once again, and the country's remaining Jewish community found itself in the middle of an anti-Semitic "witch hunt." Their peril was unleashed in 1968 by the Communist authorities as part of an internal struggle for power.
WHILE EDELMAN'S wife decided to emigrate to France with their two children, he was determined to stay in Poland. Why? He had always refused to answer similarly formulated questions, accusing them of over-simplifying a complex issue; nevertheless, he once responded with the same openness that had characterized him during his whole life: "Someone had to stay with all those who died here."
Marek Edelman's political engagement earned him widespread respect in contemporary Poland. In the 1970s, while still pursuing a career in cardiology, he became engaged in the dissident Workers' Defense Committee, which gave birth to what was later known as the first major pro-democratic movement behind the Iron Curtain - the Solidarity Trade Union. For a short period he was an intern of the regime, along with other oppositionists, and in 1983 he refused to participate in the Ghetto Uprising's 40th anniversary honorary committee, set up by the Communist authorities.
Hanna Krall, a chronicler of the Polish Jews' past, perpetuated Marek Edelman's lifetime record in her world-acclaimed book, Shielding the Flame. The opus' reflects Edelman's afterthought on the nature of his medical profession. "God wants to dim the candle's light, and I have to shield it quick, before he notices," he described his craft as a doctor.
Awarded a degree honoris causa by Yale University and UniversitÃ© Libre de Bruxelles, he had always treated Poland as his homeland, even at times when the country's authorities remained hostile and mistrustful towards its Jewish citizens. In the 1970s, when the anti-Semitic hysteria ended, Edelman resumed to work as a doctor. The innovative method of treating heart diseases that he had developed saved many lives in Poland.
Marek Edelman's legacy is of dedication and compassion to those in need. A witness of the 20th century's greatest atrocities, he never lost his faith in humanity and remained loyal to his beliefs. Whether struggling against the Nazis in the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto or curing his patients' illnesses, Marek Edelman would not let the light dim, shielding the flame by all means. It is how he should be remembered.
The author is a freelance writer who divides his time between Warsaw and Istanbul.