Marek Edelman died last week in Poland, a last link with the Jewish fighters who fought against the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto. Edelman was a member of the Jewish socialist Bund movement, and became a key member of the ZOB (Jewish Battle Organisation) which it established with other Jewish groups to stage armed resistance against the Nazis (not to mention the Polish, Ukrainian and Latvian forces who assisted them, and indeed the Jewish police whose leaders the ZOB accused of collaboration).
Edelman's own account of the struggle was first published in 1945 as The Ghetto Fights. One of the striking things for me is that amidst the terror and fighting, they managed to maintain a rich cultural life. In the early days of the occupation, Edelman writes,
'the Bund was quite a large organization, considering the clandestine working conditions. More than 2,000 people participated in the festivities occasioned by the Bund's 44th anniversary in October 1941. These meetings were held in many places simultaneously. On the surface nothing was discernible, and it was difficult to realize how great the number of small groups - dispersed "fives" or "sevens" meeting in private apartments -really was...
In 1941 a Youth Division was established at the Jewish Social Mutual Aid Organization and the Zukunft became one of the Division's important contributors. We were able to reach large numbers of young people. Our lecturers took charge of numerous youth groups, which were at that time established under the House Committees in every apartment house. There was the choir with its active programme (public concerts were given in the Judaistic Library). School-age youth was also being organized. The SOMS (Socialist School Students' Organization) was re-established, and numbered a few hundred members after a very short time. Comprehensive political education and cultural activities were carried out. At the same time the Skif, whose activities were until then limited to securing financial help for its pre-war members, started large-scale work among children of school and pre-school age. A so-called "corner" was established in every house, where children found a home for a few hours every day. The Dramatic Club, led by Pola Lipszyc, gave performances twice a week. During the 1941 season 12,000 children attended these performances
Even in the last days of the Ghetto in May 1943, as they fought in the ruins of buildings burnt down by the Nazis, they found time to celebrate May Day:
'The partisans were briefly addressed by a few people and the Internationale was sung. The entire world, we knew, was celebrating May Day on that day and everywhere forceful, meaningful words were being spoken. But never yet had the Internationale been sung in conditions so different, so tragic, in a place where an entire nation had been and was still perishing. The words and the song echoed from the charred ruins and were, at that particular time, an indication that socialist youth was still fighting in the ghetto, and that even in the face of death they were not abandoning their ideals'.
Edelman was one of the few survivors, and went on to be a cardiologist and later a member of the Solidarity movement in Poland in the 1980s. His death represents a lost connection not only with the heroism and tragedy of the Polish Jews during the Holocaust, but with the whole Jewish culture of central Europe more or less wiped out in that period. Few of the Jews from that part of the world who survived stuck around, most not unreasonably preferring to take their chances in Israel, the United States or elsewhere.
With every witness that passes away, perhaps the danger grows that the memory of these events will be distorted, if not lost. The hard revisionist 'Holocaust never happened' line is pretty much universally discredited, and held by only a few far right fruitcakes (in both their Anglo-Saxon Nazi and Islamist incarnations). Much more widespread is a kind of soft revisionism which seeks to relativise the Holocaust, downplay its specific horror, and deny the role played in it by right wing nationalists of many countries, not just Germany. Just look at some of the UK Conservative Party's friends in Poland and Latvia.
As Edelman concluded in The Ghetto Fights: 'On May 10th, 1943, the first period of our bloody history, the history of the Warsaw Jews, came to an end. The site where the buildings of the ghetto had once stood became a ragged heap of rubble reaching three storeys high. Those who were killed in action had done their duty to the end, to the last drop of blood that soaked into the pavements of the Warsaw ghetto. We, who did not perish, leave it up to you to keep the memory of them alive - forever'.