Last commander from Warsaw Ghetto Uprising dies

Tributes have been pouring in following the death of Marek Edelman, the last surviving commander of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising against the Nazis.

Edelman, who died Oct. 2 in Warsaw at age 90, was one of the leaders of the Jewish militant groups that fought against the Nazis during the largest single revolt by the Jews during the Holocaust.

Marek Edelman photo/ap/alik keplicz

“He will remain in my memory as a fighting hero, a man of great courage,” said Shevach Weiss, former Israeli ambassador to Poland and former head of the Knesset. “He never ceased in his struggle for human freedom and for Poland’s freedom.”

Most of Edelman’s adult life was dedicated to the defense of human life, dignity and freedom. After World War II, he spent decades fighting communism in Poland, becoming a moral authority in the country.

After the fall of communism, he was awarded Poland’s highest civilian honor, the Order of the White Eagle. He also was awarded the French Legion of Honor and an honorary degree from Yale.

Lech Walesa, the former Solidarity leader who became Polish president, called Edelman “an upright, unequalled hum-an being. There are no words to express the loss.”

Said French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouch-ner, “France has lost a hero. He was a man who thought and did the unthinkable.”

One of the few survivors of three weeks of uneven struggle in the Warsaw ghetto, Edelman felt obliged to preserve the memory of the fallen heroes of that revolt. Each year, on the revolt’s anniversary, he laid flowers at Warsaw’s monument to the ghetto heroes, and called for tolerance.

“Remember them all — boys and girls — 220 altogether, not too many to remember their faces, their names,” he said of the young fighters in a 2008 interview.

A cardiologist after World War II, he worked almost to his last day at a city hospital in Lodz, where he also lived.

Edelman was born Jan. 1, 1919 in Homel, which was then in eastern Poland and is now in Belarus. His family soon moved to Warsaw.

When the Nazis invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, Edelman was a  member of the Bund,

a Jewish socialist organization that later masterminded plans for resistance.

“No one believed they would be saved,” Edelman said. “We knew the struggle was doomed, but it showed the world there was resistance against the Nazis, that you could fight the Nazis.”

The ghetto fighters inflicted heavy losses on the Germans, but eventually succumbed. More than 55,000 people were killed or deported to concentration camps after the uprising failed.

The leaders of the uprising were rounded up in a bunker and, seeing no chance of escape, committed suicide.

Edelman was not in the bunker. With a small group of survivors, he escaped through the sewers to the other side of Warsaw, where he found places to hide and helped coordinate Jewish partisan groups in nearby forests.

Edelman’s wife, Alina Margolis-Edelman, worked as a nurse in the Warsaw ghetto and after the war became a pediatrician. With their son, Aleksander, and daughter, Anna, she left Poland for France following the communist-sponsored anti-Semitic purges of 1968. She died in Paris last year.

But Edelman never wanted to leave Poland.

“When you were responsible for the life of some 60,000 people, you don’t leave and abandon the memory of them,” he said.

He is survived by his son, Aleksander, his daughter, Anna, and grandchildren Liza and Tomek.

JTA staff and Monika Scislowska of the Associated Press contributed to this report.