Marek Edelman was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1921. His father, Natan Feliks Edelman was a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party and his mother, Cecylia Edelman, a hospital secretary and member of the General Jewish Labor Bund. Edelman was 14 when his mother died and was looked after by staff members at the hospital where she had worked.
As a child, Edelman was a member of Sotsyalistishe Kinder Farband (SKIF), the Jewish Labor Bund’s youth group for children. Ardently socialist and secular, the Bund sought to defend an autonomous Jewish culture within Polish society.
As conditions for Jews worsened in the 1930s, Bund members preferred to challenge the mounting anti-Semitism rather than flee. Edelman later said: “The Bundists did not wait for the Messiah, nor did they plan to leave for Palestine. They believed that Poland was their country, and they fought for a just, socialist Poland in which each nationality would have its own cultural autonomy, and in which minorities’ rights would be guaranteed.”
In 1939, he joined and became a leader in Zukunft (Future), the Bund’s youth organization for older children. That year, after the German invasion of Poland, Edelman found himself confined – along with the other Jews of Warsaw – in a ghetto. In 1942, as a Bund youth leader he co-founded the underground Jewish Combat Organization (Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa, ŻOB).
In the Warsaw ghetto uprising of April–May 1943, led by Mordechai Anielewicz, Edelman was one of the three sub-commanders and led the revolt in the Brushmakers area, the site of one of the fiercest battles.
“The Germans weren’t expecting resistance of any kind, let alone that we would take up arms,” Edelman recalled. The outnumbered and outgunned ghetto fighters’ strong resistance forced the German troops to withdraw. Over the next three weeks, the fighting was intense. The Jewish fighters killed and wounded scores of Nazis but inevitably sustained far greater losses. On May 8, Anielewicz, was surrounded by German forces and committed suicide, and Edelman took his place as commander.
Edelman was among the last of the fighters to hold out at Mila 18, the site of the ZOB’s command bunker. The Germans proceeded to flush out the few remaining fighters by burning down the ghetto. Edelman always insisted, “We were beaten by the flames, not the Germans.”
At that juncture, couriers from the Polish underground outside the ghetto came through the sewers that still linked it with the rest of Warsaw. On the morning of May 10, 1943, Edelman and his few remaining comrades escaped through the sewers and made their way to the non-ghetto part of Warsaw to find safety among their Polish compatriots.
Because of his Jewish looks, he remained mainly indoors during his time on the Aryan side. In mid-1944, Edelman, as a member of the Armia Ludowa (People’s Army), participated in the citywide Warsaw uprising, when non-Jewish Polish forces rose up against the Germans before being forced to surrender after 63 days of fighting. After the capitulation, Edelman together with a group of other ŻOB fighters, hid out in the ruins of the city before being rescued and evacuated with the help of the Armia Krajowa (Home Army)
Edelman was the last surviving leader of the uprising and among the first to record his memoirs. He was critical of the Judenrat and their agencies, most critical of their corruption. “Agencies established to give the ghetto a semblance of normal life,” he wrote, “were in reality nests of corruption and demoralization.”
He was especially scornful of Adam Czerniakow, the chairman of the Judenrat: “He knew beyond a doubt that deportation meant death… Being unable to counteract events, he decided to quit [commit suicide] altogether...We thought that he had no right to act as he did… Since he was the only person in the ghetto whose voice carried a great deal of authority it should have been his duty to inform the entire population, to dissolve all public institutions and dismantle the Jewish police.”
After the war, Edelman remained in Poland. He studied at Łódź Medical School and became a noted cardiologist.
In 1948, Edelman actively opposed the incorporation of the Bund into the Polish United Workers’ Party (Poland’s communist party), which led to the communists disbanding the organization.
Edelman was married to Alina Margolis-Edelman, another survivor of the ghetto. They had two children, Aleksander and Anna. When his wife and children emigrated from Poland to France in the wake of antisemitic actions by the Polish communist authorities in 1968, Edelman decided to stay in Łódź. “Someone had to stay here with all those who perished here, after all.”
In 1976, he became an activist with the Workers’ Defense Committee (Komitet Obrony Robotników) and, later, joined the Solidarity movement.
In 1981, when General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law, Edelman was interned by the government. In 1983, he refused to take part in the official celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising sponsored by Poland’s communist government, believing that this “would be an act of cynicism and contempt” in a country “where social life is dominated throughout by humiliation and coercion.” Instead, he walked with friends to the street where Mordechai Anielewicz’s bunker had been located.
Following the peaceful transformations of 1989, he was a member of various centrist and liberal parties. He also wrote books documenting the history of wartime resistance against the Nazi occupation of Poland.
Edelman was a lifelong anti-Zionist. In a 1985 interview, he said Zionism was a “lost cause” and he questioned Israel’s viability. He also became a supporter of the Palestinian cause, which alienated many Israelis, especially survivors of the uprising who settled in Israel. Moshe Arens said he tried to convince a number of Israeli universities to award Edelman an honorary doctorate in recognition of his role in the uprising, but “ran into stubborn opposition led by Holocaust historians in Israel” and “died not having received the recognition from Israel that he so richly deserved.”