Thursday, July 20, 2006

Edelman from European Voice

The caustic complaints of a ghetto survivor

By Edward Lucas

Lodz (pronounced Wootch) is one of the most lacklustre cities in Poland. But in a leafy suburb of this hard-scrabble former textile town a living legend is puffing his way through his 87th year.

Amid clouds of smoke (he likes unfiltered Gitanes) and in a room decorated with a striking mixture of modern Polish art and a Playboy calendar, I interviewed Marek Edelman, who is the last surviving commander (indeed one of the last survivors) of the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising.
If you are American or Jewish, you will certainly have heard of this: it is when the ghetto's prisoners, armed with pathetically few weapons and even less ammunition, staged a Masada-like revolt against their Nazi tormentors.
It is sometimes confused with the later Warsaw uprising of 1944 when the country's underground army, loyal to the exile government in London, seized the capital and then defended it for two desperate months against hopeless odds, while Soviet forces cynically waited on the other bank of the Vistula river. The crushing of the uprising made it easier for them to install a puppet regime, which was driven from power only in 1989.
It would be nice to think that this history would bring Jews and Gentiles together in Poland. Sometimes it does. But accusations of prejudice from both sides cloud Poland's history of remarkable religious tolerance. Which is why I had gone to see Edelman.
Unlike almost all Polish Jews, he was neither murdered by the Nazis, nor did he emigrate during the disgraceful periods of post-war persecution. He usually crops up in the media doughtily defending his homeland against accusations of ingrained anti-Jewish feeling and behaviour.
That's right. There is a lot of nonsense talked about Polish 'anti-Semitism'. Sure: prejudice exists as it does anywhere. In my experience it's more often shallow than deep; it was stoked by Communism and since then I think has been declining.
But it is easy to exaggerate, particularly with the use of lazy phrases such as "Auschwitz, a Polish concentration camp" (when Auschwitz in fact was built and run by the hated Nazi occupiers).
Now Edelman is troubled by the tone and status of Radio Maryja, an obnoxious station run by an unruly and opinionated Roman Catholic priest. It used be a fringe affair. But it is now close to the government.
That's the other thing bothering Edelman. The main coalition partner, Law and Justice, is a socially-conservative Catholic party with muddled views on economics and foreign policy but no trace of anti-Semitism. But it is in alliance with the League of Polish Families. This is an ultra-patriotic, ultra-Catholic party which idolises a pre-war politician, Roman Dmowski, who thought that only ethnically pure Poles could be real patriots. It also has a youth wing whose gatherings attract a thuggish type of supporter (entirely unwished-for, it insists). Senior figures habitually conflate paedophilia with homosexuality.
So Edelman is speaking out, in uncharacteristically caustic terms. Law and Justice, which has roots in the dissident Solidarity movement, is betraying its heritage, he says. The party leadership's "desire for power is so great that they would get cosy with the devil". That cynicism is a "time bomb".
That was before the resignation of the prime minister, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz and his replacement by the Law and Justice party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Marcinkiewicz oozed reasonableness. I don't know what the provincial, conspiratorial Kaczynski oozes, but it certainly isn't that. Edelman, sadly, may have to do quite a lot more complaining before he's heard.

  • Edward Lucas is central and eastern Europe correspondent for The Economist

    Nate Espino said...

    Looking forward to reading more from your interview with Edelman - I hope that's not it?

    Interestingly (to some of us), Edelman fought in both the Ghetto Uprising AND the Warsaw Uprising, as I learned this weekend when I visited the Uprising Museum here in Warsaw this weekend and watched a videotaped interview with him. That was a highlight of my visit; the rest of the museum raised violently mixed emotions - for example, I've long been troubled by the tendency to glorify the role of child soldiers in the Uprising.

    Yes, I know, different times, let's not make ahistorical moral judgments, but still - especially in the way the story is taught to today's children - it seems that there's a feeling that it was actually kind of neat for the children involved. Kind of sweet and honorable to be allowed to die for your country so young.

    richardlith said...

    Describing Lodz as lacklustre is a trifle unfair. It is like blaming Manchester or Glasgow for not looking like Chester or Edinburgh. Lodz was one of the few real insutrial cities to emerge in CEE before the Communist industrialation in the 1950s. As a native of Glasgow, I was struck by how similar it was to the the UK's great Victorian industrial cities in terms of atmosphere and architecture (not always good of course, think Dark Satanic Mills). It may not have a cute old town adn castle like Warsaw or Krakow, but it was here that a lot of the country's wealth has been created historically. Lodz will rise again, don't worry.

    Edward Lucas said...

    I was mainly visiting Edelman to get material for the obituary, which I have already written but wanted to freshen up a bit.

    Lodz has a bright future, I'm sure, but the bits I saw still looked pretty grungy.