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Ex-leader recalls Warsaw Ghetto uprising
Poland Ghetto Upris 5631944
Israeli President Shimon Peres speaks during ceremonies to mark the 65th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in Warsaw, Poland, Tuesday, April 15, 2008. - photo by Associated Press
    LODZ, Poland — Marek Edelman, the last surviving commander of the 1943 uprising in the Warsaw ghetto by a handful of scrappy, poorly armed Jews against the Nazi army, becomes emotional when he speaks of the fighters he led.
    ‘‘I remember them all — boys and girls — 220 altogether, not too many to remember their faces, their names,’’ says the 89-year-old doctor, who still works in a Lodz hospital. Edelman will lay a wreath in their honor at the Monument to the Heroes of the Ghetto on Saturday, the 65th anniversary of the uprising.
    The Nazis walled off the ghetto in November 1940, cramming 400,000 Jews from across Poland into a 760-acre section of the capital in inhuman conditions. On April 19, 1943, German troops started to liquidate the ghetto by sending tens of thousands of its residents to death camps.
    Several hundred young Jews took up arms in defense of the civilians — the first act of large-scale armed civilian resistance against the Germans in occupied Poland during World War II.
    ‘‘It was the first, most important and most spectacular’’ instance of Jewish armed resistance to the Nazi Holocaust, said Andrzej Zbikowski, head of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.
    In an interview with The Associated Press, Edelman said the Nazis ‘‘wanted to destroy the people, and we fought to protect the people in the ghetto, to extend their life by a day or two or five.’’
    Then 24 years old, Edelman took command of one of the revolt’s three groups. His fighters, between the ages of 13 and 22, scraped together guns and ammunition that they and the Polish resistance managed to smuggle in from the outside.
    His brigade included 50 fighters known as ‘‘brush men’’ because their base was a brush factory.
    ‘‘There weren’t enough guns, ammunition. There was not enough food, but we were not starving. You can live for three weeks just on water and sugar,’’ which they found in the homes of those deported to death camps, he said.
    They adopted hit-and-run tactics. With time, as supplies and forces began to run low, they resorted to attacks at night, for more safety.
    ‘‘Every moment was difficult. It was two or three or 10 boys fighting with an army,’’ Edelman said. ‘‘There were no easy moments.’’
    But they were outnumbered and outgunned.
    ‘‘It lasted for three weeks, so this great German army could not cope so easily with those 220 boys and girls,’’ he said with a grain of pride.
    The uprising ended when its main leaders — rounded up by the Nazis — committed suicide on May 8, 1943. The Nazis then burned down the ghetto, street by street.
    About 40 fighters escaped through Warsaw’s sewers and joined the Polish partisans.
    ‘‘No one believed he would be saved,’’ Edelman said. ‘‘We knew that the struggle was doomed, but it showed the world that there is resistance against the Nazis, that you can fight the Nazis.’’
    Edelman and a few others stayed in Warsaw to help coordinate and supply the Jewish resistance groups. Some fighters still live in Israel and Canada. Edelman is the last one in Poland.
    Despite the ghetto uprising’s ultimate failure, ‘‘it was worth it,’’ Edelman said. ‘‘Even at the price of the fighters’ lives.’’
    After the war, Edelman chose to remain in Poland, becoming a social and a democratic activist, and guardian of the ghetto fighters’ memory.
    ‘‘When you were responsible for the life of some 60,000 people, you don’t leave and abandon the memory of them,’’ he said.
    A service was held in Warsaw on Tuesday — to avoid conflicting with the Jewish sabbath — and drew a crowd of 1,000, including Israeli President Shimon Peres and his Polish counterpart, Lech Kaczynski, as well as U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. Israeli and Polish flags fluttered in the afternoon breeze as Poland’s chief orthodox rabbi, Michael Schudrich, read out the Kaddish, or Jewish prayer for the dead.
    Peres praised the young fighters, who he said displayed ‘‘a heroism that our children will proudly carry with them in their hearts.’’
    Edelman views the annual observances as ‘‘part of educating people and fighting genocide.’’
    He said people ‘‘have to be educated from childhood, from kindergarten, that there should be no hatred.’’
    ‘‘They have to be shown that all people are the same, that skin color, race, religion don’t matter,’’ he said. ‘‘We have only one life and we must not murder each other. We see the sun only once.’’

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