Marek Edelman, the last surviving leader of the ill-fated 1943 Warsaw ghetto revolt against the Nazis, died Friday in Warsaw. He was 90.
Edelman died of old age at the family home of his friend Paula Sawicka, where he had lived for the last two years. "He died at home, among friends, among his close people," Sawicka said.
Most of Edelman's adult life was dedicated to the defense of human life, dignity and freedom. He fought the Nazis in the doomed Warsaw ghetto revolt and later in the Warsaw Uprising. And then for decades he fought communism in Poland.
His heroism earned him membership in the French Legion of Honor and Poland's highest civilian distinction, the Order of the White Eagle.
One of the few survivors of three weeks of uneven struggle in the Warsaw ghetto, he felt obliged to preserve the memory of the fallen heroes of that first large-scale Jewish revolt against the Nazis. Each year, on the anniversary of the revolt, he called for tolerance.
"Man is evil; by nature, man is a beast," he said, and therefore people "have to be educated from childhood, from kindergarten, that there should be no hatred."
He also felt obliged to appeal repeatedly to the world for freedom and peace -- even when it had to be won in a fight.
"When you cannot defend freedom through peaceful means, you have to use arms to fight Nazism, dictatorship, chauvinism," Edelman said last year.
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 member of Bund, a Jewish socialist organization that later masterminded plans for resistance against the occupying Germans.
The Germans set up the Warsaw ghetto in November 1940, cramming more than 400,000 Jews from the city and from across Poland in inhuman conditions. After a year, almost half of the people there had died of disease and starvation.
The resistance plans were implemented April 19, 1943, when the Nazis moved to liquidate the ghetto by killing or sending the remaining 60,000 residents to the death camps of Treblinka, Majdanek and Sobibor, all in Poland.
But that April, the well-trained German troops encountered unexpectedly fierce resistance from a few hundred young, poorly armed Jewish civilians, determined to die fighting rather than in gas chambers.
"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 Nazi concentration camps when the uprising failed.
The uprising's leaders were rounded up in a bunker and, seeing no chance of escape, committed suicide on May 8, 1943.
The Nazis razed the ghetto street by street as part of their "final solution," in which they killed 6 million people in their effort to wipe out European Jewry.
Edelman was not in the bunker. With a small group of survivors, he left through the sewers to the Aryan side of Warsaw, where he found places to hide and helped coordinate Jewish partisan groups in nearby forests.
The deadly struggle was "worth it . . . even at the price of the fighters' lives," he said later. "They could not be saved, anyway."
In August and September of 1944, Edelman fought in the Warsaw Uprising, another ill-fated revolt meant to free the capital from Germans ahead of the advancing Red Army.
After the war, Edelman became a cardiologist in the central city of Lodz. He joined the democratic opposition and the Solidarity freedom movement, and was interned under the Dec. 13, 1981, martial law aimed against Solidarity.
In the end, the Solidarity movement led to the ouster of communists from power in Poland in 1989.
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 after the communist-sponsored anti-Jewish purges of 1968. She died in Paris on March 23, 2008.
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 and daughter and two grandchildren.