The Banality of Heroism: Marek Edelman and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

July 24, 2023   •   By Samuel Tchorek-Bentall

THE YEAR WAS 1971, the place Łódź. Journalist Hanna Krall was interviewing a pioneering heart surgeon named Jan Moll. The good doctor, apparently unhappy with the outcome of previous interviews, told Krall that everything journalists ever wrote about medicine was nonsense. So, if she wanted to avoid doing the same, he strongly suggested she have her article vetted by a certain cardiologist, a Dr. Edelman, who, said Moll, would correct her mistakes. Krall agreed and arranged a meeting. She sat down with Marek Edelman in the Grand Hotel café, where it took 15 minutes for him to read through her article.

Feeling it would be impolite to end the meeting so quickly, Krall, who knew nothing about the doctor except that he had fought in the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, asked him if he had ever met Mordechai Anielewicz, the 24-year-old commander of the Jewish Combat Organization, the small group of fighters who had led the charge. (The name was on her mind because her magazine was headquartered on Anielewicz Street.) Edelman replied that he had. Anielewicz, he recalled, had reminded him of a zealous boy scout who had suddenly found himself in the midst of a holocaust.

It did not take long for Krall to realize that, three decades after the end of the war, no one had properly asked Edelman about his own wartime experiences. Although he had written a report on the uprising, published in 1945 as The Ghetto Fights, this slim volume had been almost completely forgotten by the 1970s. In fact, by that time, even professional historians had no idea that Edelman, the leader of the ghetto uprising after Anielewicz’s death, had survived the war and was living in Poland. So, Krall decided to talk to him herself. Properly.

The result of her encounter with Edelman was Zdążyć przed Panem Bogiem, published in Polish in 1977, and in English in 1986, as Shielding the Flame, translated by Joanna Stasinska and Lawrence Weschler. A personal account of the largest act of Jewish resistance during the Second World War, it remains the most vivid and complex portrait of the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto. Written primarily as a casual dialogue between Krall and Edelman, it reveals as much about the character of its main protagonist—the plainspoken, down-to-earth, intermittently irascible cardiologist who rejects the role of hero, insisting instead that he and his friends had merely intended to choose their deaths—as it does about the events of 1943.

In their opening conversation, Edelman famously explains why he and his friends decided to take up arms:

What mattered was that we were shooting. That was what we had to show. Not to the Germans. They could do it better. We had to show it to the outside world, the world that wasn’t a German world. People have always considered shooting the highest form of heroism. So shoot we did.

Here Edelman reveals a nagging doubt about “the highest form of heroism.”

For many readers, this instinctive doubt, coupled with his seeming inability to conform to the strictures of military romanticism so dear to Poland’s national consciousness, was proof of a fundamental defect in his moral sensibility. It was bad enough, they said, that he scoffed at his own heroic credentials. Did he also have to question the heroism of others? Did he have to declare, as if he meant to offend, that his leader’s mother, Cirel Anielewicz, duteous wife to Avraham Anielewicz, not only sold fish but also got her son to paint them red so they would seem fresher?

For Edelman’s admirers, in contrast, his skeptical and questioning nature was just more proof of his exceptional bravery. After all, they argued, it takes a kind of courage to admit you did nothing when half a dozen guards raped a girl in front of hundreds of people gathered in a gym—that neither you nor the others did anything to help when she was finally able to walk away, tripping over the bodies lying on the floor. And besides, when it mattered most, didn’t Edelman rise to the occasion? When three SS officers with white cockades walked up to his unit to offer a truce, was he not right to order his ablest marksman to shoot them down? Weren’t these the very same men who had just sent 400,000 people to Treblinka?

What both Edelman’s admirers and his detractors missed at the time was that Shielding the Flame was a product not only of Edelman’s sensibility but also of Krall’s. A supremely skillful craftsperson, Krall lets her own contributions to the book stay almost invisible. As the Polish-born German Jew Marcel Reich-Ranicki, himself a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, wrote, “Hanna Krall reports everything and doesn’t comment anything.” In reality, however, in order to achieve this appearance of artlessness, she engaged in a constant struggle with her subject, who initially entertained vastly different ideas about the sort of book that he thought she should write.

In a 2019 interview with the journalist Michał Nogaś, Krall remembered her initial conflict with Edelman: “He became impatient whenever I read a fragment aloud to him. […] I don’t even want to tell you what happened when he heard the beginning. […] He shouted: ‘You can’t write like that!’” It was only after a number of eminent writers expressed their admiration for the opening chapters of the book that Edelman began, as Krall put it, to “speak its language,” or to understand that the sensibility of his interlocutor was as crucial to the book as his own. He saw that Krall, as a writer, was “building something that had rhythm,” a rhythm that would go far toward revealing the full scope of the wretched, unheroic, all-too-human truth of his story.


This becomes especially clear if we look at The Ghetto Fights, the short work Edelman published in 1945. While its general tone is likewise unaffected, Edelman’s need to demonstrate the courage and moral integrity of his fellow fighters, as well as the historic significance of their struggle, adds a layer of sentiment that obscures some essential parts of the story. These are understandable qualities in a book produced just a couple of months after the end of the war, but their total absence from Shielding the Flame—a work of much bigger impact and literary merit—cannot be explained merely by the passage of time.

In marked contrast to the later work, The Ghetto Fights takes no account of Edelman’s individual perspective. Ostensibly, it is a straightforward report on the life and death of the Warsaw Ghetto, from its creation in October 1940 to its complete destruction in May 1943, and an earnest tribute to the men and women who gave their lives in its defense. Thus the 24-year-old Edelman relates that the first significant acts of resistance carried out by the Jewish Combat Organization resonated widely both with the Polish population outside the ghetto and with the Jewish population within it, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that the power and will of the Germans could be resisted.

Then, Edelman continues, on April 19, 1943, at 4:00 a.m., a contingent of “more than 100” German soldiers entered the streets of the ghetto, intent on liquidating the last remnants of Warsaw’s Jewish population. Initially, says Edelman, it seemed that they would meet no resistance—that the recalcitrant Jews had finally accepted their fate. “But no,” he assures us, “we weren’t afraid, and we hadn’t been taken by surprise. We were only waiting for the right moment, and that moment was about to arrive.” Once the Germans had taken their positions, the Jewish gunmen opened fire. The SS men tried to withdraw, but their retreat was cut off. After seven hours of heavy fighting, the streets were strewn with German corpses. By 2:00 p.m., not a single German soldier remained in the ghetto. A couple of pages and “over a hundred” German casualties later, three SS officers walked up to the fighters, cockades of peace promisingly tied to their guns.

A comparison of this earlier description with its counterpart in Shielding the Flame is instructive. In the earlier work, Edelman proudly declares that every single building controlled by the Jewish insurgents was an enemy fortress from whose windows “the bullets rained down on the hated German helmets, the hated German chests.” When the SS officers eventually proposed a ceasefire, they were “answered with gunfire,” and a spirited battle ensued (“He aims at the belly and hits the chest”; “One shot—one German”; “They hurl out one grenade after another”). In the later book, by contrast, Edelman is quick to acknowledge the Germans’ superior marksmanship. His account of the Germans’ peace overture ends with an anticlimactic “Anyway, we missed them; not that it matters.” No mention is made of the battle that followed.

It is possible, of course, to attribute the striking change in tone between The Ghetto Fights and Shielding the Flame to Edelman’s own psychological development. After all, he was a very young man when he wrote his account of the defense of the ghetto, so it should come as no surprise that his outlook had changed by the time of his encounter with Krall. Indeed, Edelman’s youth was strongly informed by the kind of romantic worldview that his later experiences in communist Poland were bound to leave in tatters. But to see how this worldview developed as it did, and to understand fully the reasons for this development, we must look beyond the two defining texts of his life to the lesser known facts of his personal history.


Born in 1919, or 1922, or 1923 (the dates are contested) into a family with staunch socialist convictions, Edelman was raised in an atmosphere at once anti-communist and anti-Zionist. Family legend had it that when the Bolsheviks entered Gomel, the town of Edelman’s birth, all 12 of his mother’s brothers were summarily shot. Edelman’s “second mother,” as he put it, was the Bund, the party of left-wing Jews who opposed Jewish settlement in Palestine. Once he was orphaned at age 15, Edelman was looked after by a series of Bundist organizations. By the time of the German invasion, his entire family was dead.

Edelman remained committed throughout the war to the politics of his youth. From November 1939 right up until the early months of 1943, he was heavily engaged in the editing, printing, and distribution of underground Bundist news bulletins, an extremely risky job involving numerous sleepless nights. The Bund’s overall outlook during the war remained both revolutionary and anti-communist, paralleling the views memorably expressed by George Orwell in “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius” (1941). Just as Orwell thought that the defeat of Nazism would require, and result in, an overturning of all existing hierarchies, English colonialism chief among them, so the Bundists believed that the liberation of Poland would only be possible, and would only ever be complete, if the ancient hatreds of its people, that of antisemitism first and foremost, were overcome.

Further, the fight against fascism could only succeed if it also became a fight against capitalism, one that would eventually lead to the empowerment of the impoverished classes, the victory of democratic socialism in Europe and Russia, the emancipation of the Jewish masses, and the creation of a Polish state as part of a federation of free European democracies. In January 1942, at about the same time that the Ghetto’s guards started shooting pedestrians in the crowded streets, a Bundist pundit was writing that, in a future independent Poland, “the Jewish question would have to be solved on the basis of the absolute equality of Jewish citizens before the law.”

But whereas in England, during the Blitz, it was possible to be “both revolutionary and realistic” (as Orwell put it), in Poland—and especially in Poland’s ghettos, where the prospects for revolution were grim—no such possibility existed. Within the context of 1942 Poland, to have a realistic outlook would have been to face the reality of potential annihilation, and to accurately assess the prospects of revolution would have meant to recognize the prospect of Soviet rule. That the Bundists at that time could do neither is unsurprising, but the sheer magnitude of their error remains difficult to grasp. Once Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 and the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact was duly scrapped, Edelman’s comrades decided that the Red Army’s soldiers would have to be viewed as their closest allies, as courageous fighters dedicated to the cause of universal freedom and popular sovereignty.

In the end, the destruction proved greater than any of the Bundists (or anyone else, for that matter) had foreseen. By the time of Hitler’s final defeat, the very foundations of Edelman’s worldview, along with so much else, had been wiped off the face of the earth. The two central tenets of the Bundist creed—democratic socialism and diasporism (basically, the idea that Jewish communities should come to terms with the lands they lived in)—were, if not simply discredited by the cataclysmic course of events, then certainly abandoned. With Stalinist tyranny firmly established on the banks of the Vistula, a parody of socialism had triumphed. And with the ashes of Polish Jews—assimilationist, Bundist, orthodox, Zionist—committed to the Polish earth, the diasporic ideal had also, after a fashion, won through.

Like most surviving Jews (but unlike other Poles), Edelman did experience the Soviet advance into Poland as a kind of liberation, however imperfect. During the German occupation, he later said, he was targeted for murder because he was a Jew, while under communist rule, anybody could be killed, regardless of their race. Understandably then, this liberation brought little relief. Edelman wandered from city to city, town to town, village to village, through the rubble and ruins, hoping to be of use to somebody. But he found no one because no one was left to be found.

In Shielding the Flame, Edelman tells Krall that having failed to discover anything useful to do, he slept away the days and weeks, entirely indifferent to the world around him. In reality, however, he did play a part, albeit a minor one, in picking up the pieces of his shattered world. For although it may have seemed to him at the time that he was the only Jew who had survived the war, the reality was that more than 200,000 Polish Jews, almost all of whom needed immediate help, had much the same impression. What this meant in practice was that most surviving Bundists were compelled, in one way or another, to join the Zionist project. In April 1945, the newly established communist regime announced that Jewish citizens would not be prevented from leaving the country. As a result, the vast majority of them chose to emigrate, mainly to Palestine, rather than face a predominantly hostile Polish population and an indiscriminately ruthless Stalinist dictatorship.

Amongst the prevailing uncertainty, Edelman played his part in helping the survivors survive. He liaised between the government and any remaining Bundists who needed passports. He helped some of them get visas to Sweden or Belgium. And he traveled to Sweden with a nine-year-old orphan to introduce her to her surrogate mother. Thus, with his active support, the last remnants of the Polish Bund dispersed into the wind with the ashes of the dead. In January 1949, just prior to the formal outlawing of all noncommunist political organizations, the handful of Bundists who still hadn’t left declared the party dissolved.

Yet Edelman remained. Even in 1968, when a wave of antisemitic delirium forced much of Poland’s intellectual elite to emigrate, he remained. Out of a job, with his wife and children in France and his academic career destroyed, only an unconditional commitment to his homeland, a commitment beyond all rational or even spiritual hope, could have kept him in Łódź. So, when Krall first met him a couple of years later, the man she encountered was bound to be a very different person from the youthful author of The Ghetto Fights. In the intervening 30 years, Edelman’s home had been lifted off its foundations, stripped of its furnishings, and left to decay in windswept isolation. Year after year he had traveled to Warsaw on April 19th to whisper a lonely Yiddish prayer for the unremembered dead. By 1973, he would have been justified in thinking that he was the only Jew who had survived the war.


As far as Edelman was concerned, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was not a subject worth returning to. Three decades had gone by, fewer and fewer people seemed interested in the topic, and even if they did sometimes read about it, they understood almost nothing. But when his wife called him up from Paris to tell him that some shameless usurpers (presumably of Zionist convictions) were starting to rear their heads, intent on appropriating the memory of the uprising for their own propagandistic purposes, he decided, with Krall’s assistance, to set the record straight.

Initially, Edelman expected the end result of his collaboration with Krall to be, as Krall herself later put it, “something like The Ghetto Fights, only broader in scope.” There are thus good reasons to recognize, in the style and tone of Shielding the Flame, Krall’s own sensibility. Having suffered through years of solitude, having lost his ideological moorings, Edelman no longer was able to mythologize his past. But Krall was the one who immediately grasped the moral and literary force of his cardinal weakness. And as a deft storyteller, it was Krall who saw that a new kind of narrative was called for, one that would enshrine the basic dignity of its subject without succumbing to the pathos of martial hagiography. She therefore decided to construct a new kind of hero, one whose heroic image would be defined by his readiness to reject it.

Krall also gave Edelman a chance to clarify what he’d learned in his 30 years of silence. In The Ghetto Fights, he had never used the word “uprising” (let alone “Uprising”), and had written only of an “armed confrontation,” “the defense of the ghetto,” or “armed resistance.” Perhaps it hadn’t occurred to him at the time that he could lay claim to the venerable tradition of Polish insurrectionism. Or perhaps he believed that his experiences in 1943 as the accidental leader of a small group of fighters, all of them faced with death, were in no way commensurable with his experiences in 1944 as a willing participant in the much more spectacular—and much more soldierlike—Warsaw Uprising. Whatever the case, by the 1970s, Edelman was openly questioning the traditional heroic narrative, such as it was, of 1943. Humanity at large had decided, he explained to Krall, that it was better to die with a gun in your hand than without one. So, in taking up arms, he was simply respecting humanity’s decision. He was not taking part in an uprising. How could some 200 ill-trained and ill-equipped partisans start an uprising anyway?

Writing in 1945, he had made it clear that active resistance had always been about salvaging Jewish dignity: “All those broken, beaten down people had to be told, they had to be shown that regardless of everything and in spite of everything, we were still capable of raising our heads.” When Edelman and his Bundist friends first discovered that the Germans had murdered more than 80,000 Jews and Roma in Chełmno, leading them in perfect order into hermetically sealed trucks, they decided that they would never let themselves be slaughtered so easily. It was shameful, they thought, that the Jews of Chełmno had offered not the slightest resistance. Conversely, when someone escaped from a bolted train car destined for Treblinka, Edelman saw the incident as proof that the Jews had finally understood that deportation meant death—that they had “no other choice but to die with honor.”

There are traces of this earlier outlook still visible in Shielding the Flame. On several occasions throughout the book, Edelman emphasizes that his actions were dictated by a desire to avoid the ugliness of Jewish life, and Jewish death, under German occupation. Right at the outset of the war, he recounts in a famous passage, when there was still a possibility for Jews to escape, two German soldiers—“two beautiful hardy men”—made an old crooked Jew stand on top of a wooden barrel while they cut his beard with a large pair of scissors. The little crowd, mainly Jews, which had gathered round to observe the spectacle, was laughing. “Objectively speaking,” Edelman comments, “it was actually funny: a little man on a wooden barrel with a steadily diminishing beard. […] You know what? That’s when I understood that what mattered most was to not let anyone push you onto a barrel.”

Of course, the troubling consequence of his desire to avoid the barrel, however ennobling it may have been, is that it seems to exclude those who had failed to resist from the purview of human dignity. How long could he go on saying that the most important thing in life was to keep off of the barrel without coming to despise—and leading others to despise—the man who had stood on top of it? To avoid such an outcome, Edelman could, and frequently did, fall back on the claim that only the acquiescent spectators, never the powerless victims, could truly be said to have forfeited their human dignity. But since almost every victim at some point during the war had also been a spectator—and, conversely, almost every spectator had also been a victim—the distinction was unlikely to be of much use. So long as he maintained that he had fought in the uprising to steal a march on an unjust God—to shield the flame of his personal dignity—he risked denying the value of those who had chosen to yield to His will.

This, then, was the moral tension that Krall saw as central to Edelman’s character. On the one hand, there was Edelman the Bundist, the “modest, candid, amiable” leader (as a brochure from 1946 described him), who “devoted his career to saving Polish lives” (in Norman Davies’s words). On the other hand, there was Edelman the antihero, the man who insisted again and again that those who had quietly gone to their deaths had died just as honorably as those who had not; the lapsed romantic who constantly questioned the point of his erstwhile bravura; the solitary stoic who preferred to fall silent for 30 years rather than talk like a hero was expected to talk.


While Edelman the hero was never quite suppressed by Edelman the antihero, in Shielding the Flame he was certainly kept in the background. If we turn from the tale of the old, crooked Jew to the passage immediately preceding it, we encounter a man whose ethical outlook reached far beyond the imperative of avoiding the barrel. Here, he lashes out at Krall’s suggestion that the uprising’s value lay in its having concealed from view the hundreds of people who, for a loaf of bread, had eagerly rushed to the carriages. “Of course that’s what you think!” he yells. “That’s what everyone thinks. […] When people die in silence, their deaths mean nothing, because they leave nothing behind, but when they go out with a bang, they leave a legend behind.”

The basic idea that informs Krall’s book may best be described, along Arendtian lines, as the banality of heroism. In fact, there is a striking symmetry between Hannah Arendt’s deflationary account of the evil of Adolf Eichmann and Hanna Krall’s deflationary account of the heroism of Marek Edelman. To begin with, both accounts cast doubt on the view that exceptional deeds must be carried out by exceptional individuals. The truth about Eichmann, as Arendt saw it, was that countless others had shared his outlook, none of whom could be described as exceptionally cruel or corrupted. Like most of his fellow Germans, the man who had played a central role in the attempted extermination of entire nations had been, and remained at the time of his trial, “terribly and terrifyingly normal.” Undeniably, his actions had been genuinely monstrous (although Arendt was eager to emphasize his jurisdictional insignificance within the Nazi hierarchy), but they had not been facilitated by any inveterate monstrousness on the part of Eichmann himself. Quite to the contrary, it had actually been his impenetrable levelheadedness—his ability, for instance, to come up with an edifying cliché for any and every occasion—that had enabled him to organize the deportation of the Jews so efficiently.

The truth about Edelman, in turn, was that he had been no more courageous, no more principled, no more exceptional, than the 400,000 men and women who had marched in fours to the Umschlagplatz. He himself was adamant that it had been much more difficult to go to the train cars calmly and quietly than to run through the ghetto shouting and shooting. In comparison with someone who’d climbed onto a carriage, left their world behind them, arrived in a forest, dug a hole in the dirt, and obediently undressed, he could hardly be said to have shown much fortitude. On a superficial level, his deeds had certainly been heroic—performed by a boy with two revolvers and a red woolen sweater, they might even have been beautiful—but they had not arisen out of any outstanding bravery or sense of personal dignity. They had simply been a form of krzątanina, of going about the business of life with death as the natural reward.

The Edelman of Shielding the Flame is also comparable to the Eichmann of Arendt’s report in that both try to deny that they had any special agency over their actions. In Eichmann’s case, this denial took on the familiar form of an appeal to a higher authority: since he was in no position to dictate the ends of policy, all he could do, he maintained, was to diligently manage the means. Consequently, if the goal to be met was the goal of death—and the goal to be met was invariably death—then the most he could do as a decent man was ensure that the Jews died decent deaths. And how else could he do so than by seeing to it that the whole operation ran as smoothly as possible?

In Edelman’s case, meanwhile, a similar sense of inevitability features prominently in his account of his actions. As he explains to Krall, since only death was at stake, never life, all he could do for himself and his friends was make sure they could choose how they wanted to die. In stark contrast to Arendt’s uncharacteristically conventional belief that “[t]he glory of the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto and the heroism of the few others who fought back lay precisely in their having refused the comparatively easy death the Nazis offered them,” Edelman’s own contention is that no Promethean glory was ever up for grabs, either for him or for anybody else, and that no heroic decision could ever have been made. If he had acted fearlessly—and he readily admits that he felt no fear—this was only due to the fact that nothing important had happened, that with death preordained, nothing important could ever have happened. “Perhaps there wasn’t anything dramatic about it,” he says. “You only have drama when you can make some kind of decision, when something depends on you, and everything that happened there was a foregone conclusion.” Only where life is at stake, he concludes, is there room for fear and the conquest of fear.

The inverted symmetry of Krall’s Edelman and Arendt’s Eichmann is strengthened further by the ways in which they both came to be perceived in the decades that followed their rise to fame. With respect to the Nazi’s posthumous image, it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann came to be seen as the embodiment of totalitarian evil, and that this occurred not in spite of Arendt’s iconoclastic analysis but because of it. Indeed, the more uninteresting he could be made to appear—the more word-and-thought-defyingly banal—the more fascinating his specter became, and the greater his crimes seemed to grow. For the comfortable classes, if not for the public at large, there was something irresistibly terrifying about the bespectacled bureaucrat looking out from his glass booth in the District Court of Jerusalem with a mixture of honest concern and utter incomprehension. When Arendt remarked that it would have been senseless to call upon the whole world and gather journalists from across the globe “in order to display Bluebeard in the dock,” she was making a point about the perception of evil, not about the nature of evil: as she saw things, if Eichmann had been proven a monster, Israel’s case against him would have “lost all interest.”

By the same token, when Krall remarked that, if she had simply written an extended version of The Ghetto Fights, Edelman’s name would have been all but forgotten, she was making a point not so much about the nature of Edelman’s heroism as about the optimal means of promoting it. Unlike her subject, Krall understood that the desire for heroes and hero-worship could not be extinguished by a heightened awareness of the ambiguities of courage. Like poetry, heroism after the Holocaust was possible, but first, she knew, it would have to be reinvented. Only after it was shorn of its aura of Nietzschean exceptionalism could the fact of Edelman’s heroism be properly appreciated, just as the fact of Eichmann’s evil could only be grasped once Eichmann himself was exposed for the nobody he was: a zealous ex-salesman of the Vacuum Oil Company who had suddenly found himself in the midst of a holocaust.


Samuel Tchorek-Bentall is a British-Polish classical scholar and essayist based in Warsaw. He is currently working on a collection of stories about Polish–Jewish relations.