Marek Edelman … And There Was Love In The Ghetto

Marek Edelman was a fighter.

Marek Edelman

He was the last surviving commander of the doomed but courageous Warsaw ghetto uprising in April 1943 and a participant in the 1944 general uprising in Warsaw. Remaining in Poland after the war, he studied medicine and became one of Poland’s leading cardiologists. During the 1980s, when he was a member of the Solidarity movement, he was a critic of the communist regime.

Before his death in 2009, at the age of 90, the Polish filmmaker Jolanta Dylewska interviewed Edelman. The highlights of the interview are contained in Marek Edelman … And There Was Love In The Ghetto, a documentary screened at the recent Canadian International Documentary Festival (Hot Docs) in Toronto.

The format is straightforward. Dylewska asks a question and Edelman, when he chooses to cooperate, answers it in usually clipped tones. Reenactments, performed by Polish actors, co-written by the noted Polish director Agnieszka Holland and co-directed by the legendary Polish director Andrzej Wajda, add a dash of drama to the film. File footage of the Warsaw ghetto is raw and graphic. Punctuating the movie is a soundtrack of plaintive Polish love songs.

A scene from the movie

As the title suggests, Marek Edelman … And There Was Love In The Ghetto is not about the 1943 rebellion itself or his role in it. The material, drawn from his eponymous memoir, deals rather with matters of the heart: love and lust. Amid the horror and terror, Jews in the Nazi ghetto tried to ease their suffering and pain by living life. Edelman was no different.

Like his late mother, he worked in a hospital. His job was to remove corpses from the premises. As he recalls, he survived on meager rations.

The first story is about Dola, a beautiful nurse who seduced him. Puffing on a cigarette as he speaks, he talks quietly about her physical attributes — her golden red hair, her alabaster skin, her ample breasts. Out of modesty or embarrassment, he does not delve into the sexual details. “You see a body like that once in a lifetime,” he permits himself to add.

Edelman’s next subject is Mrs. Tenenbaum, a hospital doctor who was charged with the heavy responsibility of handing out scarce, life-saving German-issued “white cards” to the staff. If you didn’t have one, you could be deported to Treblinka or some other Nazi extermination camp in Poland.

Unable to bear the pressure of her onerous assignment, Tenenbaum committed suicide, leaving her white card to her 17-year-old daughter, Deda. In the short time granted to her on this planet, Deda found a lover and lived life to the fullest.

Tosia, a hospital worker, was irresistibly drawn to a patient, a younger man who lay still on his bed. To Edelman, their tentative relationship was a modest affair that “lights up the face.”

As he ruminates, dredging up a past he would rather forget, he expresses regret that he could not help Hendusia Himelfarb, a young woman whose Aryan appearance could have saved her had she chosen to find shelter outside the ghetto.

Marek Edelman as a young man

During the course of the interview, Edelman, a notoriously prickly and humorless person, sometimes dismisses Dylewska’s questions or refuses to discuss a certain incident. In general, he addresses issues head on, speaking in plain, unadorned Polish. This is certainly true when, in dispassionate tones, he discusses the rapes of Jewish women he witnessed in the hospital. It was adjacent to the Umschlagplatz, the square where Jews were assembled by the Germans before their deportation to Treblinka or Auschwitz.

As the interview winds down, Edelman grows impatient. “So what else do you want? Tell me.”

Dylewska has a few more questions, but for all intents and purposes, their conversation has ended.